With support from Baltimore County and the State’s Community Legacy program, St. Ambrose is beginning the preservation and renovation of 10 duplex rental homes in the historic black community of Winters Lane in Catonsville, MD. Though St. Ambrose has a long history of doing quality renovation and rehabs to Baltimore area homes, the historical significance and value of these particular houses has had a great impact on our approach to completing the renovations. In the Winters Lane Community, it’s not just about improving the quality of the home, doing energy efficient upgrades, installing new appliances, and making an investment in the community at large. Preserving these homes for their historical value is critical to the project’s success. The extensive renovations will maintain the historical character of the 100+ year old homes as a celebration of the heritage and historical significance of Winters Lane .
Winters Lane is a historically African American community founded by freed slaves following The Civil War. Officially added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2007, the history of Winters Lane is well documented thanks to the research of Louis S. Diggs, author of the 1995 book entitled, “It all Started on Winters Lane.” In his book, Diggs primarily takes a genealogist’s perspective to the history of the black community in Catonsville. Diggs’ book draws on oral histories, historic newspapers, census and civic documents to describe in the fullest detail the life and times of the community as it grew and flourished in the years and decades following The Civil War. As we move ahead by making a necessary investment in the future of the community, it is critical to look backward to honor the amazing accomplishments and resilience of Winters Lane.
In the August 19th, 1961 edition of the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, journalist Elizabeth Oliver introduces the community in this way:
In the Catonsville Development, just two miles from Baltimore’s Western City limits, sprawls the near perfect example of suburban living, homeownership, and community spirit. There is no undertaker here and but one physician, since citizens are interested in living. The welcome mat is always out to summer visitors who find the community a nice place to visit.
The article goes on to describe the community’s picturesque residential gardens and winding lanes, high rate of registered voters (4,000 in total), its ample opportunities for civic and social engagement, and the resolute commitment of the community’s leaders and business owners. This glowing depiction of a harmonious and thriving community is reinforced throughout the pages of Diggs’ book, most conclusively in the oral histories provided by residents who grew up in the community in the first half of the 20th century. In the face of rampant institutionalized racism during the Jim Crow era, the tight knit community of Winters Lane burgeoned and prospered.
The settlement was founded in 1867, one year after the civil war ended. Some of the original founders came into deeded property upon being released from slavery, while others migrated to the settlement from other parts of Maryland and purchased property along Winters Lane in the late 1800’s. Due to segregation and the distance from Baltimore, Winters Lane became a largely self-sufficient community.
In 1868, J.W. Gould donated a tract of land and old school house on the corner of Winters Lane and Edmondson Avenue. The building became the community’s first church, known today as Grace A.M.E ., as well as the first school for black children, School #23. Grace A.M.E. is still an active community church today, though it moved to its present location in 1890. At least 5 churches were founded within the next few decades and the school expanded and moved to accommodate a growing community.
William Washington and Charles Woodland were two of the prominent business owners and home owners in the community’s early days. The Washington family owned one of the first community grocery stores, also on the corner of Winters Lane and Edmondson, which served as an additional community meeting space. According to the oral history of Eva Adele Page Brooks in Diggs’ book, the top floor of the grocery store also housed the classrooms of the 5th and 6th grades in the 1920’s.
Left: The Washington Grocery Store built in the 1800’s has been demolished. Right: The Charles C. Woodland House, built in 1874, was purchased in 1914. The house is registered with the Maryland Historical Trust.
Washington and Woodland were two of the founding members of The Catonsville Cooperative Corporation. The Co-op was founded in 1890 as a way for local residents to pool their resources to support new businesses. One venture of the Co-op was the Greenwood Electric Park which was a wildly successful amusement park that attracted African Americans from all over the Baltimore metro region. At the time of the Co-ops disengagement in the 1960’s, there were 523 shareholders.
The Weekly Clarion was a local newspaper that first circulated in 1919 as a newsletter for the Grace A.M.E. church. It soon became a community wide voice with a small editorial staff and control board.
Civic and social organizations thrived throughout the 1900’s including a football club and baseball club, homeowner’s organization, and various men’s and women’s social clubs that organized community service activities and hosted dances and social gatherings.
Left: A present day picture of Landmark Lodge #40. The Masonic Temple was established in 1904 as a lodge for the Freemasons. The chapter is still active today. Right: 1930’s photograph of members of the Emma Williams Temple. The temple was founded in 1925 and is still active today.
The tradition of strong community organization in the early years of the community paved the way for one of the most active organizations still involved in community affairs today. The Concerned Citizens of Catonsville was founded in the 1980’s to encourage an open dialogue about the increasing crime rates in the Winters Lane District. Today, the group advocates for community revitalization projects, coordinates crime watch patrols, and gives voice to current neighborhood concerns. A legacy of strong leadership continues with the Concerned Citizens of Catonsville who have forged robust community partnerships to fight for for redevelopment and new investment in Winters Lane.
The rehab and preservation of the historic homes on Shipley and Roberts avenues is just a first step to preserving the resilient community for the future. The homes will be updated to meet current building codes, the living spaces will be expanded and modernized and the exteriors restored. The goal is to maintain the historic character and architecture of the homes, meeting the requirements of the Maryland Historic Trust, while making an investment in the quality of the homes and ultimately the community as whole. Renovations will begin this spring, but the preservation and investment in the Winters Lane community is an enduring project that will ultimately include the preservation of additional homes and new development of affordable homes.
Sources/ For more information
Diggs, Louis S. “It All Started in Winters Lane.”1995. website