In Baltimore, Vivien Thomas faced a city that on the surface was very different from Nashville. Baltimore was more urban, with a faster pace and homes packed more tightly together. Like the Thomases, millions of black families arrived from the South and faced drastically different housing and work conditions. Overcrowding sometimes created public health hazards, including a rate of tuberculosis seven times higher than for white neighborhoods.
But like Nashville, Baltimore had a rigid segregation of black and white residents that could surprise new arrivals expecting more tolerance. Blacks were barred from most stores downtown, and they could only live in three neighborhoods. Countee Cullen, a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, recorded the painful racism of a Baltimore visit in the poem "Incident."
Black Baltimoreans reacted to this enforced separation by creating their own institutions, and building a strong community with a rich professional and cultural life, despite few resources. "You had everything you needed within a small radius," says historian Phillip Merrill. "You had the housing, the education, the medical... we had it all right there."
I went to school when I was six years old. Now I have to frankly tell you, as ridiculous as this may sound, that I did not know that I was black, by definition black or colored. I thought I was going to an African American school because my brother, three years older than me, went to that school. So it didn't faze me that there was a difference, it was just that, 'I'm doing what my brother does.' Whenever I went to the movie I went with the maids who took their children that they worked for and they allowed me to come in. So I didn't know there was a difference in that respect.
I only found out there was a difference when I reached the age of about eleven years old. When my friends who attended the school that I attended, started visiting me where I lived. I went to the movie one day and when I got there the lady in the ticket box said, 'You can't come in because you're colored.' Well, yeah, colored, what does that really mean in terms of going in? So I went home and I asked my mother, who referred the question to my father. And my father said, 'Well, let me explain it to you this way, Dorothy. You see, in Baltimore there are places that colored people go to and there are places that white people go to. And the places that white people go to, colored people are not allowed to go there.'
-- Dorothy Daugherty, Sharp Street Church historian, on her first experience of segregation