Footprints from the Past

With the help of their professors, undergraduates explore new ways of uncovering lost, and at times unsettling, history.

Part of an occasional series in Arts & Sciences Magazine that highlights Krieger School research and scholarship that examines issues around racial inequity, discrimination, and structural racism.

With doctoral candidate Emma Katherine Bilski as their guide, a cadre of undergraduates set out on a walking tour in Baltimore last spring. Their mission? To follow in the footsteps of the girls and young women who lived and worked in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum (JHH COA) nearly 150 years ago. 

In the observations that follow, Bilski and her students share important insights they gained in the course of their tour of an area that was largely paved over and rebuilt in the name of “progress,” leaving segregation and displacement in its wake. 

As Bilski notes, “In the face of such erasure, place-based public history helps to write both ordinary and extraordinary stories back into our communal memory.” 

The observations that follow, used with permission, are from a detailed Substack about the project.

Observations of a Tour

Baltimore’s streets are haunted by countless ghostly footprints from the past. Some have historical markers, some of them have blue plaques, and some of these footprints are gone from our memory. In a city like this, the work of public history can require us to see beneath the expressways and the demolition to make the past visible again. 

When Professor Martha Jones floated the idea of developing a walking tour for the Hard Histories Spring 2023 Research Lab syllabus, a tour that would focus on the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum, I jumped at the opportunity to help bring this history (and our research) to life. 

Over the course of my public history career, I have given or worked with walking tours in a variety of ways. All of these have similar goals to Hard Histories at Hopkins: shattering historical silences and sharing new research with the public [see sidebar]. 

A good tour is of a doable length, pace, and distance. On an afternoon last April, the three students in the class, Dr. Jones, and I walked for approximately 90 minutes, along 1.4 miles, and made 11 stops. Our route centered on the orphan asylum’s original Biddle Street site, which today is on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Druid Hill and Pennsylvania avenues. 

Few of the surviving documents from the orphan asylum— housed at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives—date from the institution’s Biddle Street era, so I combed through Johns Hopkins Hospital Board of Trustees minutes for details and combined them into a skeletal narrative. The asylum took over an existing “Colored Orphan Asylum” in 1875 and housed Black children ages 5 to 18. Some had lost one or both of their parents, but some of the girls had living parents, siblings, and extended families. Today, historians think of orphan asylums as a type of childcare used by families whose circumstances kept them from caring for children at home, often just for a time. 

The orphan asylum expanded and then contracted in size due to pressure from a neighboring institution, and finally moved to its second Remington site [where the Wyman Park Building now stands] in September 1895. It would remain open there until the mid-1910s. 

Undergraduate students (l to r) Emma Petite, Kamal Kuar, and 
Matt Palmer listen to graduate student Emma Katherine Bilski, who 
curated a walking tour about the orphanage as part of the class.
Undergraduate students (l to r) Emma Petite, Kamal Kuar, and Matt Palmer listen to graduate student Emma Katherine Bilski, who curated a walking tour about the orphanage as part of the class. Photo courtesy of Martha S. Jones.

Through a present-day lens, the tour gave us an opportunity to orient ourselves to the landscape that the children of the orphan asylum would have grown up in, before the asylum moved to its Remington location. The tour also allowed us to observe telling contrasts between the orphan asylum’s two locations, Biddle Street and Remington. 

Emma Katherine began our tour of the first Biddle Street home of the orphan asylum at a notable place in our story: the [original] site of the Johns Hopkins University campus, at the corner of Howard and W. Centre streets. Unlike the orphan asylum, which housed primarily Black girls, the university educated almost exclusively young white men. Although a dog park now covers most traces of the original JHU campus, this initial stop made our quick walk to the orphan asylum’s Biddle Street site particularly striking. These two institutions, approximately five blocks apart, contained lives that likely remained separate except for the names of the institutions to which they belonged. 

On the tour, Emma Katherine noted that, according to the 1880 U.S. Census, the site of the orphan asylum, at the intersection of Biddle Street and Druid Hill Avenue, was situated in a diverse neighborhood. It was home to Black as well as white Baltimoreans, both native-born and immigrant residents. This starkly contrasted with the second orphan asylum site [at Wyman] where the girls were surrounded by the summer homes of wealthy white Baltimoreans. What a change. The move would have presented the girls with a true mismatch of neighborhoods even if they were kept relatively cloistered within the house. 

Along our way to the site of the original Johns Hopkins University campus, at Howard Street between Monument and Centre, we traveled to several important sites in Black Baltimore history. 

For me, this start to the tour illustrated the complicated race and class dynamics of mid-19th-century Baltimore and highlighted the disparity between training girls at the orphan asylum for service in white households and preparing the white men attending the university for secure, prosperous futures. 

Next, we crossed the intersection of Druid Hill Avenue and Eutaw Street. Details from my own research into the asylum’s financial records became vivid. From the tour route, I could have easily walked to other sites that were important to the girls, like the office of Dr. W. F. von Schricker, where they received dental care during the later years of the orphan asylum. 

Walking the tour route was a peculiar experience, because while street names we passed along the way generally remained the same, over a century and a half the buildings had significantly changed. 

Emma Katherine’s tour did more than help me map out the city; our journey from place to place encouraged a human-scale understanding of the orphan asylum’s history. Our stops were not just points on a tour; they were an encounter with important community centers for Black Baltimoreans. The most remarkable example was our visit to the old Orchard Street Church. Seeing this towering building reinforced the importance it had for Baltimore’s Black community and helped me to imagine how on Sunday mornings the streets around the church were once filled with churchgoers—including girls from the orphan asylum. 

From the orphan asylum’s records in the Chesney Archives, we gleaned that their weekly Sunday walk to this historically Black church was a rare regular outing for the girls. For me, the short walk between the first site of the orphan asylum and the Orchard Street Church made our time-traveling adventure real. 

One detail spoke loudly to all of us lab members: In 1883, the asylum’s [white] Lady Managers proposed to train some of the resident girls to be laundresses—a dangerous, physically grueling occupation in those days—and in 1884, the hospital board approved funds for the construction of new laundry rooms at 206 Biddle. No traces of the orphan asylum or its laundry facilities remain on the site today. Neither did individual girls leave testimony about their work there. All we have left to see their shadowy footprints are maps, line items in the hospital budget, and our imaginations. 

Others of us were amazed by the high concentration of historic Black religious sites, both Catholic and Protestant, in the immediate neighborhood, a few of which still operate today. Along the way, we considered the car-centric urbanism that paved over the old Biddle Street in favor of MLK Jr. Boulevard, leaving displacement, historical erasure, and segregation in its wake. 

In the face of such erasure, place-based public history helps to write both ordinary and extraordinary stories back into our communal memory. 

All of the surviving archival documents from the orphan asylum were written by, to, and for the white Baltimoreans who managed the orphan asylum, making it exceedingly difficult to hear any resonances from the girls themselves while sitting in the Chesney Archive reading room. Thanks to Emma Katherine’s tour, even if the voices of the girls are too faint in the documentary sources, by walking the sites of their day-to-day lives and listening closely, their lived experiences are accessible to us today. 

The walking tour allowed me to think of Baltimore spaces in a new way, one less focused on points on a map and instead on lives lived on historically significant streets. I appreciated Emma Katherine’s inclusion of distinct historical landmarks in her tour, but I was also inspired and moved by the physical streets we walked on. 

Part of my work [which culminated in an ArcGIS map of the girls’ movement through space in the years 1909–1914] has been to envision how girls moved through the city, and the tour heightened my awareness of their presence here on the same streets a long time before us. Buildings have architectural histories, and you can witness their development through photos and maps. They may even house archival materials that document their own past. In contrast, our walking tour showed me that streets can convey an equally powerful historical message if viewed through the right lens. Emma Katherine’s years of experience came through during this tour, and I only hope that more people will have the opportunity to take it and better understand the often-forgotten history of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum. 

What comes next for this walking tour? Every tour is tailored to its audience, and this one was developed specifically for the Hard Histories Spring 2023 Research Lab. After our immersion in archival records from the orphan asylum and scholarship on Progressive-era charity in Baltimore, it was as much a pilgrimage as it was a walking tour. It can, however, be adapted for a wider audience someday. 

For now, the next time you find yourself along that stretch of MLK Jr. Boulevard, be sure to pause and remember the girls of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum for me. Maybe, if you listen closely, you’ll even hear their footsteps echoing back. ■

Historian Martha S. Jones designed the Hard Histories Research Lab as an outgrowth of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project, which she launched with colleagues in 2020 to explore the history of race and racism at Johns Hopkins. 

The lab is studying the Colored Orphan Asylum as the third prong of the legacy of university founder Johns Hopkins. The very often-forgotten asylum was part of Mr. Hopkins’ bequest to fund the university and hospital. “This is a blank slate; anything we discover would be important, new, a contribution,” says Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, Professor at the SNF Agora Institute, and director of Hard Histories. 

Lab students comb birth and death records, census documents, and newspapers along with the asylum’s financial archives, gradually piecing together stories of girls as individuals, not just as a collection of “orphans.” The researchers are keenly aware of the ethics of their work, Jones says; to date they have made only the girls’ first names available, and they are taking careful steps toward sharing their discoveries with descendants. 

Hard Histories researchers initially expected to conduct years of study before releasing findings, Jones says. They quickly realized they needed a speedier and more accessible timeline, and developed a series of webinars and Substack posts to share discoveries in real time. The walking tour is in the same spirit of immediacy, Jones says, adding that graduate teaching assistant Bilski plans to develop a self-guided version, and one designed specifically for descendants. 

“Tours are not just lecturing, but interactive. So people are really processing and thinking,” Jones says. “Basically, we went to where the girls were.” 

In its final decades, the asylum sat at the southwestern edge of the Homewood campus, where the Wyman Park Building sits today—the building that happens to house the Hard Histories Lab. 

“I never met anyone who had a living recollection or awareness of that,” Jones says. “It becomes Hard Histories work because now we are breaking a silence.” 

Kamal Kaur looks at one of the signs in the  pop-up installation on the Homewood campus that memorialized the young women and girls who were identified as residents of the orphanage.
Kamal Kaur helped create the pop-up installation on the Homewood campus that memorialized the young women and girls who were identified as residents of the orphanage.

Archival Sleuth

In the months leading up to the walking tour in April, we reviewed the administrative and financial records of the asylum together as a group and individually at the Johns Hopkins Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. 

Being new to archival research, visiting the Chesney Archives for the first time was a daunting but ultimately rewarding experience. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the power of primary sources to shape our understanding of this difficult history. 

I began with the orphan asylum “post-closure” records: folders containing expense receipts—boarding fees, clothing, meals, miscellaneous items, and refunds—connected to the girls who were supported by the asylum even after it closed in 1914. Poring through these business records eventually allowed me to retrieve, for the first time, the names of children resident in the asylum. 

I uncovered the names of over 200 individual children. In the expense reports, 712 names in total were mentioned, many of them duplicates. Turning to other archival materials, including census records and newspapers, I began to assemble stories of how girls became women and lived and worked after their time at the asylum. My research eventually became the center of my project: “The Remembrance: The Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum and the Girls Who Were Forgotten.” 

I left the experience feeling both humbled and empowered, knowing that I had taken a small step toward uncovering crucial details of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum, while gaining valuable skills that I could use as I moved forward with the project.