Baltimore business icon, Frazier Brice. (Family Photo)
Frazier Brice is the epitome of the American ethos that hard work can lift anyone from rags to riches. And, since his death on Jan. 20 from congestive heart failure, people are honoring the man who transformed himself from a Southern sharecropper to a Baltimore business icon.
“My dad’s work here (on this Earth) was well done, especially since he came from such humble beginnings,” said Rhonda Jones, his daughter. “We’re very proud of all he accomplished.”
Brice was born Feb. 2, 1926, the second of eight children to James and Elizabeth Brice. The family earned their living as sharecroppers in Chester, S.C., and Brice—like many other Black youth in the South at the time—had to halt his grade school education to work the farmland with his brothers to support the family.
At 19, he was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned to the 655th Ordnance Ammunition Company while stationed in Bamberg, Germany. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
In the late ‘40s, Brice moved to Baltimore, where he met and married Lorna Glascoe on June 29, 1957. The couple had six children: Helen, Eric (now deceased), Rhonda, David, Dennard and Gerard.
Loved ones and others said Brice was a man driven by the need to care for his family.
“My dad was a tremendous and unfailing provider for my mother and his children. He worked night and day to ensure life was comfortable for us,” Jones told the AFRO. “He was a man of few words but when it came to his family, he loved unconditionally.”
When he moved to Charm City, Brice worked at the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Sparrows Point and for the Baltimore Brick Co., but, within a few years, his entrepreneurial spirit came forth.
“There were several men who came up from the South and worked at Bethlehem Steel, but my father was one of the few who broke out and established his own businesses,” said Shelton, the elder daughter. “He was not an educated man. He did not belong to the fraternities. But, he made life work.”
Beginning in the early 1950s, Frazier owned and operated a gas and auto service station on Orleans and Eden streets, a shoe shine parlor on Caroline Street, a satellite dry cleaners on Caroline Street and a liquor and a packaged goods store on the corner of Washington and Federal streets that was a mainstay in East Baltimore’s Black community.
“Frazier encouraged people to invest in their community in the ‘70s before it was fashionable,” said AFRO society columnist Valerie Fraling. And that investment often began at home, she added. “He derived pleasure in being able to employ family and friends.”
Shelton said her father helped his siblings when they moved North, often employing them in his businesses. And, his generosity often extended to the community.
“My father could be a hard-nosed man. He was a businessman so he was about the bottom line and about making money for his family,” she said. “But I also saw him interact with people and give in to their small needs (such as making small loans). And people looked up to him because he was willing to provide that kind of support.”
In 1970, Brice purchased the old Hilltop Diner on Reisterstown Road and renamed it Brice’s Hilltop Inn, and the nightclub and soul food restaurant quickly became established as one of the premier attractions in Baltimore’s entertainment landscape, where people could hear live music from the likes of The Platters, Ruby Glover and The Mickey Fields Trio.
“When Frazier bought the old Hilltop Diner, he brought a new level of entertainment uptown,” Fraling recalled. “He employed local musicians like the Carlos Johnson Trio and brought in high-end entertainers to perform for his sophisticated clientele. People would get dressed up in their finest when they came to Brice’s Hilltop – the ladies in jewels and furs and the men in suits and, on occasion, in tuxedos.
“It was a place for dinner and live entertainment unlike anything in the community,” Fraling added. “The entertainers would interact with the patrons…. I remember how shocked I was when Sir Walter Jackson sat down at our table.”
In later years, Brice encouraged local radio personalities like Randy Dennis and Tim Watts to host BestFest, a weekly forum to showcase local talent. Baltimore-bred R&B superstar Toni Braxton actually launched her career when she won the local talent show.
Brice sold the restaurant and nightclub in 1988 and retired.
As he grew older, Brice turned to the game of golf for recreation after the family moved to West Baltimore in a home near the Forest Park Golf Course.
“At first he couldn’t understand how grown men could walk around hitting a little white ball all day long. But then he began to establish friendships with people at the club and he learned about the game and before you know it he was hooked,” Jones, his daughter, said with a laugh.
Brice’s love of golf, family and his entrepreneurial spirit culminated in the Brice Open, a local golf tournament in which local business owners were invited to participate and generate scholarships for youths interested in playing the game of golf. In the 15 years of the tournament, Brice would often invite players back to his house for food and fellowship.
His daughters said Brice passed on legacies to his children and grandchildren, including an entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of independence and unwavering devotion to family and friends.
“He was very loyal,” Jones said. “I’ve heard friends of my father say, ‘If you had a friend in Frasier Brice, you had a friend for life.’
“We’ve come to realize—and, I guess, we’ve always known—our dad touched a lot of people in many ways,” she added. “And we’re thankful to all who, in turn, enriched his life.”