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Bringing the University to the Community

Faculty and students from Johns Hopkins enjoy a day with members of the Lafayette Square community.
[Photography by Michael McCoy]

Professor Lawrence Jackson wants to bring Johns Hopkins to the masses, in particular to the Baltimore masses. That’s why the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of History and English started the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts.

When Jackson accepted the position at Hopkins after 14 years teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, it was a homecoming of sorts. Jackson grew up in Baltimore and still has family members—including his mother—who live there. Baltimore also has strong ties to two people who spark his research interests: Frederick Douglass and Billie Holiday.

The goals of the Billie Holiday Project are to document the history of African American life, literature, and art in Baltimore and to foster intellectual ties between Johns Hopkins and the historic areas of Baltimore.

Jackson recently received a university Discovery Award to conduct his work and build a team with partners from Peabody, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Sheridan Libraries and Museums.

“We aim to create venues in the community and outside of campus to demonstrate our willingness to engage in a stronger relationship of sharing our mutual expertise,” says Jackson.

The project comprises four initiatives: build an archival collection of African American primary sources that document art, politics, and history in Baltimore’s black communities; sponsor research fellowships for advanced study of black Maryland; create a college pipeline partnership where students from Baltimore City Public Schools can meet and be inspired by Hopkins undergraduates—especially those of color; and establish ways to bring arts and humanities programming to various parts of the city.

All four efforts are underway, with the most recent being the inaugural Billie Holiday Jazz Concert, held in September in Lafayette Square Park in West Baltimore. Faculty, staff, and students from Hopkins mingled with community members and listened to musicians, including members of Peabody’s jazz faculty.

“We hope to activate a permanent relationship between Hopkins and communities south and west of the Homewood campus,” says Kali-Ahset Amen, associate director of the Billie Holiday Project and assistant research professor in the Department of Sociology.

Jackson, who has made digital map presentations about Holiday’s early Baltimore life, emphasized the role of the Lafayette Avenue neighborhood to Holiday.

“Billie Holiday, who was born Eleanora Gagan, lived at 1421 Fremont Street and at 1325 Argyle Avenue near the square,” says Jackson. “She was sexually assaulted at a young age on nearby Riggs Avenue. The Baltimore jazz music at Biddle Street’s Galilean Fisherman’s Hall and Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater became the bedrock of her early tastes.”

He adds that Frederick Douglass attended the nearby Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.

Jackson and Amen have also started the Donald Bentley Memorial Lecture, and noted playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith will be the inaugural speaker. Bentley was the up-and-coming young leader in Baltimore who was shot and killed during a robbery in 1989.

Close to 500 people gathered for the inaugural jazz concert. “We’re looking to craft a new kind of public collaboration,” says Jackson. “One that acknowledges the existence of the racial barriers of the past and emphasizes the possibilities of access at our fingertips today. The scholarship and research at Johns Hopkins today has the same corresponding high value to every Baltimore community as the city’s people and rich heritage have to contribute to Johns Hopkins. We all flourish in mutuality.”