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Living in a Pandemic: 100 Years Apart

June 15, 2020
Franklin Lee's family has a rich history in Baltimore City. Generations of educators, photographers, librarians and civil servants lived through many hardships throughout the 1900s, and now Franklin is living through his own.

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in everyone around the globe's hopes for a new decade. For Franklin, it is another way he is connected to Baltimore's history, to his history.

"The Spanish Flu pandemic: the history books say was 1918," said Franklin, who was recruited to serve on the GBMC HealthCare Board of Directors six years ago by Herb Belgrad, a friend and distinguished colleague at Tydings & Rosenberg, where Franklin serves as a civil rights lawyer and partner. "I do know it went on for a couple years, and, according to the CDC, 50 million people lost their lives worldwide. And, of course, they didn't really have the antibiotics that they have nowadays. The medical facilities were just completely overwhelmed, kind of a very dark time ... It's almost exactly 100 years ago … those diseases don't respect any kind of boundaries: political, racial, geographic, anything."
GBMC Board of Directors member, Franklin Lee with his grandson, Sebastian
GBMC Board of Directors member, Franklin Lee with his grandson, Sebastian

Franklin's grandfather, William H. Lee, was one of those 50 million people. Former principal of #103, the Garnet School at 1315 Division Street and 2225 Druid Hill Avenue, William was a well-respected teacher and principal as well as a stern disciplinarian. Teachers sent mischievous students down to Principal Lee's office where he took to "educating them by reciting the Constitution or some other work," Franklin recalled. Thurgood Marshall was one such prankster, sent to see Principal Lee after placing a thumbtack on a teacher's chair.

Franklin recently donated to the GBMC HealthCare Workers Fund in honor of his grandfather as "encouragement, support and a small token of our sincerest gratitude for the unprecedented risks you take daily in the care of our loved ones."

"I never got an opportunity to meet my grandfather as my father was only two years old when his father succumbed to pneumonia caused by the Spanish Flu," the grandfather of two said. "What frontline workers are doing, day in and day out, makes a difference in our lives. It means that today's generation of grandchildren may have an opportunity to grow up knowing their grandparents in ways that I never could."

Franklin is making up for lost time now, learning as much as he can about his family. He recently inherited a handwritten history of his mother's side that dates back to the 1700s. His maternal grandfather was the longstanding Registrar and trustee at Morgan State University. In 1975, he published a book of the first 100 years of the outstanding historically black college and university's history. Franklin's maternal grandmother, herself a teacher and principal, was the younger sister of Everett James Waring, who, in 1885, became the first African American lawyer to practice law in the State of Maryland and to subsequently argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both sides of his family grew up in the Upton neighborhood in West Baltimore, near Pennsylvania Ave., Druid Hill and Division Streets. Franklin himself grew up three blocks north of North Avenue on Whitelock Street in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, tucked between Druid Hill Park and North Avenue. Unbeknownst to them until much later, he and his wife, Ava, actually attended the same junior high school.

When talking about redlining and housing segregation in those days, Franklin said, "All of those neighborhoods, it got to the point where there were actually federal laws that prevented the banks from making mortgage loans in those areas. Because of that, it kind of depressed the property values and then the new owners basically ended up leasing out those houses. You saw this gradual deterioration over time, but that all accelerated with the racial unrest in 1968. I remember seeing smoke billowing up from North Avenue and those riots as a child so it was very, very traumatic for me when the Freddie Gray incident happened, and I saw the very same intersection go up in flames. That was like a flashback, not a pleasant one."

If Franklin's grandparents were still alive, the current pandemic would likely be an unpleasant flashback for them as well. While history repeats itself, Franklin tries with his volunteer service and philanthropy to honor his past as well as the frontline workers' sacrifices during COVID-19.

"These medical workers are on the front lines, they really are at great risk," Franklin said. "It's a very stressful job when you know that a good portion of the people that end up in the hospital aren’t going to make it. It's a long, long grind, going on for months. That's extremely depressing."

Franklin's gift – and those of countless others from throughout our community – are a buoy that lift up the spirits of frontline workers at GBMC. Knowing the community supports and recognizes them for their sacrifice keeps them going, even in the hardest of times.

"It's the least I can do. I wish I could do a whole lot more," Franklin said. "Lives and families are forever changed when something like this happens. You just really want to give those folks all the support. Let them know as tough as it is, people do care and do appreciate the sacrifices they're making on behalf of all of us."
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