Book excerpts, Stop the Road, Stories from the Trenches of Baltimore’s Road Wars, E. Evans Paull

Joe Wiles (“the Human Obstacle”) and Mary Rosemond, leaders of Rosemont’s successful resistance

AUTHOR’S NOTE—When the City decided (in 1970) to bypass Rosemont, routing I-70 around this solid Middle Class African American community, it was a phenomenal win for the community and its leaders, Joe Wiles and Mary Rosemond. The following are excerpts from the Rosemont chapter.

Joseph Wiles, source, the Baltimore Sun
Joseph Wiles, source,
the Baltimore Sun

Joseph Wiles, President of the Rosemont Community Association and one of the most active members of the Movement Against Destruction (MAD), passed away in 1998, but his obituary does not mention his prominent role in saving Rosemont from being bisected and destroyed by an eight-lane expressway. Those involved in the road fight might regard this as an odd or even negligent omission.

Author Earl Swift, however, gives Wiles his due. Swift’s sweeping history of the interstate highway program, The Big Roads, chronicles the groundbreaking events and portrays the iconic figures who planned and built the 40,000-mile interstate highway system. One chapter, “The Human Obstacle,” is a masterful treatise on the largely unanticipated obstacles encountered in building highways through urban areas, especially minority residential neighborhoods. Out of thousands of anti-highway activists all across the country, the person Swift refers to as “the human obstacle” is Rosemont’s leader Joseph Wiles.

It is astonishing that the city once contemplated putting I-70 right through the heart of this solidly middle-class African American neighborhood, but that was the plan from 1957 to 1970, when the Rosemont Bypass was finally adopted. That it took thirteen years to figure out an alternate route is also telling: “Negro Removal” may not have been an explicit or even an implicit objective in this case, but Baltimore decision-makers were essentially oblivious to the value of this stable, well-kept, and middle income African American neighborhood…

Art Cohen, [second President of the Movement Against Destruction] interviewed in 2019, was effusive about Wiles.

Wiles was a powerful presence… He just carried himself with great dignity and sincerity. He wasn’t loud or boisterous or nasty; he was just always gentlemanly. But he was also passionate, in terms of wanting to preserve that community, what they had built up over the years…

Mary Rosemond (source University of Baltimore SCAR archives)
Mary Rosemond (source
University of Baltimore
SCAR archives)

Mary Rosemond was victimized by highways twice in different cities. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, she witnessed her mother’s fight against a highway. “They just broke up the neighborhood,” she said. “But my mama wouldn’t sell.” Then, after acquiring her Rosemont home in the mid-1950s, Mary was shocked to see that the 1957 East-West Expressway would put her through the same trauma. Readers from a White middle-class background probably regard this as a wild, one-of-a-kind coincidence. But for urban African American families, multiple experiences with highway (and urban renewal) relocations were all too commonplace.

Art Cohen was an admirer. He said Rosemond had “a gentle demeanor but underneath it was a steely determination…and a fierce dedication to the people of that community…. She was at the center of community efforts to promote, develop, and preserve…what they had built there.” …

John Wells, Relocation Action Movement

AUTHOR’S NOTE—John Wells, President of the Relocation Action Movement, was the number one advocate for fair compensation to those being dislocated by the highways. Wells engineered reforms that benefited hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of those displaced. Book excerpts follow:

John Wells, source: Innovation Magazine
John Wells, source:
Innovation Magazine

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things… Harlem Park’s John Wells (a bus driver and former resident of public housing) led the Relocation Action Movement’s (RAM’s) [advocacy on behalf of displaced families.] RAM primarily worked toward “replacement value” over “fair market value” for acquired houses, expanded relocation assistance, and eligibility for rental assistance. “Fair market value,” RAM supporters maintained, was depressed precisely because of the highway plan… Wells won an astonishing victory for all displaced families when he convinced the city, the state, and the federal government to offer up to $5,000 ($41,000 today) over “fair market value” for acquired homes…

RAM activist Stu Wechsler, interviewed in 2019, recalled the west side’s three most prominent leaders, Joseph Wiles, John Wells, and Mary Rosemond. “They were just remarkable.… [It was unfortunate that] Barbara Mikulski…cast such a bright light that a lot of these other people, who were great in their own right, [did not get] the coverage.”

Mildred Moon, the Mayor of Sharp-Leadenhall

AUTHOR’S NOTE—in the late 1960s Mildred May Moon and her Sharp-Leadenhall community suffered through what we have termed “the trifecta of slum clearance plans:” two highways and one Urban Renewal Plan virtually wiped out the neighborhood, but Moon refused to settle for this fate. Book excerpts follow:

Mildred Moon from the Gwynns Falls Trail historical marker
Mildred Moon from the
Gwynns Falls Trail historical marker

Sharp Leadenhall’s roots as a proud community of African American Freedmen were ripped apart in the late 1960s, another community destroyed by acquisitions for highway plans that were later changed. Two highway plans and one urban renewal plan left a decimated community of only five hundred holdouts—three thousand people had been relocated. The last plan would have saved a substantial part of the neighborhood, but by then there were only a few blocks left to save. A lesser person might have cited a line from the serenity prayer, “God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change,” and moved on, but Mildred Moon was neither serene nor accepting, and the words “I cannot change” were never uttered from her lips.

…The tenacious Ms. Moon [sometimes referred to as the “Mayor Sharp-Leadehall”] is a Road Wars heroine less for holding back the highway plan, but more for her valiant, persistent, and at least partially successful attempt to rebuild Sharp Leadenhall from the ashes of slum clearance schemes…

Senator Mikulski had vivid recollections of Mildred and characterized her as a “beloved and unique and tireless advocate for that community.” M. J. (“Jay”) Brodie (former Housing Commissioner) regarded Moon as one of the most effective community leaders he had encountered in his long career in city government. He said, “She was forceful and determined, but always diplomatic and personable. The way she commanded attention for her small African American community in an overwhelmingly White district was an exceptional example of community leadership.”

Norman Reeves, civil rights to Leakin Park protection

AUTHOR’S NOTE—Norman Reeves was a key figure in the fight to protect Leakin Park from ruination by I-70. Reeves, a victim of muscular dystrophy, was a renowned civil rights activist, city councilman, and leader of Volunteers Opposed to the Leakin Park Expressway (VOLPE). Book excerpts follow:

Norman Reeves, photo courtesy Iris Reeves
Norman Reeves, photo
courtesy Iris Reeves

“He had a presence about him,” said fellow VOLPE activist Barry Blumberg, expressing the universal characterization of Norman Reeves as a person of strength and stature despite his slight build and physical handicaps due to muscular dystrophy. Reeves’ name is commemorated on the plaque that marks the end of I-70 just before Leakin Park. In the park there is also a Norman Reeves nature trail, a serene 1.4-mile hike symbolically located where the noisy pollution-generating highway would have gone. Had he lived (he passed away in 1983), Reeves probably would have declined to be singled out in this fashion…

Reeves, however, does deserve the accolades. He was one of the two individual plaintiffs in the VOLPE lawsuit that stopped the highway. He was so respected and admired that his presence gave the highway fight legitimacy. Further, his deep roots in the civil rights movement helped neutralize any feelings that VOLPE did not represent African American communities adjacent to the park. Lastly, Reeves’ election to City Council in 1979 sounded the death knell for the highway through the park—Schaefer did not want to go up against the highly regarded Mr. Reeves.