George McMechen House

Although the famed African American lawyer and civil rights advocate George McMechen is remembered fondly for his service to the community, he is best remembered for living on McCulloh Street. In June 1910, McMechen and his family moved to 1834 McCulloh Street and the local white community reacted with outrage. The first night McMechen and his family stayed at the house on McCulloh Street, white Baltimoreans vandalized it. In the middle of the night, someone broke all the windows and flung a brick through the third-story skylight. In late 1910, white-owned newspapers reported that the vandalism occurred as a direct result of McMechen family choosing to live on McCulloh Street.

In response to the McMechen family, and several other African American families moving to McCulloh Street, the city responded with a segregation ordinance. The ordinance declared: “No negro may take up his residence in a block within the city limits of Baltimore wherein more than half the residents are white.”

McMechen said of the ordinance, “It is my opinion as a lawyer that it is clearly unconstitutional, unjust, and discriminating against the negro, although on its face it appears to be equally fair to white and black….our people feel very deeply the action taken, and there is no doubt but that this feeling will shortly crystallize into a movement against the ordinance which will result in legal proceedings to have it declared void as it certainly is.”

McMechen, and another lawyer named Ashbie Hawkins (McMechen’s sister’s husband and legal counsel for the Baltimore NAACP), led the crusade in the courts against the ordinance. In the meantime, McMechen was forced out of his house on McCulloh St.

In 1911, Hawkins and another lawyer, Warner T. McGuinn, successfully argued that the West Ordinance was unconstitutional and it was repealed. A pattern then emerged where the Mayor and City Council would tweak the ordinance and re-establish it. McMechen, Hawkins and McGuinn would then successfully argue it was unconstitutional and the ordinance would be repealed. Another segregation ordinance would then be created.

It wouldn’t be until a Supreme Court case coming out of Kentucky that the Baltimore segregation ordinances would be overturned permanently. After 1910, the West Ordinance, often called the “Baltimore idea,” for promoting residential segregation proved so attractive for White Americans that it was copied in a score of other southern and border cities, including Richmond, St. Louis, and Louisville, Kentucky.

It was from Louisville that the case testing the constitutionality of segregation ordinances came to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916. It was called Warley v. Buchanan. Buchanan was a White individual who sold a house to Warley, a Black individual. Since 8 of 10 houses were occupied by White people, Warley was not allowed to live on the block. Buchanan sued Warley in Jefferson County Circuit Court to complete the sale. Warley cited the city ordinance as the reason for non-completion of the sale.

Baltimore’s own Ashbie Hawkins filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP and appeared before the Supreme Court for this case. After hearing and rehearing the Court made fast work of it. The Court ruled that the motive for the Louisville ordinance—separation of races for purported reasons—was an inappropriate exercise of police power, and its insufficient purpose also made it unconstitutional.

Buchanan v. Warley is one of the most significant civil rights cases decided before the modern civil rights era. After the Supreme Court case, Maryland courts found the Baltimore segregation ordinances unconstitutional as well.

Hawkins continued to work with George McMechen until he died in 1941. McMechen continued to practice law until his death on February 22, 1961. They made an undeniable impact on our country’s legal system.

As an influential figure in Baltimore’s African American community, George McMechen served in many important appointed positions throughout his life. He served as a trustee of Morgan College from 1921 to 1939. He was also the first African American member appointed to the Board of School Commissioners. Lastly, he was the first Baltimorean elected Grand Exalted Ruler (National President) of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World. In 1972, Morgan State erected its School of Business and named it in McMechen’s honor.

The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.



1834 McCulloh Street, Baltimore, MD 21217