Courtney Speed points out the Union Baptist Church in Turner Station from the backseat of an SUV. Her friend, Miss Kitty, stops to chat. When a car horn blows, Speed says, "They must not be from here. We don't blow our horns in Turner Station."
And she's in a position to know. It would be hard to find anyone more invested in Turner Station and its history than Speed, a cosmetologist and community leader. Speed left East Baltimore in the 1960s when she married John Emmitt Speed Jr., who introduced her to the historically African-American neighborhood at the tip of Dundalk in Baltimore County and to one of its main gathering spots, Speed's Barber and Beauty at 201 Main St. According to Speed, her husband, who had owned the barbershop since the 1940s, "liked to refer to himself as a tonsorialist," an old-world word for barber. Complete with Art Deco-style mirrors, wooden bureaus, and those big, old-fashioned barber chairs, Speed's is partitioned into two sides: the barbershop for men and the beauty salon for women.
In the late 19th century, Turner Station developed along with the Sparrows Point Steel Mill as a place where African-Americans, including a large number who worked at the mill and other nearby plants, could find a home during segregation. Speed's often vibrated with gossip from the mill, the closing of which two years ago was devastating for the community. Speed, who has now run the beauty side of the business for over half a century, says that the shop was "an information center, an education center for younger men who worked there," doing things like shining shoes, "and it was last, but not least, a grooming center."
But it was not all work. "I know a lot of people think that women talk a lot, but oh my goodness, you should hear the buzzing that went on in the barbershop. It was not the Days of Our Lives, you know, it was the days of their lives."
After her husband died in 1978, Speed acquired a small storefront next to the barbershop and named it the Thomas and Martha Allmond Economic Development Center, after the couple who gave her the space and once lived above it. The store features display cases with bowls of candy, wooden shelving offering condiments and detergents, and some local newspapers, but the economic-development center also trains young people, as well as adults with special needs, on how to run a business, and it serves as an incubator for the Henrietta Lacks Museum. Lacks' cells, which were taken by Hopkins doctors in the 1950s while she was being treated for cervical cancer, have been used for medical research all around the world.
Speed first heard about Lacks in the mid-1990s, when a BBC film crew visited her shop. Since then, Speed has made it a priority to educate others about Lacks and she founded the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, which placed a plaque on the New Pittsburg Avenue house where Lacks had once lived.
As Speed stands looking at the plaque, a group of children ride by on a bicycle. One yells, "Why you looking at that plaque?" A few moments later, Speed asks the little girl who lives next door if she knows about Lacks. She does not. Speed gently suggests that the girl ask her mother, but she believes that the entire community of Turner Station should be recognized as a "living museum" so that visitors and "tourists from other countries" might come to learn not only about Lacks, but also about other famous residents such as NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam; Kevin Clash, who is known as the voice of Sesame Street's Elmo; as well as the resident descendants of the first Turner Station settlers, or "pioneers," as Speed calls them.
"This community was very tight-knit; money would turn over eight times before leaving it," Speed says. She feels that this strong sense of community, as well as its financial self-sufficiency, began to be eroded during integration. She points out that at that time, children were bused out of the community for school and "businesses were failing to be passed on to younger generations." And although seven of the original nine churches of various denominations are still in operation, she feels that religion used to play a stronger role in bonding neighbors and families alike. But now she and other community members are most worried about developers slowly taking over this waterfront neighborhood.
Speed would love to see Turner Station remain the utopian community she recalls from its heyday. "I found it to be the ideal place to raise a family because of the faith of the community and the way it had been set up financially," she says. "They would always have celebrations where you could have food and fun. So those five 'F' words are the things that I want to preserve: faith, family, finance, food, and fun."