Thursday, October 22, 2009

Upton - “The Jewell of the Chesapeake”

The next city in the “Brownsville Series” is Upton in Baltimore, Maryland where I found one of the most affluent African American neighborhoods in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. As I continue my quest to resurrect the ghost of those honored segregated communities of a time long past I will examine the “Jewell of the Chesapeake”. If you’ve never been to Baltimore you’re really missing something special. Today, it’s called “Charm City” which should have been its name back in the day or at least that’s what Upton should have been called.

In Upton, Pennsylvania Avenue was the main drag connecting all African American life in the city and beyond. To the south and west of Upton was the poor and working class African American neighborhoods of "The Bottom”. To its east were the German American and Jewish American neighborhoods. Upton is about a fifteen minute walk from Downtown Baltimore but blacks of that era had no need to go downtown, for obvious reasons, they were not allowed to patronize or enter, through the front door anyway, the white establishments unless they were working.

Baltimore is best known for crabs, crab cakes, delicious seafood, and of course a good time. The neighborhood was home to the most educated African Americans, property owners, and professionals to include doctors, lawyers, retailers who served the middle class and an upscale clientele, jazz clubs, dance halls, and theaters, as well as other public and private institutions for the black community. On the Avenue, as it was called, was home to a premiere shopping strip for black Baltimorians, inspiring comparisons to Lenox Avenue in Harlem – Upton had it all.

Upton was also the staging ground for much of the local and national civil rights initiatives. It was a crossroad for many great African Americans who fought for equality and improving conditions for communities suffering from the ridged “separate but equal laws” and there cruel amoral agendas. People like the great Frederick Douglass, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey all visited Upton and organized in its local churches. The Baltimore chapter of the NAACP was based in Upton as well as the New Negro Alliance who rallied for justice from this proud community.

In the mid-20th century, Upton's population swelled due to the popularity of the neighborhood and the pressures of segregation that kept African Americans confined to certain areas. Single family homes were subdivided into small apartments and Pennsylvania Avenue's sidewalks were crowded on Saturday nights, as loud music and heavy drinking became popular vices on the strip. There were several notable venues hosting great entertainment like the New Albert Hall, Savoy and the Strands that drew many performers and partygoers.

But it was the Douglass Theater, renamed The Royal Theater, at Pennsylvania and Lafayette, that became famous and a mainstay on the Chitlin Circuit on par with the legendary Apollo Theater. Cab Calloway grew up in Upton and Eubie Blake performed his debut in a club on Pennsylvania Avenue. Stars such as Ethel Water, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations all performed at the Royal. It was like the Apollo in the sense that you had to play the Royal to get your chops.

Churches were also a huge part of this community providing safe havens for its people. Since the 18th Century, African American churches have nurtured their souls, feed the hungry, clothed and housed the poor but their roll was far more important. The church community was a launch pad for activism and served as communication networks, which was the backbone of the community. The church community fought for civil rights, supported business initiatives, and job placement. From the beginning going back beyond the Underground Railroad Baltimore’s churches were a place of empowerment through worship and serve as incubators for organizing and planning regardless of domination or faith.

Baltimore has produced prominent businessmen such as Raymond Haysbert who was the owner and founder of the famed Parks Sausage Company that became the first black-owned company to go public in 1969. The Parks Sausage Company was a legend in Baltimore and you could hear its slogan “more Parks Sausages mom” everywhere. After the company experienced financial difficulties two former National Football League Hall of Famers Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris partnered to come to the rescue maintaining the company’s black-owned legacy. James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul”, was also a prominent businessman in the city owning WEBB, a local radio station, and several other businesses.

Upton also produced its share of colorful characters known as “hustlers” that were legendary. One of the most famous was "Little Willie" Adams. Mr. Adams or "Little Willie", as he was known, opened a shoeshine stand on the Avenue when he was 18. Sources say he was an ambitious young hustler with dreams of being his own man. One day a flamboyant numbers man got in his chair, he popped his rag like a firecracker while talking jive making him laugh. He convinced the numbers man that he too was a businessman, solid and dependable, and he wanted in on the numbers game. The hustlers slapped palms and Little Willie started at the bottom the next day as a runner.

Hustling was a family business and Little Willie was taught by his grandfather who ran an after-hours gambling house on Madison Avenue were most of Baltimore’s established hustlers and entrepreneurs enjoyed their favorite vices. Little Willie was a welcome star at grand pop’s gambling house as he was eager to learn this way of life, as early as age seven. By age 34, the young dapper Adams was already a living legend and the King of B-more. Little Willie was known to say, after he became the numbers czar, “This was our thing started by slaves”. I’m told he would say that “prayer is good but when you get up off your knees. You’ve got to hustle”.

Then there was Mr. Melvin Williams who was the inspiration for the enormously popular HBO series "The Wire." Known as “Little Melvin”, he has also been featured on “American Gangster” where he told his story, his way. Before he was old enough to shave Little Melvin possessed a genius I.Q. of 160 but he says it’s closer to 200. Little Melvin, a legend at age 15 years old had made a few hundred grand hustling pool and shooting dice. He’s a high school dropout who can talk tax codes, inner-state commerce, calculus and physics with the best of them. No one doubts that he was a prodigy in the gambling haunts and alleyways along glittering Pennsylvania Avenue.

When heroin addiction exploded in the 1960’s, Mafia drug traffickers sought out connections in big cities that were accustomed to dealing in large sums of cash and were smart enough to keep their mouths shut. They needed to look no further than to Melvin, known in street lore today as “the man who brought heroin to Baltimore.” For three decades Melvin ruled as the uncrowned king. Frustrated with their inability to penetrate his operation, Baltimore police framed him by planting a hand full of pills in his pocket during an orchestrated bust. Five years later, Melvin emerged from prison a bitter man out for revenge. He accomplished his mission accumulating untold millions in narco-profits but ultimately paid the price by serving 26.5 years in prison.

His street legend was larger than life, when the Baltimore riots erupted after the 1968 killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there came a knock on Melvin’s door on the fourth morning of fire and rage. In walked National Guard Gen. George Gelston, state Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, and Police Maj. William “Box” Harris. “We think you can help stop the rioting,” they said. “We’ll give you a bullhorn and a bullet-proof vest.” Williams says he told them “I’ll take the bullhorn. Give the vest to Senator Mitchell.” That afternoon, as thousands stood at Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street, Williams told the crowd that they’d expressed their rage, they’d made their point — and now it was time go home. The streets quickly emptied, and that day the riots were over.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, controversial urban renewal projects destroyed much of Upton's historic architecture, especially in the southwestern portion of the neighborhood. However, it only replaced a portion of what was removed. Once the buildings were razed it was difficult to secure developers to build new construction. The famed Royal Theater was demolished in 1971. Further problems faced Upton during this time in the form of economic depression, housing abandonment, crime, and racial rioting.

Pennsylvania Avenue is now lined with sneaker shops, dollar stores, other low-rent commercial uses, and many abandoned storefronts. The Avenue Market sells produce and holds occasional events such as jazz shows. According to the city, 60% of Upton families with children under 5 are living in poverty. The median home sale price in Upton in 2004 (not including Marble Hill) was $28,054. Many of the row houses in the neighborhood are vacant, either abandoned by their property owners or owned by the city.

Yes, the ghost of what was our creation has been stained and the Jewell of the Chesapeake has lost its luster. Unfortunately, the city of Baltimore, known as Charm City, forgot that Upton was responsible for a large part of its charm but African Americans know it lure looms large and its legacy will never die.

Visit: www.justaseason.comJust a Season is a must read novel...

Friday, October 16, 2009


I use this blog as a vehicle to express thought while engaging in a way that provokes thought. Sometimes I am on the receiving end of some vitriolic language but more often than not most comments are positive. Fortunately, I can, like many conservatives, stand on the Constitution which affords me the right to freedom of speech.

This article is one that will cause controversy because I want to talk about the WARS. I am extremely passionate about this because I speak from the perspective of someone who has carried an M-16 and have experienced war. In addition, my patriotism is validated by the Veterans Administration via compensation as a victim of war though a classification called disability. So I am not one who sat on a beach, did not serve honorably or one who watched it on the news from the sidelines talking about protecting America.

I can recall back in the day there was a popular song, “War”, recorded by Edwin Starr that had a poignant line that asked, “What is it good for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” I concur with that sentiment wholeheartedly. I am speaking as a man who went to the land of the little people, as we use to call it – Vietnam. One of the fallacies then was “we were winning the war”. I never came to that conclusion being a live witness to that debacle, as history tells us. The reason for that war was suppose to stop Communism. Today, the reason, if it remains the same for more than a week, is to stop extremists. Sound familiar?

I don’t profess to be as smart as those charged with administering the war in Iraq or Afghanistan but what I do know is this: “you cannot conquer a people who are unwilling to be conquered”. For thousands of years many mighty nations have tried and all have failed, which is why Afghanistan is called the “Graveyard of Empires”. Our army is no doubt the mightiest army the world had ever known, yet these ragtag groups of guerrillas are beating us with slingshots. By that I mean, they have nothing but what they can carry to use against us. I concluded that we are strangers in a place in which we do not understand the lay of the land or the people and like Vietnam it is an untenable situation. We have lost too many lives and it is time to bring our troops home – NOW.

Over the years, there have been policies that have proclaimed wars on this or that. For example, in the 1960’s President Johnson proclaimed a “War on Poverty” and today there is more poverty than it was then. Nixon proclaimed a war on “Cancer” and today there are more forms of cancer than ever before. Ragan declared a “War on Drugs” and today there is a larger drug problem than ever before. Bush declared a “War on Terror” and today, eight years later, no end in sight. So I say, when they declare a “War on something” little success is achieved. I suppose its good propaganda but in these cases there has been no victory.

Let me close with this thought. Recently, they spent 70 million dollars to shot a rocket into the moon when unemployment is 10% and for African American’s it’s more than 15%. If we look closer, more than 50% of African American youth and nearly 50% of African American men are unemployed. The number of people in American without health insurance is near 50 million and growing. The infant mortality rate is off the charts and America’s percentage of people infected with HIV compares too many Third World countries. Then there is homelessness, crime, and hunger right here in the US of A. We need to stop the wars and use those tax dollars being spent here at home.

Just a Season - a must read novel...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Just a Season - a must read novel...

It’s been said, there are no words that have not been spoken and there are no stories that have never been told but there are some that you will never forget. Just a Season is a luminous story into the life of a man who, in the midst of pain and loss, journeys back in time to reexamine all the important people, circumstances, and intellectual fervor that contributed to the richness of his life.

This fictional narrative begins with a grief-stricken father visiting the grave site of his beloved son who was killed in a tragic accident; a moment that he and no other loving parent should ever have to face. As he sadly gazes at his son's headstone and reads what is inscribed there, the dates 1981 - 2001 bring about an illuminating discovery.

The tiny dash that separates the years of one's birth and death represents the whole of a person's life. So if this tiny dash were to tell his life's story, what would it say? In Just a Season, the dash of this man's life is revealed and what emerges from the pages of this book is a legacy of true benevolence and grace.

Praise for Just a Season . . .

"Just a Season is a thought provoking novel by author, John T. Wills. ...focusing on various topics such as pain, suffering, love and life. The characters and the plot are captured very well. It is very well written from beginning to end. This is one of those books, where you cannot judge the book based on its title and cover." Congratulations well done! -- Afrika Asha Abney

". . . Thank you for your example of tenderness and discipline in what I know is a story of love, delicately shared with readers in a way that says, this life, though brief, is significant. So hold it in highest regard for "the dash" is our legacy to love ones, indeed to the world, which we are blessed to share, albeit, for Just a Season." Excellent! --Sistah Joy, Poet, Cable TV Host

"Wills pulls you in from the very first page... Just a Season is a heart-wrenching story about growing up and believing in yourself. I highly recommend this book to young men in high school, trying to find themselves and feeling like they have nowhere to turn." -- Cheryl Hayes, APOOO Book Club

"This is the stuff movies are made of... not since Roots have I read anything that so succinctly chronicles an African American story." One Word Phenomenal!!!
Cheryl Vauls, Library Services

"Not since The Color Purple have I read a book that evoked such emotions. John T. Wills possesses the ability to transport the reader directly into the life and struggles of his main characters story. This book actually touched my heart and inspired me to increase the equity in my "dash"! Excellent -- Tonja Covington

"John T. Wills captures male bonding between generations and lets the reader passively watch as family love and closeness unfold on the pages . . ." Outstanding -- A great read -- Cheryl Robinson, Host and Executive Producer of

"JUST A SEASON is laced with thought-provoking commentary on the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the 1960s, the migration of crack cocaine into inner-city neighborhoods, and a myriad of other ills that have rocked America. This is a very good piece intertwined with several history lessons spanning many decades." -- Dawn Reeves, RAWSISTAZ Book Club

"John T. Wills particulars each notion so eloquently that you feel that you're actually right there with him... this is an inflicting history lesson that I believe all African American males should experience." JUST A SEASON is a pivotal read -- Carmen, OOSA ONLINE BOOK CLUB

"From the first page you are transported into John's world as if you are there and are experiencing it with him. I am amazed at how John is able to use the events of the time to let you know where you are in time. I felt as if I was teleported... his ability to describe what was going on during that time makes me extremely proud of my heritage. You will come away with a feeling of, now I know why that is. I thoroughly enjoyed "Just a Season". - Mia L. Haynes

"Just a Season is a work of love, respect and honor... A book filled with the wonder of life, and the pain and growth encountered in living it." Outstanding! -- Ron Watson, Editor, New Book Reviews.Org

"in the final analysis the tiny little dash represents the whole of a person's life. If someone, for whatever reason, were to tell the story concealed within my dash. What might they say? ". A thought provoking and powerful read that will forever resonate within my soul . . . Speechless. Carron

This novel is 9 X 6 inches in size, 370 pages embracing the wonders of a life.
Visit: to read a chapter, reviews, and more information.

I humbly thank you for your support and help.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Snake

My Granddaddy told me fascinating stories designed to make me a man. In fact, he would tell me every day that “I raised you to be a man and as a man, you don’t know what you may have to do but when the time comes, you do it.” He said it so often throughout my youth that it was embedded into my mind. To this day a warm smile appears “when I have to do it”.

I have to admit, I loved this wise man more than life itself. I knew, even then, his teachings were an inspired declaration of his celestial will or more simply put - his vision that shaped my destiny defining my purpose. Pop’s would teach me lessons, often times, like an Aesop Fables to make me think and it was my job to figure out the moral of the story.

This is my favorite:

The way the story was told to me, Granddaddy’s friend, Mr. Bob whose job was to offer a prayer every Sunday morning at church during the service prior to the preacher’s sermon, a job he had held for years. Sunday was a special day for the community, and for him to have a position where he would have the attention of everyone was a big deal. More accurately stated it was a platform for him to perform. He would have been a great entertainer.

Mr. Bob would walk to church every Sunday morning, rain or shine, from his home. The trip was several miles up and down hills and around curves, and he would be dressed in his best suit for the morning service. During the walk he would practice his part for the service, the prayer, with the intention of making it a show complete with screams and tears. This show would sometimes last thirty minutes. There were many Sundays one would wonder how one man could have so much to ask of the Lord and maybe say, please, let somebody else get a blessing.

On his way to church this particular Sunday, Mr. Bob came across an injured snake. In what he perceived as divine intervention, God said to him, help this poor creature. He realized he did not have a prayer for that day’s service, so he thought, wow, if I help the snake I can pray for us to have the strength to help all of God’s creatures. Since the snake is the lowliest of all creatures, this would really inspire the congregation and hopefully give them the encouragement to do the same at least until next Sunday’s message. So he picked up the badly injured snake and placed him in a safe place until he could return from church.

With great energy, and now inspired, Mr. Bob went on his way. He planned and practiced his prayer as he marched on to church. After he arrived and exchanged a few greetings, the service began with a joyful noise, as they say, meaning full of song. Then it was his turn to pray. He began to pray with a powerful tone, full of emotion. He asked God to give each person within the sound of his voice the strength to reach out and help all God’s creatures, from the loving dove to the lowly snake. His message had many in the tiny church standing with shouts of Amen. He felt he had done his job as he closed, asking God to bless the church and said Amen. In his usual style this took about a half hour.

To his surprise, the pastor also chose a sermon nearly identical to his message which took about another hour and a half, talking about helping all of God’s creatures. What a great day it was, Mr. Bob thought. Normally after the service ended everyone hung around and fellowshipped as it was one of the few chances they had to socialize. Mr. Bob would not hang around on this day  he had a mission and left church in a hurry. He rushed back to the spot where his injured snake was placed hoping it would still be there. He was very excited when he arrived to find it was where he left it. He put his snake in a burlap bag he had gotten from the church and took the snake home.

Over the next several weeks Mr. Bob cared for this creature, desperately trying to save the snake and nursing it back to health. About three weeks later he thought it was time to take his snake back to where he found it, thinking it was well enough to be set free. The following Sunday, he put on his best suit and started his journey to church with snake in hand. As he arrived at the spot where he had found it, he thought, what a wonderful thing he had done. He was sure to receive God’s blessing for this act of kindness.

He rubbed the snake gently and said goodbye. However, when he reached into the bag to grab it, suddenly the snake raised his head and bit him. Then bit him again and again. Mr. Bob cried out, “Why would you bite me after all I’ve done for you? My God why?” I guess he was expecting an answer from God, but none came. He repeated his cry once more. Then the snake stuck his head out of the bag and said, “I am a snake and that’s what we do.”After hearing this story over and over again, I finally figured out what it meant. It was a lesson that would prove to be invaluable.

Be careful in your dealings with people because people, just like the snake, will hurt you  that’s what they do.

Taken from the phenomenal novel Just a Season
© 2007 All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 9, 2009


Our President, Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, citing his outreach to the Muslim world and attempts to curb nuclear proliferation.

I salute you Mr. President because the world sees the greatness within you, as I do. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is an honor that only three Presidents have received - President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 (while in office), and President Jimmy Carter who was awarded the prize after leaving office in 2002. To put this into prospective, the President has only been in office about nine months, he is the second sitting president and the third of all forty-four to be honored, and he looks like me. Let me remind you that the last president only got a “shoe”.

The Nobel committee praised Obama's creation of "a new climate in international politics" and said he had returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions like the U.N. to the center of the world stage. I praise him for being sent to deliver us from evil. So I say to Fox, Caribou Barbie, the Drugster, the alcoholic, wrong-way Wilson, the racists and all the conservative haters – “If God is with you who can stand against you.”

This is a great day. Enough said…

Just a Season - a must read novel...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

FINALLY!!! It’s been said…

As we travel through the journey of our lives we must endure enormous challenges. The puppet masters have devised a system designed to divide and conquer in order to maintain control over our lives. It’s worked very well for over four hundred years. I think we are now wise enough, or should be, to see this and overcome the devastating impact it has had upon us. Particularly, as it relates to our families and relationships at a time when our children are lost and dying. We need this message more than ever.

A few days ago, I received an enormously powerful message from a fellow author, Cassandra Mack, who I consider a friend. Her message was so profound and meaningful that I was actually shocked – not shocked in a negative sense. Rather, extremely impressed by her heartfelt words. The message spoke to a truth many African American’s know but fail to acknowledge or admit. It is a concern, or maybe an issue, that speaks to the fabric of our connection to one another. I firmly believe you can change the world but first you must change yourself and that means you’re prospective.

Cassandra articulated so eloquently what, dare I say, few would openly admit - let alone publish. I was so proud of her for writing this impassionate call for honest introspective thought that I felt the need to share it with you (with her permission of course):

"Brothers...We Need You Even When We Claim That We Don't" by Cassandra Mack

There are so many scars inside of black men and women that sometimes without realizing it we tear each other down when we should be building each other up. With all that we are struggling with and against, it’s no wonder that sometimes we struggle to love ourselves and each other. But despite all of our struggles there is one thing that remains constant: My beloved brothers...My Black Kings....My Visionary men of honor and integrity...WE NEED YOU. We need you with every fiber of our being and every inch of our soul. Trust and believe...WE NEED YOU!

No matter what things look like externally or how much it seems like black women have arrived, we need you. We need you irrespective of our circumstances. We need you whether we’re living in million dollar homes with luxury cars or pinching our pennies together to make ends meet. Contrary to popular belief, our need for you doesn’t change with our income or education level, because our need for you is internal.

Do you understand this? I mean do you really understand how deep our need for you goes? Our need for you goes so deep that it scares us silly, so much so, that we say things like, “I don’t need a man,” in an attempt to downplay this need and diminish your importance in our lives. We somehow believe that if we say the words, "I don’t need a man," we can remove the pain, sense of loss and vulnerability that we feel when you are missing from our lives, our homes, our families and our beds.

But here’s the funny thing about needs – they extend both ways. If we need you, then it would stand to reason that you need us too, so please don’t give up on us and whatever you do, don’t allow us to give up on you. WE NEED YOU.

This note was excerpted from Cassandra Mack’s book,
“The Black Man’s Little Book of Encouragement”
Copyright © 2009 by Cassandra Mack

Get your copy of “Just a Season” today
It is a must read novel…


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy Birthday Motown

This is a year full of historic milestones but none compare to the significance of Motown Records 50th Anniversary. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity pay homage and say THANK YOU to Mr. Gordy for your vision and contribution to the world.

Most people do not know or remember that prior to Motown Records few black performers enjoyed anything close to crossover success. The music we enjoyed was called “race music” and was segregated in the same way America was prior to 1959, when Motown was founded. Let me also remind you that rarely could the face of a black person be seen on an album cover prior to its founding. By the way, an album is what was used for music before CD’s.

Motown was the first record label owned by an African American to primarily feature African-American artists and its soul-based subsidiaries were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, which was a style of soul music with a distinct influence. From its Hitsville U.S.A building on 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan that served as Motown's headquarters produced the most universally recognized stable of songwriters and performers of our time or anytime.

Form this tiny little basement studio we were introduced to Michael Jackson, the Supremes, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Four Tops, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Rick James, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Teena Marie, DeBarge, the Jackson Five, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes and Motown's Funk Brothers studio band just to name a few of the artists that graced our souls and touched our hearts making us proud.

Many of Motown's best-known hits were written by Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield and the songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland who became major forces in the music industry. For example, it’s a known fact in the music industry that in order to get a number one hit song someone would have to write more than thirty songs. Holland-Dozier-Holland had a string of more than fifty hits in a row with some becoming number one with several different artists like the hit “I heard it through the Grapevine”. This is profound and will never happen again. No songwriter will ever achieve this feat – guaranteed.

Although Mr. Gordy sold Motown and it’s now in the hands of others its legacy resides in a very special place in my heart and I’m sure millions around the world. So again I say, thank you Motown for the music, the love, the magic, and the many great memories. Lastly, to the legends who are no long able to perform for us today - thank you for your contribution - Rest in Peace. Walking around heaven all day listening to the harmony of your souls must make haven more glorious and wonderful than I could ever imagine.

*** Let me take you on an amazing journey thought time in “Just a Season” to experience life and our proud history by visiting a novel that has been compared by reviewers to the Color Purple and the Roots of our time. A must read novel. ***