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“Ethel’s Place” Exhibition Spotlights Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz

February 7, 2024 by Abigail Sussman

Donor Support Enables Sheridan Libraries Exhibit about Ethel Ennis’s Life and Musical Legacy

When asked why she decided to build her music career in her hometown of Baltimore instead of somewhere like New York City, the late Ethel Ennis said she could bloom where she was planted. Ethel’s Place: Celebrating Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz, a new exhibition on display at the George Peabody Library through April 14, explores the fruits of this planting.  

The exhibition tells the story of Ennis’s career through artifacts collected by her as well as her husband, Earl Arnett, over their lifetimes — a collection that is now part of the Sheridan Libraries Special Collections through the Baltimore Africana Archives Initiative. Photographs, records, and sheet music show the progression from her West Baltimore childhood to performing around the world, to being appointed as a cultural ambassador for Baltimore alongside Arnett by Mayor William Donald Schaefer.  

To bring Ennis’s story to life, exhibition curator Raynetta Wiggins-Jackson, PhD, an Africana Archives Curatorial Fellow at the Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts, worked with a team of archivists and conservators from the Sheridan Libraries and Inheritance Baltimore: Humanities and Arts Education for Black Liberation, an initiative based in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. 

Both Ennis’s musical artistry and her decision to leave a music industry that tried to dictate she change her song choices and physical appearance to become a star, separate her from many other artists. 

“So, rather than continuing to force herself into a scenario and system that weren’t built for her personal health and success, she chose to walk away from that system,” Wiggins-Jackson says. “That choice, to this day, still feels so bold. That larger message of ‘be true to you, listen to your inner voice’ is just unbeatable.” 

Ethel’s Place and related programming were made possible by support from the Friends of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries, Inheritance Baltimore, and local arts supporters Robbye and Kevin Apperson. Their generosity was essential in getting this exhibition off the ground, according to Wiggins-Jackson.  

“From acquiring, organizing, and stewarding the materials, to getting them in the condition to be here and be able to be displayed, all of it is dependent on individuals looking at what we’re trying to do and saying, ‘Yes, I want to give to that work,’” Wiggins-Jackson says.  

That work included reviving the original blue neon sign that adorned Ethel’s Place, a Baltimore cabaret opened by Ennis and Arnett in 1984. The couple’s idea was to create a gathering place where Baltimoreans from all walks of life could hear jazz music and connect with one another.  

“Especially considering racial divisions, class divisions, all kinds of barriers to engagement, they thought music and food would be a great way to bridge those gaps within the community,” Wiggins-Jackson says. 

The exhibition shows other ways Ennis maintained a commitment to Baltimore as well, like headlining the first Artscape festival and traveling internationally to represent her hometown through the medium of jazz. However, it’s the less flashy work documented in the exhibit that Wiggins-Jackson finds the most interesting.  

“We have materials from when she was performing with Louis Armstrong at Morgan State University and also when she was in a small production of The Wiz in a local mall,” Wiggins-Jackson says. “She was willing to share her art with whoever was willing to listen. As much as she was a star, she was also very intentional about remaining a person and maintaining her humanity throughout everything she did.” 

Wiggins-Jackson hopes that after learning about Ennis’s life, philosophy, and community engagement, visitors will walk away with a greater appreciation for the artist and her message. 

“When I think about how I’m inspired by her message, I’m hopeful that somebody else can get a bit of inspiration from her, too, whether it’s from the artistry, or it’s something they hear or see,” Wiggins-Jackson says. “I just want them to walk away with a sense that she was an amazing person and with an amazing message at the same time.” 

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