A walking tour with Mayor Vickie: Pine Street and back

MD-Walking tour with mayor Vickie_part 2_2x barber

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Mayor Stanley stands with Shulter Farrow (left) and Rev. Dr. Colin Lambert, Pastor of Bethel AME Church, in Farrow’s Barber Shop on Pine Street.

Last week, we started a walking tour of Cambridge with Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley. We started at Long Wharf and worked our way up into downtown Cambridge, talking about town and life and history, and we left off at the corner of Elm and Race.

We turn up Elm Street, and head for what may be the most storied street in Cambridge, and the one that’s fallen farthest from grace — Pine Street.

“Used to be, back in the early ‘50s, ‘40s, I would dare say ‘30s — before my time! — but on Pine Street, we had restaurants, doctor’s offices, dentists,” the Mayor tells me. “My dentist was on Pine Street. Hotel, opera house; the old Elks Club was the location for the chitlin’ circuit artists — James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie — they all came to Cambridge, and performed in our Elks and the Opera House.”

The jazz greats were clearly before this young woman’s time, but a building across Pine Street sits in a familiar location.

“The Octavene H. Saunders Empowerment Center is on the site of Pine Street Elementary School,” the Mayor pointed out. “It was the high school, and then when we started to build the Mace’s Lane School, the Pine Street School transitioned into an elementary school at the same time. It was all-black schools during that time, before integration. This was the site of the elementary school when I was in first grade. The school was one of the buildings that was destroyed by the fire back in the ‘60s, during the Civil Rights riots. The principal was E.T. Myers. I loved him. He was great. Marion Brown was my 5th grade teacher and my inspiration to strive for excellence. George Cornish, he was a teacher and the band director of the drum and bugle corps called the Green Hornets. They were famous for their musical prowess and their steps, their choreography.

“These two were just two examples of the teachers who catapulted many, many leaders from Cambridge. Many leaders of our community went to these schools from the Pine Street era, when it was an all-black community, with black principal, black teachers, black band, glee clubs, everything. We’ve got graduates who are mayors; we’ve got generals, we’ve got doctors and lawyers and teachers and preachers.

“This building, the Octavene H. Saunders, was named for Commissioner Saunders who passed away back in 2013. She did so much to get this building open. They just called it the Empowerment Center, Pine Street Empowerment Center, back then, but just last year we renamed it to honor her, Octavene Harris Saunders.”

We walked down Pine Street, towards downtown. As we strolled, we stopped and talked to folks. A team from Waugh Chapel was offering barbecue pork (which was delicious) in front of the police substation on Pine Street. We were greeted all along the street as we walked — everybody knows the mayor, and she seems to know everyone in return.

“We’re at the corner of Bethel and Pine Street. This is the neighborhood that represents what I hope we can really focus on in the next few years to revitalize our community. This is an historic area for the black community of the City of Cambridge and the Eastern Shore. Very few people have enough money to revitalize these buildings, but that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take one house at a time, one person or one group of people at a time to say, ‘Look, this house is worth saving, and we’re going to put our money into this house,’ and then encourage the next one and the next one and the next one.

“It’s going to take time, and it’s also going to take money that right now the people who live in this community don’t really have to invest. We have enough money to live and take care of our families, and we need to expand that. I’d love to see a co-op somehow start moving forward to do more with this community. That’s another of my visions. Not so much government controls like Cambridge, saying, ‘We’re going to take over and do it.’ We should do it as a community, one group at a time. It’s just going to take money.”

And work, I add to the conversation.

“And work,” the Mayor agrees. She turns to the plaque in front of the Bethel Church. “1816, independent black Methodists, Philadelphia, organized for the African Methodist Episcopal — AMEs. This is one of the oldest African-American buildings in the city, at Bethel, the original building. Our church down the street is an older established congregation, but we made the decision a few years ago — our sanctuary was just crumbling, so we just took the sanctuary down. I’m still at Waugh Church, but the building was not safe anymore, so we had to just take it down and build a whole new sanctuary. Like I said, it’s over 180 years old.

“It’s not just Historic High Street, you see? It’s Historic Pine Street as well.”

We walk further towards downtown, with the Mayor telling tales of places she’d heard of since childhood, some places she had seen as a youngster. The blocks look tired now, some buildings worn from neglect, some empty, some hanging on. It’s hard to picture the stories of vitality in this old neighborhood. But even the better buildings have changed purpose. The Mayor keeps a running commentary.

“Here’s Gentleman Joe’s, 612 Pine St., it used to be the supper club. That was the first supper club after the civil unrest of the ‘60s. He had a vision of revitalization and built this as a supper club, as a place for young professionals who wanted to come in after work and get a drink, or if there was a party.”

Today, it is owned by a church, there are no longer cocktails being served at the bar, and I privately think what a shame … the neighborhood would be a lot livelier with a busy business here. We walked into a block of houses, all old, some well-kept, some run-down, some looking abandoned.

“These all used to be privately owned homes, but some of the old people, as my mother would say, the old people who worked to maintain these homes turned them over to their children, and they just lost interest or moved away and never maintained a lot of these houses, so now it’s mostly rental. Absentee landlords. The children of the original owners would rent them out or they sold them to some of the owners of property in the community now. Dobson Street is particularly workforce housing of the time that really just never did revitalize itself or get revitalized. I love this house right here.”

This house? The blue one?

“The blue one. You can tell it’s owner occupied. She does a beautiful job of keeping it up to date, modern. This lady is the daughter of one of the first black city commissioners in the City of Cambridge. Did you know that Cambridge has always had a black person on City Council? Always meaning since the 1800s. Did you know that Cambridge, Dorchester County, has historically had a black person on the board of education, and continues that representation today?”

I nod in the affirmative, and grunt like guys do, while gazing over the neighborhood, changing slightly as we approach Pine Street’s junction with High Street.

“Cambridge, Dorchester County. I can’t speak for the entire county. I can speak for my own little speck of the world. We have always had a pride in ourselves. We welcome all, but we love ourselves.”

I make a joke, saying Even albinos? Like me?

“God made us all! That’s a point I like to make as a Christian. I’m not going to judge anybody. When my time comes to talk with God as a person gone up to glory, I want to be able to say, ‘I treated people the way I wanted them to treat me.’

“Pride of Cambridge, Lodge 50,” she says, gazing at the building. “My husband is a Mason as well, and he’s an Elk and he’s a fireman, retired. Black people have been a part of our community and its governance for 100-plus years, so it’s not unusual that we have a part of the community and we’re vocal about what we want, what we don’t want.”

We’ve walked the length of Pine Street, back up High Street visiting along the way, stopping to look at books in the Robin Hood Shop. We head past the County office building, down tree-shaded historic High Street, and towards Long Wharf again.

“This time of year is just the most beautiful time of year, in my opinion,” the Mayor says. “It’s a great community anyway, but it’s just so alive. We’ve got water and the sun, and the heat and green. You can look up at night and see the stars, but you can also look around and see the history and the beauty of our community and get a sense of ‘I am somewhere.’ Like the new radio station says, it’s a great place to be.”

We’re wrapping it up. We stop at a little sculpture few people probably notice, at the corner of High and Water streets.

“The Patient Fisher is a statue of a blue heron,” the Mayor tells me, smiling at the bronze bird.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s hidden, but as soon as you find it, you’re just drawn to it. It’s yet another hidden beauty of Cambridge. It’s just like Cambridge. We’re patient, we’re beautiful, and we’ve always been there, but it seems like people are discovering us all over again. That’s the beauty of this town. I love this town.”

We decided to drive from Long Wharf to Mace’s Lane School, since Mace’s Lane came up in our conversation at least once, and that’s where our “walk” took us next. But that is a story for another time, so look for a continuation of this tour in a future issue of The Banner.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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