1947 Armory Fire: Slemons Said it was More

1947 02 26 ST Armory FireThis is a story I have not told anyone before.  But years ago weeks before he died,  longtime  resident Fulton Slemons told me about the Armory fire during the 1947 Sweethearts Dance in Salisbury, Maryland.

Fulton was apparently known as a local history buff and a bit of a storyteller.  Some people told me they did not always believe him; others said he knew a lot about the history of his community.  I knew him only during the last months of his life at the time I began learning more about the old neighborhoods of Salisbury.  I have fond memories of my chats with Fulton.

I listened to Fulton, aware of the warnings I had heard before, as he told me the story of the fire.  He told me that the black community was not permitted to use the Armory for public events like parties and such.  But after some complaining, permission was finally  given.  This dance, the Sweethearts Dance, he told me, was the delayed version of a Valentine’s Day dance, as it was typically difficult to find a place where they were permitted to hold such an event.  Fulton told me that this dance, held February 25th, would be the first and only time black residents were to use the Armory.   The dance was organized by the “Just Us Social Club.”

Fulton told me he was onstage acting as Emcee when smoke was detected sometime around midnight.  The building was evacuated and damage was minimal.  He felt that the fire was suspicious, having begun under the stage.  He could not prove it but he believed the fire was purposely set in protest of their use of the building.

Anyhow, always checking stories, I found the reporting of the fire in the February 26, 1947 issue of The Salisbury Times.  The article described the discovery:

As soon as Edwin Berry, Arlington, Va., assistant manager of the 17-member, all girl negro orchestra from Washington, D.C., discovered the fire on the stage he announced it over the loudspeaker system.

The crowd left by a double-door exit on Circle Ave. and the main entrance on South Division St.  Smoke filtered all through through the downtown area.

Indeed, the fire originated “between the stage flooring and the ceiling of an empty storage room in the basement.  The roof over the stage and supporting steel girders tumbled onto the stage.”  Newspaper reports attributed the fire to faulty wiring or fuses.  Fulton did not agree.

Fulton’s beliefs likely cannot be proven.  Whether or not there was foul play, one thing is clear that the Armory (there was only minimal damage) continued to be used until plans were made to built a new Armory on the west side.  The fortress-looking stone and steel Armory would be torn down, replaced with the current library.  I cannot locate subsequent articles, but I recall it not being long after that fire that plans were announced for relocating the Armory although it took a few years to build.  The second Armory was placed on the west side along the then new highway (Route 50) through town, and alongside a longtime African American neighborhood of Salisbury.  I have learned that this second Armory was used for a special memorial program following the killing of Martin Luther King.  This building was recently updated and modernized.    Something to think about.

— Linda Duyer

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