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Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue during the time of the Chitlin Circuit, 1940’s through the late 1960’s, was more than just showbiz. In addition to Sess’ on Division Street and Sampson’s on Fayette Street, nightclubs, eateries and other places sprung up on the Avenue, creating more venues for Baltimoreans of color to hang out and have fun.

“Everybody that comes in the city, comes to Pennsylvania Avenue,” said 91-year-old Baltimore resident Larry Washington. That was the main drag for Blacks, starting from Preston and Pennsylvania Ave.”

Washington was there as a teenager. He remembers not just vaudeville performances and big-name acts – it was a major shopping hub with bars, eateries and clothing stores.

He said he got all of his clothes on the Avenue and would shop for his lady friends there, too. He says fashions then didn’t differ too much from what young people wear today.

“We used to wear ties every day. Everything you see these kids now, we had that. Only thing they put more color to it. We never wore no pants hanging down,” he said, chuckling. “Every style they have…they wore all of it down there.”

He is also a member of the Arch social club.

“I been around this club for 70 years,” Washington said.

The club, which was founded in1905, didn’t start out on Pennsylvania avenue. Members moved their headquarters there from Saratoga street in 1972. But, almost from its very beginnings it cemented its place as an important part of the landscape created by the Chitlin Circuit. The club was a “who’s who” for forward-thinking men in Baltimore. And connections brought about by influential members meant the club had access to excellent music and liquor. Washington said a lot of the musicians who performed on the avenue, like Cab Calloway, would stop by the club to perform.

Baltimore County resident Angela Matthews is much younger than Washington, but she also got an up-close view of life on the avenue – working at her aunt’s sandwich shop.

“It was at 1437 Pennsylvania Avenue. Right up the street from the Carver Theater. A block down from the Royal.”

Matthews said that everyone knew her aunt, Theresa Johnson Butler, as “Mama Theresa.”

“She was the joy of Pennsylvania avenue. Everybody loved Mama Theresa.” She says her aunt was famous for her bologna sandwich.

Matthews worked at the store through junior high and high school.  She said the shop wasn’t a sit-down eatery; it was more of a carryout. Still, lots of folks would stop in. She said that they served everyone from performers, to theater employees and nightclub patrons.

Often, the entertainers would send for the sandwiches.  But every now and then, she said, one would venture in. She even spotted James Brown there.

She said that the shop bustled with activity. It was right across from the Bamboo lounge, so they’d see those patrons. It was next door to a filling station owned by a Black man named Jim Dorsey, who held a lot of sway with Black Baltimore politics – so a lot of politicians would swing by, too.

“Just everybody in the neighborhood. They would come over and eat sandwiches.”

It wasn’t just her aunt’s shop either. She described the whole area as place full of life and fun.

“They would have a Halloween parade and all kind of characters would come out. Pennsylvania Avenue was just like Times Square.”