Little Cara Erskine stood in the cold gray damp of a November day nearly 68 years ago, up on a temporary stage of slight elevation, before a gathering of grownups, most of them in overcoats and hats.
The mayor of Baltimore, Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr., leaned over to present her with a mock key to the new park and playground they had come to dedicate. The “key” was almost half her size.
Not quite 5, she seemed frightened, maybe even a little bewildered, by all the hoopla and solemnity and talk of her grandfather, Ambrose J. Kennedy, the well-known former city councilman, state senator, U.S. congressman and Democratic chieftain who hailed from this Johnston Square neighborhood in East Baltimore’s Tenth Ward, once an Irish stronghold.
Kennedy had died the year before, and the assembled were there, in the very heart of the Tenth Ward, to name this new park for him, the son of Irish immigrants who had risen to become a leading player on the city and state political stage and who helped shape public policy for much of the first half of the 20th Century.
All these years later, Erskine is now semiretired, but she still has the “key,” and a photo hangs on her wall to commemorate the day, Nov. 25, 1951.
If she thought of it at all in the interim, M. Cara Erskine probably expected that her grandfather’s name would remain there on the park, on the west side of what is now Harford Avenue between Chase and Eager streets, forever.
Little did she or other family members know that last year, the Baltimore City Council had unanimously voted to erase any reference to Kennedy from the 1.75-acre site and rename it the Henrietta Lacks Educational Park, as a long-awaited and much-needed $1.3 million overhaul was completed.
In fact, the Kennedy family still had no idea of the name change until told by a reporter after the rededication Saturday a week ago.
“It’s a wonder they didn’t try to find out who he was and notify somebody in the family that this was going to take place,” said Erskine, who lives in Timonium.
“If that’s what they want to do, I guess it’s fine, but I think they should have some kind of notification that it was ‘formerly known as’ and a little blip about my grandfather,” she said. “That’d be nice.”
Under a blazing midday sun July 20, the city officially, and with some ceremony, dedicated the park to Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman who died of cancer at 31, Oct. 4, 1951, in anonymity as a patient at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. She died two months before the park was dedicated to Kennedy – and a little more than a year after the former congressman had died suddenly, on Aug. 29, 1950, at 57, still near the top of his game.
It was an odd juxtaposition: As the world has moved on, the memory of Kennedy to many has become fuzzy, obscured by the passing of time itself, and yet, the name of Henrietta Lacks has emerged from the same continuum to become familiar to many worldwide as an unwitting cell donor, the subject of a 2010 book and an HBO film with Oprah Winfrey.
It was as if his star set as hers was only beginning to ascend.
‘Ain’t nobody know who Ambrose Kennedy was’
City Councilman Robert R. Stokes Sr., a Democrat who represents East Baltimore’s District 12, which includes the park, said he introduced the legislation to change the name of the playground and pool “to honor Henrietta Lacks.”
Stokes, 61, was born eight years after Kennedy died, seven years after the dedication, and had no idea who he was.
“Actually, before I even decided to change it, I looked up Ambrose Kennedy,” Stokes said. “I mean, he was, I think, a congressman…. And you know a lot of times in our community, we don’t know our own history. We don’t know the history of who Ambrose Kennedy was.”
By contrast, though not immediately recognizable to everyone, Henrietta Lacks achieved notoriety in recent years when it was revealed that the “immortal cells” in medical research known as “HeLa cells” were actually taken from her, without her knowledge or permission, when she was treated at Hopkins in 1951.
Lacks, the mother of five children, lived in Turner Station in Eastern Baltimore County, where she and her husband had moved from Virginia, after he found work at Bethlehem Steel. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Hopkins, where she was treated, but ultimately died.
Unlike other cells, these “HeLa” cells – an abbreviation using the first two letters of her first and last name, in an effort to mask her identity – were discovered to reproduce quickly without dying. Since that discovery, they have been used extensively in biomedical research – including by Dr. Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine – and for commercial purposes.
There remains “some little friction” between the Lacks family and the medical research community, particularly Hopkins, Stokes said, by way of explanation.
East Baltimore Medical Center, a Johns Hopkins Hospital clinic, is directly across Harford Avenue from the playground and pool, and he thought changing the name to honor Henrietta Lacks would somehow “bring some positive dialogue” between her family and the institution.
“We just trying to bridge that gap between what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family and Hopkins,” Stokes said.
How that divide might be bridged by the name change was not immediately clear, though a doctor from Hopkins and members of the Lacks family did speak to the crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony.
Asked if anyone raised a question about Ambrose Kennedy or changing the park name during the yearlong runup to the official rededication, Stokes said he “didn’t hear about no change from nobody.”
“Actually, when I introduced it in the Council – the whole Council voted – we had a hearing, and who showed up was the people who supported calling it Henrietta Lacks,” Stokes said. “The hearing was public. Anybody come to speak had the opportunity.”
The councilman paused.
“Ain’t nobody know who Ambrose Kennedy was,” he said. “I don’t know if his family’s still living, you know.”
In fact, 13 of Kennedy’s grandchildren are alive, 10 of whom reside in the Baltimore area, a cursory check of newspaper clippings show.
“A good portion of our grandfather’s family is still around,” said one of the congressman’s grandsons, Lee McCardell Kennedy, who lives in Sparks in Baltimore County. “Most of us still live in the Baltimore metropolitan area and could easily have been found, I would think, if anyone had done a Google search.”
One of the former congressman’s sons, Ambrose J. Kennedy Jr., was a Baltimore city councilman for two terms, from 1947 to 1955, representing the old 2nd District, some of which falls in the Stokes district now. He lost a bid for City Council president in the 1955 Democratic primary and then worked as an insurance broker before retiring. He died in 1989.
“Obviously we’re very, very disappointed in the news that they’re going to change the name of our grandfather’s park,” said Lee Kennedy, an upper school history teacher at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland.
“And I might add … our feelings have nothing to do with, and don’t want to distract from, Henrietta Lacks and the contributions that her … HeLa cells have made to medical research,” said Kennedy, who is named for his maternal grandfather, Lee McCardell, the late Sunpapers reporter, war correspondent and editor.
“There just appears to us to be no institutional memory about what the Tenth Ward was, about what Ambrose Kennedy represented,” he said.
Two powerful institutions
The Kennedy playground was constructed in the bed of what had been Wilcox Street, across E. Eager Street and a half-block down from St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church at Valley Street, and around the corner, a block from the home of the former Hendricks Democratic Club of the Tenth Ward, at Valley Street and E. Biddle Street.
It remains unclear which of those two institutions carried more political weight back in the day – St. John’s or the Hendricks Club – as they frequently seemed almost synonymous and often were mentioned in the same breath. At the time, it was said more politics were transacted on the steps of St. John’s on a Sunday morning than at City Hall the rest of the week.
Mayor D’Alesandro, who had served in Congress with Kennedy, was among a host of the city’s elected hierarchy – Democrats all – present for the dedication and presided over the honors.
U.S. Sen. Herbert R. O’Conor, Kennedy’s lifelong friend and favorite son of the Tenth Ward, delivered a eulogy, recalling when he and the late congressman were boys, “and played ball on the cobblestones of Homewood Avenue,” nearby.
O’Conor, who had been Baltimore state’s attorney and both Maryland’s attorney general and governor, had honchoed Kennedy’s first congressional campaign for the then-4th District seat, in 1932. Later, as governor, O’Conor appointed Kennedy to the Maryland Unemployment Compensation Board in 1940, after he lost reelection to his fifth full term in Congress.
In the beginning of his career, Kennedy served on the Maryland Parole Commission, appointed by former Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, a Democrat.
Also addressing the crowd that gray Sunday was James C. Anderson, D’Alesandro’s chairman of the city Recreation and Parks Board, the comptroller of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, and an old Tenth Ward hand. Then-Councilman Kennedy spoke for the family.
The playground cost $209,000 to construct in 1951 and was divided into three areas, each surrounded by chain-link fence. One section contained an asphalt basketball court with two hoops; the second, a playground with sliding boards that emptied into sand boxes, swing-sets, a bank of see-saws and climbing bars; and the third, a playing field.
There were plenty of children in the neighborhood to put the equipment to the test.
The Latrobe Homes public housing complex, with some 700 units, lay on the south side of E. Eager St., where it still is. It had been opened for a decade when the Ambrose J. Kennedy Playground was dedicated in 1951, though it would be another four years before the all-white public housing units there were integrated.
The swimming pool was not built at the playground until years later, opening July 31, 1974. By then, the demographics of the area had changed dramatically, with the Irish and others having moved out, farther north and northeast, some into the suburbs, and the district turning overwhelmingly African American.
St. John’s, which was built and opened in 1856 for the city’s then-burgeoning Irish population on the East Side, was closed in 1966 by the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese as the number of parishioners dwindled to a handful. The building now houses the Sweet Prospect Baptist Church.
Dating back to at least 2012, the playground had fallen into horrible disrepair, and the city seemed to do little to remedy the problem, no matter who complained or how loudly, according to news accounts at the time in the Baltimore Brew.
Instead, volunteers from the Re-Build Johnston Square Community Organization, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and The 6th Branch, a group of military veterans, pitched in to clean up the lot by removing the trash and debris, cutting down overgrown grass and weeds, getting rid of dead trees and repainting the basketball courts.
A couple of years ago, Lee Kennedy stopped by the park, introduced himself to a few workers at the pool and explained a little bit about his grandfather.
While there, Kennedy snapped a photograph of what might have been a piece of climb-on playground equipment or a sandbox or even a planter in the shape of a rowboat, painted baby blue, with “Ambrose Kennedy Park” hand-lettered in red on the would-be bow.
The rowboat was surrounded by a sea of fractured asphalt amid green patches of grass and weeds that had broken through over the years, all against the backdrop of a block of sagging row houses and rear yards in varying conditions.
It all seemed emblematic of just how far the neighborhood and its park had been allowed to fall – despite millions of dollars in both public and private money that was being pumped into redevelopment elsewhere in the area, in an effort to stave off the poverty and decay.
Ultimately, the nonprofit Parks & People Foundation was able to cobble together a handful of grants and other money to help pay for the long overdue improvements to the Kennedy Park and struck a deal with the city Department of Recreation & Parks to oversee redesign and construction of the project.
The National Recreation and Parks Association awarded $437,500; the Maryland Department of Natural Resources kicked in $288,500 for a stormwater pond and improvements; the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s Project CORE (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise) ponied up $127,000; and the electric utility BG&E put up $40,000 in lighting as an in-kind contribution.
That money, coupled with another $400,000 from Recreation and Parks’ capital budget, made the $1.3 million in improvements – which included new basketball courts, a splashpad, and construction of permanent bathrooms – a reality, helped in large part by a continued push from the community activists.
Plans for Phase Two of the project include the demolition of the rowhouses on the east side of Valley Street and the westward expansion of the park for another half-block.
City, state and federal officials, along with area leaders and community activists turned out June 22, 2018, for a ribbon cutting at the newly revamped Ambrose J. Kennedy Park, an impressive makeover by just about any measure.
A year later, many of those same representatives and activists, were on hand July 20, as the sun beat down on the small crowd gathered for the official renaming ceremony, attended by members of the Henrietta Lacks family.
The name change, though first introduced by Councilman Stokes in April 2018, just as the park reconstruction was winding down, seemed separate and distinct from the work that was completed and celebrated a year earlier.
Most of what was said at the ceremony touted the great strides the community has made, offered thanks to all the organizations that came together to effect the changes, and praised the importance of the scientific contributions of Henrietta Lacks.
Regina Hammond, president of the Re-Build Johnston Square Community Organization, led off the morning, talking about the enormous changes at the park, as well as the ongoing reinvestment in the neighborhood – rehabbed vacant homes on Homewood Avenue and on E. Biddle Street, a new stadium and dorms to be built at the St. Frances Academy around the corner, and a new 60-unit apartment building going up at Greenmount Avenue and E. Chase Street.
“Stay tuned,” Hammond said. “The future is bright for this community, and I can’t wait to bring you all back, so we can celebrate some more.”
A long list of speakers followed her, including Councilman Stokes, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), City Council President Brandon M. Scott (D), State Sen. Cory V. McCray, a Democrat from East Baltimore’s 45th District, bureaucrats, advocates, a pastor and Lacks family members.
But Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D) from the 45th District, an assistant director of planning for the city, actually seemed to best tie it all together.
“I just wanted to remind people that a name is a very powerful thing,” Smith said. “What you’re called and what you answer to, it matters.
“What’s really important about today is that we’re renaming a place, reclaiming a place, and we’re making a something that people can be proud of, and most importantly we’re extending the proud legacy of Henrietta Lacks,” she said.
All the talk from officialdom, however, did not stop – much less slow down – area children splashing to stay cool in the park’s swimming pool.
Outside, a Baltimore City Recreation and Parks sign reading “Ambrose Kennedy Pool” remained wired onto the Harford Avenue side of the black steel fence surrounding the pool.
The ‘Know-Nothings’ in Baltimore
Understanding the significance of Ambrose Kennedy and what he represented requires an understanding of the history of that section of East Baltimore and how it developed under the political control of the city’s Irish population.
Two generations before Kennedy was born in Baltimore, the Famine Irish started arriving in the city. Some stayed in Locust Point, where the boats dropped them, and some in nearby South Baltimore. Some went to Southwest Baltimore to work on the railroad, and some settled in what were then considered the Northeast suburbs, across the Jones Falls, in the shadow of the Maryland Penitentiary and City Jail — a cluster that would become the Tenth Ward.
Most were laborers, though some found work as hostlers, tending to the swelling demand of the horse trade in and around the stables of a growing city, which by 1850 was the second largest in the United States.
About that time, a nativist political movement began that was rabidly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Formally called the American Party, it was known colloquially as the Know Nothing Party, after the once-secret society’s watchword, “I know nothing.”
Beginning in the mid-1850s, riots on Election Day became commonplace, resurrecting the earlier sobriquet of “Mob Town” for Baltimore. On one side, the Know Nothings would do just about anything to keep all other voters away from the polls; on the other side, the Democrats, particularly the newly arrived Irish Catholics, were seeking to exercise the franchise.
The Irish who then lived in the Eighth Ward – mostly the area that would become the Tenth Ward, when the lines were redrawn in 1898 – had enough. They and the Democrats had suffered a whopping defeat in the Oct. 8, 1856, municipal election, a near citywide melee that left several people dead and dozens more wounded.
They were not going to go down without a full-blown fight in the Nov. 4, 1856, presidential election.
From earlier experience, the Irish knew the police would be no help at the polls, as the Know Nothings had infiltrated those ranks and controlled the department, as well.
On Election Day, the fighting began anew, with volleys of gunfire being unloaded by both groups at each other. The Eighth Ward Democrats had secured their polling place, on Ensor Street near Hillen Street, but in the afternoon were called to Orleans Street near Belair Market to rescue the Sixth Ward Democrats who were under attack from the Know Nothings.
The Irish commandeered a cannon and used it to hold off the Know Nothings, who themselves found a swivel gun to use on the Democrats, each side firing up and down Orleans Street “for several hours,” all afternoon, according to one account. The police finally captured the Eighth Ward cannon, but the Democrats in turn charged the Know Nothings and took over their swivel gun, as darkness fell.
In the end, the American Party’s Millard Fillmore carried Maryland by nearly 8,400 votes – the only state in the union that went for him – entirely because of the Know Nothing vote in Baltimore, where they won 13 of the city’s 20 wards, including one by 2,131 votes.
Elsewhere in the nation, Democrat James Buchanan Jr. prevailed and became the 15th president of the United States. The Republican that year, John C. Fremont, was an also-ran.
Baltimore’s Eighth Ward Democrats stood tall, managing to poll 1,318 more votes than the Know Nothings – three times the next-highest winning margin in the seven wards that went for Buchanan.
Politics aside, the violence at the polls and blood spilled on Election Day in Baltimore – which left untold scores of residents dead, wounded and maimed – drew national attention, with particular focus on the grip of the Know Nothings, and generated calls for reform.
The problems with the city police in the Election Day riots eventually prompted the Maryland General Assembly to vote for the state takeover of the Baltimore department in 1860 – a confusing arrangement that continues to stymie lawmakers today.
Ironically, the Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization, which has been instrumental in leading the fight for area improvements, takes its name from the square-block park that was named in 1878 for City Councilman Robert Johnston, a Democrat from the Eighth Ward.
That block, bordered by E. Biddle Street, Valley Street, E. Chase Street and Homewood Avenue (once known as McKim Street), was almost called “Fairview Square,” Council documents at the Baltimore City Archives show.
It all began when a group of 87 residents, most of them Irishmen from the Eighth Ward, petitioned Mayor George P. Kane and the City Council on Feb. 11, 1878, to purchase a parcel of land known as McKim’s Hill for a public park, the Archives documents show.
Johnston, in turn, had introduced the legislation requiring the city to both purchase the square for $20,000 and name it “Fairview Square.”
For whatever reason, the legislation to purchase the square, and to name it, flew through the City Council – back then, both the First and Second Branches (the upper and lower houses) – in what must have been record time.
When the naming legislation was brought to the floor for a vote, Councilman J. Frank Lewis, a Democrat from the East Side’s 9th Ward, made the motion to amend the ordinance, striking “Fairview” and substituting “Johnston,” for the councilman who had shepherded the measure.
The Council apparently decided to name it Johnston Square “in recognition of the successful efforts of that gentleman in the Council for a ‘breathing spot’ in the Eighth Ward,” The Sun reported the next day.
Mayor Kane was gravely ill, necessitating Councilman Otis Keilholtz, a Democrat from the West Side’s District 13 who was president of the First Branch of the City Council, to step in as acting mayor to deal with city business.
On May 3, 1878, Acting Mayor Keilholtz signed the legislation for $20,000 to be spent to buy the square, and on June 28 – five days after Kane died – he signed the bill naming the square for Johnston.
‘The Gibraltar of Democracy’
Once they arrived in Baltimore in force, the Irish were a power to be reckoned with, particularly in the bare-knuckle era of bossism and political clubhouses, among them the Hendricks Democratic Club.
The Hendricks Club opened in 1886 – seven years before Ambrose Kennedy was born – and closed at the end of 1940, after a storied odyssey. For nearly all of that 54-year run, the clubhouse was located in a rowhouse at Valley and Biddle streets.
Much of the Eighth Ward that had been populated by the Irish became the Tenth Ward just before the turn of the 20th century, when the boundaries of the city’s election districts were reconfigured. The new boundaries, which still exist today, were the rectangle bounded by E. Preston Street, N. Caroline Street, E. Monument Street and The Fallsway.
Thereafter, the Tenth Ward was known, in a rather high-minded and exalted fashion, as “The Gibraltar of Democracy.”
The Hendricks Club was born in the days when U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman, of Howard County, and I. Freeman Rasin, the undisputed citywide boss of Baltimore, reigned supreme in Maryland as “The Ring.”
When Rasin died in 1907, the mantle of citywide boss fell to John J. “Sonny” Mahon, who drew heavily on support from the Hendricks Club.
It was said in those days that on Election Day, the returns from the Tenth Ward precincts would be held back until word came from downtown as to the number of votes needed to put the organization ticket over the top.
Mahon’s sometimes-rival for citywide boss, John S. “Frank” Kelly, also known as “Slot Machine Kelly,” was rooted in West Baltimore’s 18th Ward, but was also a card-carrying Hendricks Club member.
“The Kelly,” as he was also known, and who ultimately succeeded Mahon, is not to be confused with “Greenmount Avenue Kelly,” Joseph F. Kelly, a political operative from the Tenth Ward who labored in the liquor trade, right on through Prohibition, and for a while, took young Ambrose Kennedy under his wing.
Joe Kelly came up under William F. “Bill” O’Conor, the boss of the Tenth Ward and a Mahon lieutenant who was also Herbert R. O’Conor’s uncle. It was Bill O’Conor who helped launch his nephew’s career before dying young in 1919.
Against the backdrop of these political machinations – the playground of b’hoys and muldoons, bosses and bosslets – stood the Hendricks Club, occasionally referred to as the “Tammany Hall of the Tenth Ward.”
There were always different factions within the Democratic Party, and there were some who did not always agree the prevailing wisdom dispensed from on high, but the opposing camp usually “buried the oft-wielded hatchet of war,” to quote The Sun of long ago.
Ambrose Kennedy, an insurance man by trade, had been active in Tenth Ward politics for years, having run unsuccessfully for office as far back as 1916. He finally was appointed to a seat on the City Council in 1922, and the rest is history.
By then, he had become a leader in the Hendricks Club “with a considerable following” according to one newspaper account. Ultimately, he became the club’s chairman of the board.
As chairman, Kennedy presided over the waning days of the club, though he had been prominent, both in the trenches and on the high ground, in the earlier, glory days of the institution.
After Kennedy blessed the club’s closing because of financial difficulties, he and Joseph F. DiDomenico, then a magistrate in Baltimore’s old Traffic Court and a political player himself, started up a successor organization, the Governor O’Conor Democratic Club, Tenth Ward.
The club’s corporate charter stated – tongue in cheek, no doubt – that it was being established “to foster and educate its members in the wisdom and necessity of their participation in the political affairs of the city and state.”
But the O’Conor club, too, was shuttered a dozen years later, two years after Kennedy died.
He was born into what would become East Baltimore’s Tenth Ward and lived there his entire life.
It seems like a simple thing, to change a name. Blink, and what you call a place is suddenly something else.
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever,” Ecclesiastes tells us.
But sometimes there are considerations, backgrounds to understand, histories to ponder.
Ambrose J. Kennedy was an icon of the Tenth Ward, a Baltimore City Councilman, Maryland state senator, U.S. congressman and political animal, an Irishman who presided over what was once, arguably, the most powerful Democratic club in Baltimore.
Mostly, though, he will always be just a grandfather to “little Cara Erskine.”
She still has the “key.” She keeps the photograph of “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro making the mayoral presentation on her wall. (“I’m a big fan of Nancy Pelosi,” Erskine explained, referring to D’Alesandro’s daughter, now speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. “So, I kind of put that up there, because that was her father.”)
She wishes the city had notified the family of the name change, that maybe a plaque or a sign could be erected at the Henrietta Lacks Educational Park saying that this little corner of the Tenth Ward was once known as the Ambrose J. Kennedy Playground and Pool.
She just had no idea till she got an e-mail from a reporter.
“It was sad when I read that from you,” she said.