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Music in the Winters Lane Community

[note: except where otherwise noted, photos are from Louis Diggs and Linda D. Stone, It All Started on Winters Lane, Upton, 1995; permission not yet obtained]

The Winters Lane community, once known as Harristown, with roots dating to the late 1860’s when it was founded by freed formerly enslaved people, is a historic Black community in Catonsville. While Nelson Knode’s Music Center and the Lurman Woodland Theater were in their infancies, A 1961 article in the Baltimore African American describe Winters Lane this way:

"In the Catonsville Development, just two miles from Baltimore’s Western City limits, sprawls the near perfect example of suburban living, homeownership, and community spirit. There is no undertaker here and but one physician, since citizens are interested in living."

A major part of this “living” was the community’s robust music culture, centered around the multiple churches and community and fraternal organizations, including Elks, Oddfellows, and Freemasons lodges. If anything, the portrait that emerges is of a community even more centered around music than the white community.

​Winters Lane churches were numerous; some continue to this day. Over the years these included Grace A.M.E., Morning Star Baptist, Mt. Olivet United Methodist, Full Gospel Tabernacle Baptist, Upper Room Prayer Garden Word of God Church, Temple of Faith Church of God in Christ, Bethlehem Christian Community, Bread of Life Christian Center, Back to Bible Temple for All, St. Paul Christian Center Church. Many of these churches had multiple choirs. Grace A.M.E, known as “The Singing Church on the Hill,” for example, had at various times a Senior Choir, a Grace Choir, a Male Chorus, the Voices of Grace, a Mass Choir, the Greater Faith Inspiration Choir, and the Imani Ensemble (Diggs, 59). Fraternal organizations included the Western Star Lodge No. 1442, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (G.U.O.O.F.); the Crescent Lodge of Elks #355; and the Landmark Lodge No. 40 of Free and Accepted Masons. These organizations held and/or sponsored a wide variety of community events, including concerts, dances, and parades. The Masons had a male choir, one of the few Masonic choirs in Maryland. It was directed by Samuel Torsell, a multi-instrumentalist, sometimes known as “The Mayor of Catonsville.” His wife, Ida Torsell, was the organist at Grace AME.

[image: Samuel Torsell]

Churches and fraternal organizations were not the only points of musical activity in Winters Lane. The community featured a large outdoor pavilion, known as “Greenwood Electric Park,” built in the early 1900’s to host musical performance and dances. Located on Winters Lane on the site that is now a parking lot across from the former Morning Star Baptist Church, it drew African American visitors from around the Baltimore region. A 1922 ad in the Baltimore African American publicized “A GRAND MUSICAL EXHIBITION AND DANCE” to be held June 21, featuring Elmer Snowden’s Big Jazz Band, from Washington D.C., and Ike Dixon’s Jazz Demons. Dixon was from Baltimore, but toured widely on the east coast, and was a favorite at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. The event is listed at as a stop in the itinerary of Duke Ellington. Dixon would later manage The Casino Gardens night club, located at Winters Lane and Main Avenue (the former site of Morningstar Baptist, presently Iglesia Pentecostal Nuevo Renacer). Casino Gardens was a bustling venue, especially in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when manager Dixon performed with his house band, “The Internationals,” and engaged well- known Black bands and entertainers to perform.

[The following is edited for narrative readability; at the time of recording, 14 April 2021, Phyllis King was 74 and Harriet Dunlap was 88 years of age.]

Harriet Dunlap: I'm going to say it anyway—I was born in hospital. No, it was ten of us. I'm making a point because at that time, only the first child could be born in the hospital. African Americans, you know. And that was where I was born. After that, the rest of them were born at home—all from Catonsville, that’s where we grew up. Provident Hospital was the only hospital we African Americans could go to. My Mom is Eleanor Louise Wilson Randall and my dad is Thomas Nathaniel Randall, Senior. Ten of us grew up together—64 Winters Lane. It was loud and crowded. It was only three boys and seven girls.


Phyllis King: Our church was very active with music, at Grace AME in Catonsville. We were known as the “singing church on the hill” because we had all good singers in there. We still do to this day. There's a lot of good singing in there, and Catonsville was known for music. I mean, we had a guy in our church named Wesley Young who played the guitar. We had a band in our community—that was the Lumpkins Band, composed of brothers and friends. They were Catonsville bred individuals. And we had plenty of music to go by—a lot of dancing, rock and roll. People listened to jazz. We had what is called the Oddfellows Hall, right where they had the dances. Matter of fact that’s still there.


HD: That was the entertainment center for us, for years.


PK: It happens to be down the street from the Grace AME church, across the street from St. Mark’s Church. And then like across from here is where our family doctor—remember Doctor Woolridge?


HD: Maloney.


PK: Dr. Maloney had his business there. Because in Catonsville, we were kind of like the Tulsa community that they killed—You know the blacks they killed? Like we were really self-reliant on each other.


HD: Yeah.


PK: You know, you had everything in that area that you needed. We had stores. We had the pool hall. We had the barbershops, just a little food store.


HD: And the Oddfellows Hall, was really the entertainment center for us.


PK: Right. And plus the churches are where we had a lot of the music things. They didn't do like boopity rock n’ roll. They wouldn't let us have dances there, but we always moved. It was all religious songs in the churches. Gospel, contemporary. It was more Gospel then, and regular music, because we were Methodists and we didn't get bumpity boom until like later, like the Baptist churches were always, you know, bumpity bump [laughs]. But the Methodist churches were a little bit dry. But we caught up with the Baptists.


HD: It was because it was all kinds of choirs. There was a senior choir and they was they called a junior choir.


PK: All churches had this, all the Black churches.


HD: They had a senior choir, and they had a junior choir, and they had a men’s chorus. You know, and they took turns on Sundays, each choir. There was a different choir before that.


PK: All the different churches had the same kind types of choirs, so in Catonsville there wasn’t only Grace AME, African American where people went. There was also Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church. That’s right down Edmondson Avenue. Across from there was Full Gospel. It has a new name now; that’s a historic church.


HD: It was called more or less a Holiness Church.


PK: Then if you go all the way up Winters Lane, Morning Star used to be on Roberts Avenue, but when they built a bigger church, so that's Morningstar on Winters Lane too. It turned into this, I don’t know, I guess they’re Hispanic or something.


HD: It’s a new denomination.


PK: And then there was another church on the old Melvin Ave., and then later, if you go down old Frederick Rd and then you make a left on Suter Road. Go straight on back, there’s a church back there.


HD: Yeah now, yes.


PK: Yeah, and we all like intermingle. We did different things together like, Easter time we would combine and do different services together. So music was like a big deal. Music is a big deal.


HD: It still is.


PK: Not just in the Catonsville churches but all of the African American Churches. Music is a big deal, you know, because it’s good. It makes you feel good.


HD: And for the Junior Choir, it was made up of all ages. It wasn’t just—It was really any age, but they all sang together, and we have pictures of that. There’s a lot of things in the Torsell museum.


PK: We used to have the Elks Band. You’ve heard of the Elks Club—they used to have a band and what they did was, besides going different places to march, we used to have a parade called Organization Day, and when Organization Day came, they invited all these bands from all the communities—Towson, you know all the Elks Places—Because I used to march in the band and so that was a big deal because at that activity, they brought in different bands that played. A lot of music with that. It's a day when you get together once a year in the community, in the Catonsville community, and you just have fun. You have games, you have music, you have talent. Families come together. You know there’s no fighting, except for one family [laughs]. But most of the time we were pretty good, as everybody being together and just having fun and it was just a good day. I think everybody looked forward to that.

[image: Greenwood Electric Park ad, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 June 1922]

[image: Greenwood Electric Park ad, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 June 1922]

[image: Greenwood Electric Park advertisement, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 July 1910]

Organization Day was an annual tradition that included musical performances and a parade, often led by the Elks band. A sense of the centrality of music to life in the tight-knit and proudly self-sufficient Winters Lane community is perhaps best conveyed by two of its long-time residents, sisters Phyllis Randall King and Harriet Randall Dunlap. Their story of music in the community is inextricably interwoven with their experience of Catonsville as a segregated community.

PK: There was a parade. We marched down Winters Lane, down to Frederick Road, come on down past M&T Bank. Make a left on Ingleside, because the white people loved it when we came. I mean they were all—it was something everybody looked forward to, even though we didn’t intermingle like that, you could tell everybody just enjoyed it.


HD: They’d also set their chairs out the day before [at the 4th of July Parade].


PK: No, longer than the day before, a month before! [laughs].


HD: You can see the chairs, they’re holding their spot, so they won’t miss it.


PK: Well, not many African Americans [cames to the Fourth of July Parades]. We went down there, the Winters Lane people, years ago. I don’t know how it is now. We don’t go down there because there was just too much going on. But the Winters Lane people used to come down there and migrate in front of 828 [Bar on Frederick Road]. We used to call it 828, what's that called?


HD: It was 828!


PK: It was the bar—828. Because Black people could not go in there.


HD: No we couldn’t.


PK: You could get liquor from the back door. Matter of fact, when I went down there, we went there to eat maybe four years ago, I told the lady, I says, Oh, we couldn’t come in here years ago. She says, Well you can now.


HD: We were not allowed.


PK: Anyway that’s where we used to migrate, because the Elks Band also marched in that parade. See, Black people would come in for a purpose. There were Black bands that we knew in that parade. Otherwise I don’t think we’d be down there, because right now I don’t think as many African Americans go down there. Because I don’t think there’s anything to draw us there.


HD: True.


PK: You know what I mean? So to us in wasn’t of interest—to us. So we’d just stay and have cookouts at our own places.


HD: And they had—most of the drug stores were there, so we had to go there.


PK: That’s another story.

HD: To get our prescriptions. And they had, what? Shoe repair places.


PK: Mm-hm.


HD: You know, any places that we needed. But if we had our own, we didn’t go to theirs.


PK: We had everything that we needed in our community. There used to be Woodland House, they used to call that The Gardens? What was that called? Across from the Legion, before Morning Star [Church] got there. There was a place there—


HK: Casino Gardens!


PK: Casino Gardens, that’s what it was. They used to have dances there all the time. And that was fun.


HD: But we had our own—it was just our way, you know, African Americans’ way of entertaining themselves.


PK: The only white people we saw were white policemen. Let’s get to that point. Because the policemen were friendly. I mean they came in the Black community in Baltimore County. Howard County is another story. In Baltimore County, they were friendly with the African Americans. I mean everybody just mingled in, like it was just one big happy family. We miss that, because I don’t know if they’re trained like that now, the policemen.


HD: Well then the other thing, there were no Black persons, no African Americans [police].


PK: Just one, John. Remember John?


HD: Oh, OK, but it took a long time before he got to be.


PK: And then we had another called Horsey. There was really two. He was a big guy. We called him Horsey. The other guy’s name was John. But he lived in the community, John did. That's a big difference, too.

Parades and Segregation

PK: OK, now our ministers had what’s called The Minister Alliance.


HD: Right.


PK: Ministers we used to have used to always go to the Minister Alliance meetings. So therefore we were visiting some of the white churches. And some white people were visiting ours. Like sprinkled in, not like not like a whole crowd.


HD: They came for meetings. So that the ministerium—ours was interracial. Most of the ministers in the area participated.


PK: Our church was really into it. Not this one, who just left [Rev. Howard C. Wright]. He didn’t do it, which was really sad, because we missed that.


HD: And before that there was a Reverend Donald Allen.


PK: Oh, he was good. He played the organ and everything, led practices. And played with the choirs.


HD: We sang in choirs, both of us. Well, I was—were you old enough to be in the Junior Choir?


PK: I wasn’t with you, you were too old!


HD: [Laughs] True, but we sang—


PK: I was in the other youth choir. The younger group.


HD: My sister Vivian was in there, because our picture’s there.


PK: I don’t think Vivian was in there, just you and me.


HD: OK. Well, there was a choir, there was no preference as far as age. If you could sing, you could be in the youth choir. That was the only—that was the way it was. So you’re gonna see old men, and people who were like babies halfway on their chairs, and that’s the way it was.


PK: And that’s how the churches were in the community. I mean you had male choruses, and youth choirs, and just regular choirs, senior choirs. And then people started coming away from those names, and started calling them something else.


HD: But we even had a band in our church, the musicians—


PK: Mr. Sam Torsell, he was the drum major for the Elks. So we had the best people.


HD: But we did!


PK: Ida Torsell was our musician, but Sam Torsell was the head of the Elks band. He was good! One of the things that the Catonsville Presbyterian Church does—they are very interactive with our church—they come without with the outreach program. They give us things—they are the ones when we had the hundredth anniversary in Catonsville. They invited all the churches. There were Jewish people, Muslims.


HD: Everything!


PK: Everything was in there. And we sang with their choir. They had a combination choir, and that was very impressive. I don’t know if anyone on our community is in Catonsville Presbyterian Church. I know some of the people because I taught at Catonsville Middle, so some of the parents, and I was on PTA at Catonsville High. So some of the parents there, their kids went to school with my son. So therefore I know some of them. And they were very friendly.


HD: And then we met. We had meetings, and the meetings were always interracial. And sometimes it wasn’t. The meetings were at the Presbyterian Church. Well, this is lately.


PK: You know who else is good? Let's see, I said Catonsville Presbyterian. Catonsville United Methodist Church is outstanding.


HD: Yeah, they were very nice.


PK: They let us use that place for anything—anniversaries. We had our fifth-grade graduation there for the Catonsville Middle. They’re very community oriented, no matter what race you are. But Salem Lutheran was good too. When I was in school, we had interracial meetings with the high school kids. So you know it’s not just one of them. I guess we just, everybody just chose to stay wherever they were—unless time came for us to kneel. Mt. Gilboa [in Oella] —that’s one of the old churches.


HD: We went there. We would participate in programs there.


PK: We weren’t’ members there, but we knew people who were there. I think they did have a choir.


HD: I can’t think of a church that didn’t have a choir.


PK: They’ve remodeled. We went in there to sing recently, our sorority. And I was like, surprised—I said, Oh my God what a big difference from when we used to come there. Because when we used to come there it was kind of small, and you’d go up these steps, up to that little small area—


HD: It was a small church.


PK: Now it’s laid out. It’s nice. They still have the small basement, because they probably can’t do anything with. But it’s nice, upstairs is nice. I sing with Delta Sigma Theta sorority, one of the best sororities around, all over the world [both laughing]. 1987 is when I went in. We used to sing everywhere. Matter of fact, we have a chorale, we have one now in our chapter. It’s based in Baltimore County, whoever wants to be a part of that. Steppin’ too. And oh my goodness, we had music teachers. Ms. Ida [Torsell], she was a jewel.


HD: She was for the church.


PK: They were musically inclined, she and her husband, Sam. We had Donald Allen, who played the instruments, and the organ—he played everything. And then we had Carol Hayes—Carol J. Hayes, who was an outstanding musician. She was from Pennsylvania, but when she married her husband, they lived in Catonsville. And then we also had—we had so many musicians. We had Shirley Hughes, who was a musician.


HD: Right.


PK: We had Henderson, Mr. Henderson, and his wife Rebecca, and I forgot what his first name. Mr. and Mrs. Henderson. And who was the one dressed flashy? We had him. The flashy piano player we had.


HD: I don’t know. So many people.


PK: And then we had Janice.


HD: Oh, right.


PK: What’s Janice’s last name? Janice Forbes.


HD: Oh Forbes. Right, it was Forbes.


PK: And Shirley—


HD: Myers. No not Myers.


PK: You should know her, from the AME Church. They were outstanding musicians.


HD: From Middle River?


PK: Yeah. Matter of fact, we had outstanding musicians in all these churches. Because, you know, years ago, people had a drive, and they were competent, really competent in their fields. So all the churches had outstanding musicians, not just our church.


HD: Because music was very important.


PK: And they had the drums and the piano and the guitars and the horns and violins. They had everything in the churches.


HD: What was that special band that Mr. Torsell had?


PK: That was just Elks. But most of our musical things were at the churches, unless we stepped outside of it and did the Organization Day, or we had the Gardens, Casino Gardens, we did things, or at the Oddfellows Hall. You [Harriett] had your dances there. You see I’m of a different generation. Our dances were at Banneker.


HD: [Laughs]


PK: All our entertainment was in there.


HD: They had weddings, everything. Because my wedding was there at Oddfellows Hall.


PK: That’s where the Black people went. It was their community.


HD: Then on Saturdays, well we had movies. Because well, Black people weren’t allowed to go to the one theater that we had on Frederick Road.


PK: Yeah.


HD: So we had our own. And that’s where I saw all the westerns. And we learned to love them. And any other kind of entertainment, well we already said weddings, but any other kind of entertainment went right on there.


PK: We had talent shows.


HD: And that building is still there.


PK: We had talent shows there and then in the churches.


HD: Right.


PK: And in the community, everywhere. We were self-sufficient, as they say. But music was a big part for the African Americans, period. Big part, big part. The soloists came out...


HD: Any other kind of music, or entertainment centers, were whites only.


PK: Bill’s [House of Music] didn’t used to be so friendly with Black people. We bought the guitar from the music store down by the M&T [Appalacian Bluegrass Shoppe], on the corner, they’re real friendly. We never used to go in Bill’s, because Bill’s was kind of like, kinda cool.


HD: Kinda cool.


PK: They didn’t really show us that they wanted us in there. But then I went there, what was it, like six months ago? And the women were very friendly. Things are different now.


HD: Well, money makes a difference, you know.


PK: We also had dancers, like professional dancers. Like we had Eva, who was a professional dancer.


HD: Oh yeah, we had that at church too.


PK: And then we had other people in the other churches who were professional dancers, so we just had everything we needed.


HD: What was the name of that latest male musician, because he sent a message to us. After Rev. Wright left.


PK: Baker.


HD: He was a good musician.


PK: Luther Baker.


HD: And he invited us to other churches. We were invited to other churches through him.


PK: He’s a guy we hired to come and play. Anybody else that would know about music, let me think, well, the Bostons. That family was all musically inclined. There’s some in Grace church. The Page family, they’re Morning Star Baptist. Each family was identified with a church. I think most of them have moved out of the area. I think like Miss Brooks used to be a teacher, she died. Her sister, she died. They [the Page family] used to also have the ice cream shop.


HD: The ice cream shop!


PK: Ice cream cones were five cents.


HD: It was a big deal! [laughs]


PK: All different flavors. Everybody used to run from school to go to their ice cream shop. Everything was mostly on Winters Lane. Where Winters Lane and Edmondson Avenue goes, you had that Dave Shockey’s store there.


HD: He was a Jewish man. And then the Black, African American store was across the street.


PK: Dave Shockey, everybody knows him.


HD: We’ve got his picture—no, his son’s picture in the museum.


PK: Yeah we got that. Very nice to people.


HD: He was nice.


PK: Oh my god.


HD: He looked out for us.


PK: Although he did watch us, we could see him watching us [laughs].


HD: [laughs] He let us charge stuff. I know because it was ten of us, ten children. Course, money was a problem. So he would, seriously, he would allow them to buy stuff on credit. You had to pay it like the end of the week or the end of the month or something.


PK: Some of the ministers, I hate to say this, I don’t think some of the ministers can relate to the young people. So therefore, young people didn’t feel they wanted to be at a certain place, so they moved on to these churches—


HD: Big churches.


PK: Like Rev. Thomas’s church


HD: In the city.


PK: These young people are looking for something, and I don’t blame them. You gotta have these young people coming in. When we were coming up, things were different. Because people made sure the young people were active, and engaged, you know and activities, and just did everything with us. Today I don't think—now I'm not saying all the AME ministers—but I don't know how many of them are really geared to keeping their kids. I know the one in DC, the big church over there near DC is. The digital age is some of it, but I think the parents have not done such a good job with these kids. Because, see, our parents made us go to church.


HD: Yeah we went all day.


PK: These parents today are too busy being kids themselves. They’re not raising these kids like they need to be raised.


HD: See, we stayed in church all day. I was in there for Sunday school. The first thing you did—


PK: You eat your breakfast, dressed pretty.


HD: Oh yeah it was a big deal. You’d put on your finest. And you stayed in church. You had church service.


PK: Church league—like. you were in church all day.


HD: I was in church all day. Regular church services, Sunday school, Bible study, all of that. They had something called A.C.E. League. African Christian Endeavor. League. And at night they had other programs, including the Boy Scouts, and the Girl Scouts. So we spent the whole day in church and didn’t mind it. We were there all, day, long. And we were of all different ages. So it was enjoyable. And it was all kinds of activities. And we went on trips.


PK: Vacation Bible school—


HD: And we enjoyed it. I guess that’s the most important thing.


PK: The other thing they used to have what was called May Day. And May Day is where different schools—


HD: Right, came—


PK: —came to whichever school is having it, and different bands came in and we shared musicians. That's the other thing, the musicians were shared from school to school. Like Mr. Irvine was our band leader.


HD: Yeah, he had a band right here.


PK: So it didn't matter where they were located, they would travel. But that was a real good day, music wise, because you had all the programs and all people doing their little activities and things like that. There are a lot of good things in this community.


HD: —That we grew up with. It helped us a lot.

Music and Church Life, Black and White

Music and Church Life, Black and White

Music and Church Life, Black and White

[note: except where otherwise noted, photos are from Louis Diggs and Linda D. Stone, It All Started on Winters Lane, Upton, 1995; permission not yet obtained]

The Winters Lane community, once known as Harristown, with roots dating to the late 1860’s when it was founded by freed formerly enslaved people, is a historic Black community in Catonsville. While Nelson Knode’s Music Center and the Lurman Woodland Theater were in their infancies, A 1961 article in the Baltimore African American describe Winters Lane this way:

"In the Catonsville Development, just two miles from Baltimore’s Western City limits, sprawls the near perfect example of suburban living, homeownership, and community spirit. There is no undertaker here and but one physician, since citizens are interested in living."

A major part of this “living” was the community’s robust music culture, centered around the multiple churches and community and fraternal organizations, including Elks, Oddfellows, and Freemasons lodges. If anything, the portrait that emerges is of a community even more centered around music than the white community.

[image: Samuel Torsell]

[image: Greenwood Electric Park advertisement, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 July 1910]

[image: Greenwood Electric Park ad, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 June 1922]

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