Rhonda Pindell Charles mentioned an uncomfortable truth the other day.
Talking about a plan to put money into another project at City Dock, the alderwoman for the city’s westernmost residents said there’s not much connecting her constituents with the great public space of Annapolis.
There’s nothing for them at City Dock. They don’t go there. They don’t care about it.
Her district, one of the majority Black city districts with a rising Hispanic population, doesn’t feel connected to the historic downtown that defines Annapolis in the mind of almost anyone who’s ever been to Maryland’s state capital.
White faces dominate City Dock and the rest of the Historic District. When you see Black Americans admiring the boats during a stroll by Ego Alley or eating at one of the many sidewalk tables at restaurants, they tend not to be from Annapolis.
In Pindell’s Charles’ experience, they’re from nearby Washington, D.C., or Prince George’s County.
“They’re not city faces,” the Democrat from Ward 3. “I don’t recognize them. They’re PG faces.”
Pindell Charles was one of the dignitaries Saturday at the grand opening of a new attraction at City Dock, the Museum of Historic Annapolis and its permanent display “Annapolis: An American Story.”
Through objects, photos, paintings and a detailed narrative, An American Story weaves together many threads of Annapolis history – including the story of Black contributors. Full disclosure here, I’ve helped Historic Annapolis with PR for the project.
It’s an attempt to unify history into a single storyline. But it also clarifies who owns the Annapolis story. Everybody.
When it comes to City Dock and downtown Annapolis itself – an Instagrammer’s dream of beautiful settings and exciting places to explore – Pindell Charles is convinced she was right.
The residents of her ward don’t see it as theirs. Instead, it belongs to tourists and the businesses that cater to them.
“We’re not going to buy an Annapolis t-shirt,” Pindell Charles said. “We don’t need that.”
One Black voice heard downtown regularly is Tony Covay, a singer-songwriter who sets up at City Dock some weekends and performs for tips. He’s comfortable performing for the white crowds around him, but he acknowledges the impact of not looking like most people walking by.
Maybe that's why he doesn't always feel as welcome as he’d like. There’s trash in his tip jar and someone keeps calling the police to make sure he’s got permits needed to set up and sing “Chain of Fools” – a song his father, Don Covay, wrote.
“It doesn’t really feel welcome,” Covay said.
Annapolis has a sad history of racism. Downtown in the mid 20th century wasn't an idyllic place where Blacks and whites got equal treatment. But that history is not what this is about.
This is about how different parts of the city have grown so far apart that they're ignoring each other. It probably isn't just Ward 3. And it wasn't always this way.
Pindell Charles remembers how her mother and she used to take the bus to go shopping at downtown stores when those were the only places to shop – before Parole Plaza opened in the 1960s or the Annapolis mall opened in the 1980s.
She can rattle off merchants’ names that might be a mystery to anyone under 70. There was Jenkins Stationery Store at 185 Main St., where parents bought school supplies for their kids. Wilkens Clothing was at 32-34 Market Space, where the Clatanoff family sold men’s work clothes and fashion for decades.
And Read’s Drugs at 176 Main St, one of the first Annapolis restaurants to drop the color barrier, was a place to pick up a prescription and grab lunch.
It wasn’t just her family and neighbors in Parole spending time downtown. It was residents from the Old Fourth Ward. When that Black enclave was consumed by urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s, residents scattered to public housing on the city’s edges and beyond. Easy access to downtown was taken away from them.
“You don’t have any of that anymore,” Pindell Charles said.
Today, the places that once were Jenkins, Wilkens and Read’s are home to a French restaurant, a silver jewelry store, and a clothing store that advertises itself as “ultimate preppy.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. Change is the life of a city. But that's not Pindell Charles’ point.
Downtown businesses today just don’t offer anything she or the people she represents want.
It is also not someplace where they work. There aren't many Black Annapolitans working in downtown restaurants and shops. Hispanic residents of Pindell Charles' ward are there, often as the backbone of kitchens.
That was different once, too.
When Pindell Charles was a girl, her aunt started cleaning shelves in a downtown clothing store and soon “promoted herself” to saleswoman. Family and friends not only bought what they needed downtown but saw people they knew behind the counter.
The demise of downtown Annapolis as a retail center for city residents is a twice-told tale.
Sears moved to Parole 60 years ago. Woodward & Lothrop, Shoetown and Magruder’s drew shoppers away from downtown. La Rosa Restaurant – which served the first pizza in Annapolis just after World War II – soon followed its customers away from Main Street.
It wasn’t unique to Annapolis. Nor was what followed, dubbed by critics the “Banana Republicanization” of downtown Annapolis in the 1970s and ’80s.
When tourists discovered the charms of City Dock and downtown Annapolis, stores and restaurants popped up to serve them as they visited for a day or a weekend. Look at Alexandria, Virginia, to see the same thing.
Many of the businesses that arrived were chains that saw their customers as white America. As customers and businesses changed, so did the people who considered downtown Annapolis to be theirs.
Sidewalks and stores became much less diverse because the people walking and shopping there were predominantly white tourists.
Black residents of Annapolis were doing the same thing many white locals did by the 1990s, shopping at Hecht’s, eating in the mall food court and mostly ignoring downtown as a place to shop because there were too many tourists. They just weren't replaced by Black tourists.
So, Black families, who fought to open segregated Annapolis businesses just decades earlier, lost interest once those businesses shifted focus to tourism.
Tony Spencer knows all that.
He’s a history-conscious man. Spencer has written about how his family founded Freetown, a community of freed Black people established after the Civil War 15 miles north of Annapolis. He was one of the first Black firefighters in Annapolis.
Now a member of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, he was downtown Saturday for the museum ceremony. He echoes what others say about why more Black tourists don’t visit downtown Annapolis. They don't think it's for them.
“They don’t feel welcome,” he said.
There’s been a monument to the story of the Black American family at City Dock for three decades, but Alex Haley and Kunta Kinte can’t do it alone. Those smiling faces posing for selfies sitting next to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” are predominately white.
The Banneker Douglass Museum up off Church Circle celebrates the Black experience in Maryland, and tours by historians such as Janice Hayes-Williams and lectures by Chris Haley, the author’s nephew, add to the discussion. Visit Annapolis, the city-county tourism bureau, promotes Black tourism because it has been a growing market nationwide.
It's not enough. Spencer believes that for downtown Annapolis to become more inclusive, both the businesses and Black residents of Annapolis have to work for change. You can’t just wish for it to happen.
“You have to be for the change and not worry about whether people like you for it,” he said.
A handful of events draw Black residents downtown, including the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in September and the annual Labor Day parade organized by the Annapolis Ancient City Elks Lodge No. 175, a Black civic club.
Perhaps no one is working harder to expand that appeal today than Phyllis Tee Adams, the founder of the Annapolis Juneteeth Celebration.
The parade and two-day festival she organized last year celebrated the day when the final enslaved Black Americans were emancipated after the Civil War. Last year, it became a Maryland and a federal holiday.
That first celebration drew thousands, but it didn’t bring them to downtown Annapolis.
Instead, the Juneteenth parade started at City Dock, marched up Main Street and away from downtown. Rather than setting up under tents at City Dock, bands and food and vendors were on city athletic field blocks from the heart of Annapolis.
They’re not alone in marching that way. The Military Bowl Parade marches from City Dock to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
But most parades do the opposite, bringing people celebrating St. Patrick, independence and gay pride to City Dock or the Arts and Entertainment District at the top of the hill on West Street.
Adams says it’s not a snub to downtown, but more about the cultural significance of starting where the story of Black Annapolis began in enslavement and moved forward through adversity.
“Our ancestors came from the water,” she said.
Yet Adams admits to not feeling entirely welcome downtown. She recalls fighting with city officials over lost paperwork on parade day last year or over street closures preparing for this year. She wonders if the big fall boat shows at City Dock get treated differently.
“Every time we come downtown, we have to fight,” Adams said.
Pindell Charles, the alderwoman, sees things happening that make change possible.
She spent hours in "Annapolis: An American Story" after being invited down by Robert Clark, president and CEO of Historic Annapolis.
She recognized some of the faces in the exhibit and applauded the project for putting the story of Black Annapolis where it belongs – at the center and downtown. She organized a group tour for her constituents.
Pindell Charles looks at the city's multi-million dollar project to replace the downtown Annapolis garage and wonders if more accessible parking might convince her constituents to come back to City Dock.
She hopes they’ll find a reason to come once the second part of the project finishes, replacing today's brick and pavement expanse with a waterfront greenspace meant to be more resilient to rising sea levels. Transforming the area into something inviting for Annapolis residents has been a key part of the $60 million plan.
Pindell Charles knows her ward and downtown are connected. It's just hard to see it. They seem so far apart most days.
But to be a whole city, Annapolis has to remember that it is one body.
“The downtown is the heart,” Pindell Charles said. “But Parole is the extremities.”