Two Art Deco columns, flanking the entrance of the 25th Street Safeway parking lot, serve as the only concrete evidence of the central decision-making site during Baltimore’s era of school desegregation. From 1931 to 1987, a complex of two skywalk-linked buildings at 3 and 33 E 25th Street served as BCPSS headquarters: a 1931 Art Deco administration building, and a repurposed brick schoolhouse dating to the 1890s.
When the headquarters moved to North Avenue in 1987, the 25th Street complex began to deteriorate, quickly becoming a blight on the Old Goucher neighborhood. Some saw potential for redevelopment, and proposals for a bookstore and small business incubator emerged. A plan to renovate the complex as senior apartments, called “Lovegrove Court,” gained the most traction. This was on track until the spring of 1994, when Safeway proposed building a store on the block, putting six adjacent rowhouses, the neighboring Chesapeake Cadillac Company showroom, and the 25th Street school complex under threat of demolition. Some people—including rowhouse owners, the developers of Lovegrove Court, and a local group that had long planned to open a supermarket just blocks away—were not thrilled by what they saw as sneaky dealings between Safeway and the city.
Advocates for historical preservation including Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, vice president of Baltimore Heritage at the time, attempted to save the historical buildings, or at least their facades. However, Old Goucher’s legitimate need for a full-service supermarket won out, the buildings were demolished, and the two Art Deco columns were the only elements preserved from the 25th Street school complex. The Safeway was completed in 1997.
These two preserved columns from “25th Street,” as the school administration complex was commonly referred to, give us a chance to re-examine some defining themes of Baltimore’s fraught era of school desegregation. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education in the US Supreme Court, outlawing racially segregated public schools. Shortly after, Baltimore’s school board, convening at 25th Street, instituted a “free choice” enrollment policy, lifting all formal racial barriers to school choice but making no effort to actively integrate. As a result of this unusual policy, which had widespread support from both Black and white people, Baltimore did not initially experience the unrest that marked the school desegregation processes of other cities.
By the late ‘60s Baltimore’s schools were still heavily segregated, and the federal government demanded that a robust integration plan be drafted and implemented. Dr. Roland N. Patterson, Baltimore’s first Black permanent superintendent, was hired in 1971 to take on this monumental task using tactics like districting and busing. Baltimore, accustomed to free choice and racially polarized after the ‘68 riots, was fully unprepared for such a challenge.
Patterson tried to preserve as much free choice as possible, but the integration measures he did institute were met with furious opposition. In May of 1974, students from the historically white Patterson High picketed 25th St, demanding that no changes be made to their school. When a plan was implemented for the 1975-76 school year, redistributing students all across the city in accordance with federal standards, students quickly transferred away from their assigned schools in droves and fed-up parents dropped their kids off at whichever school they preferred. Patterson, his support swiftly declining, was ousted in 1975 by a coalition of school board members led by Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
In 1987, the same year the headquarters moved from 25th Street to North Avenue, the federal government informed BCPSS that no evidence of the de jure segregation system could be found in schools—the system’s existing segregation was a result of demographics rather than policy.