Telling Baltimore’s Stories: Lawrence Lanahan’s Research in the Archives and His New Book

From left to right Aiden Faust, Lawrence Lanahan, and Angela Rodgers Koukoui

The UB Special Collections & Archives want to congratulate Lawrence Lanahan on his recently published book: The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide.

The Lines Between Us tells the story of inequality in Baltimore throughout the late twentieth century and in the present-day by following two families in the Baltimore region. Mr. Lanahan conducted research for his book using a number of collections in the UB Special Collections & Archives and in other archives in Baltimore.

Mr. Lanahan stopped by the archives yesterday to drop off a copy of his new book! Below, he has answered a few questions about his work and book for this blog post. We hope you enjoy learning more about his research in the archives and remember to check out his book!

Meet Lawrence Lanahan!

Tell us about your background?
I am a freelance reporter and public radio producer who spent his first eight years after college doing education research. I started reporting when I was 30. I have master’s degrees in sociology from American University and in journalism from Columbia University. I just published a book with The New Press called The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide.

What do you primarily study? Where did the idea for your book begin?
I had produced a year-long multimedia series for WYPR about racial inequality and residential segregation. I continued reporting on inequality and fair housing as a freelancer after leaving WYPR in 2013. In early 2015, I realized I had sufficient material for a book about inequality in the Baltimore region. When Freddie Gray died in April 2015, I realized I should structure the book by starting with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and writing up to the present. Civil rights legislation and evolving attitudes failed to break down the lines between us, so I thought that by looking at policy and activism over the past five decades, I could illuminate why so little had changed, and what strategies have been successful in bringing about some change.

I think the book grew out of my dual interests and sociology and journalism. I try to find intersection of biography and history, as C. Wright Mills put it. I’m interested in power and bureaucracy, how institutions interact, and how individuals both organize to institutionalize their prejudices in policy and law and organize to bend those institutions toward justice.

How did your book bring you to the archives?
I took a narrative nonfiction approach in the book. It proceeds chronologically, scene by scene. I needed to know the context of each scene, and I needed to put the reader in the room. Sometimes I just needed to visually describe the room. I was able to do this for a lot of scenes using the Baltimore Regional Studies Archive of the UB Special Collections & Archives.

Did you conduct research anywhere else in Baltimore for your topic?
I also used the Baltimore City Archives, the Jewish Museum’s archives, the Columbia Association’s archives, and the Maryland Historical Society.

What collections did you use here at the UB Special Collections & Archives? How were they useful?
I used the WMAR-TV Collection, the Betty Garman Robinson Papers, and the Citizens Housing and Planning Association Records (CPHA). Online, I used the ACLU’s Thompson v. HUD Records quite extensively.

Thompson v. HUD is a major civil rights case that I used as the centerpiece for the book. Baltimore City public housing tenants and the ACLU of Maryland successfully sued HUD for segregation in public housing. The remedy created thousands of housing opportunities for black public housing residents in prosperous white suburban communities that had traditionally pushed back against any attempts to build low-income housing. The CPHA archives contained tons of documents and memos that laid out the years of organizing that led up to the filing of the lawsuit. The ACLU archives contained much of the evidence. The WMAR archives allowed me to see footage of a 1970 hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that is a pivotal part of the beginning of the book. Betty’s papers helped me write a detailed narrative of a 2000 episode in Northeast Baltimore during which that community fought—then embraced—the placement of about a dozen public housing families.

What was your favorite experience here or what has been your favorite collection that you have worked with here in the archives?
The CPHA archives are pretty rich. I enjoyed just sitting there going through the boxes and reconstructing in detail a period of time and a critical moment in the evolution of fair housing advocacy in our region. And one day, Fatemah Rezaei (an archivist in the UB Special Collections & Archives) and I each grabbed an end of a 16mm reel so we could digitally scan some stills from a 1970 WMAR report on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights meeting. There is a great image in the book of both Homer Favor, a local civil rights legend, and George Collins, an important figure in local journalism and civil rights history. It’s just a scan of the 16mm film, borders and all.

What do archives mean to you and your work?
They helped me bring the scenes in my book to life in great detail. The files were voluminous enough to give me confidence in what I was reporting, especially given that I was able to follow up with people in real life. And if I was able to use archives to tell one story in my book, think how many more important stories about our region are waiting there to be unearthed?

What do you hope people will take away after reading your book?
That anyone in any part of the Baltimore region—or any metropolitan region, for that matter—plays a role in the challenges of the inner city. Our challenges are regional, and so must be the solutions. No one is exempt from that story. No matter where you live, there are souls to care for in the most unfamiliar parts of your region and there are policies that keep us from caring for one another. Those policies reinforce the lines between us, and they were put there in all of our names. Readers should feel the effects of those policies on the characters in my book, and they should see some potential in the work people did to dismantle those lines.

Remember to check out Lawrence Lanahan’s new book, The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide, at your local bookstore or library!

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