By Max L. Mason
Two men asked Leroy F. Bass for a room at his motel on Nov. 30, 1976. Bass told his 11-year-old niece to get sheets and set up a room.
As she returned, she saw the men chase Bass into his living quarters and demand money. Then one of the men grabbed her and locked her in the office bathroom.
Minutes later, she heard two gun shots. She broke through the bathroom window and called the police. The murderers took Bass’ wallet money and two shotguns and they left few clues for investigators.
The Bass Motel, now Boulevard Motel, sits on a corner of Route 1 between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. From the 1930s into the 1970s, Washington Boulevard was host to many motels, restaurants, auto shops and other businesses. The Bass Motel is one of the remaining businesses from the road’s hey-day.
The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a historic travel book for black people during Jim Crow, listed the Bass Motel under Elkridge. It was the Green Book listing for the Howard County area, Although a handful of other motels and restaurants from Elkridge to Jessup welcomed black people, most of these were owned by black people.
Regardless, every business open to black people would have posted the word “colored” on its big sign out front so travelers knew where they could stop.
All of Washington Boulevard’s culture was contingent on its traffic, as busy-ness brought business to all of the local shops and motels suited to highway-goers. The road was notoriously dangerous and many fatalities gave it the name, “Bloody Mary.”
It had traffic lights too, making traffic slow. A busy day on Washington Boulevard could easily have cars bumper to bumper.
In 1954, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway took many cars off Route 1, causing business to decline. And when I-95 was built in 1971, Route 1’s once lively culture was forgotten. Even on a holiday, the interstate would be thick with traffic and old Route 1 would relatively quiet.
By 1977, three of the main black-owned places had closed: McClain’s Hotel and Restaurant, the Muirkirk Inn and the Bass Motel. These closings were mostly due to death of the owner or lack of business. Dutch Cabins, listed in the Green Book in 1957, was put on the market in 1958 and removed from the Green Book.
Dutch Cabins closed in 1965 for failing to adhere to health and housing codes. And in 1969, police investigated an odor that revealed 20 55-gallon drums of Trimethylamine stashed behind the motel.
McClain’s Motel and Restaurant, a hotspot for black travelers that began in 1947, closed due to the financial restraints that fell upon co-owner Mary McClain after her husband Luther died. The liquor license was left in Luther’s name so Mary couldn’t stock the bar with alcohol.
By 1969, all she had left was the motel. The sign out front still said:
She didn’t have the funds to change the sign. Sometimes white people stopped and asked her whether she was prejudiced.
“The sign is wrong, I am not prejudiced,” she would say. She served all races after the civil rights laws affected Route 1, even though most of her customers were still black.
For her regular customers, her sign was a landmark: “Many of my old customers don’t remember exactly where I am located but they recognize my sign. They just see ‘McClain’s.’ They don’t see white or colored, just the sign,” she said.
That was even more true about the sign at night. Vandals smashed the sign’s neon lights so the only words lighting up at night were “McClain’s Cabins,” which conveniently cut out all that was no longer true about the motel.
Mary McClain remembered Leroy Bass as a good man who once donated his money to the construction of a new church.
The Bass murder was state police investigator Roger D. Cassel’s first homicide assignment.
“He ran a good business and was well-known in the community. The men who killed him were also African American and were probably strangers from Baltimore looking to rob somebody” said Cassel. He worked on the case for six months and then it went cold. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2001 that “he still thinks about the case almost every day.”
After the Bass Motel closed, some places on Route 1 continued doing business. And a decade after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws, racial tensions still existed on Washington Boulevard.
The Route 1 area did suffer a bad reputation among its own business owners and in the surrounding suburbs. It was a blue-collar area frequented by people from the city and it did have its share of crime over the years.
But it probably didn’t deserve its reputation, given that local police were accustomed to benign situations. The few surviving black-owned motels, such as the Log Cabin and Hall’s motel, served mostly black clientele.
Neither of them exist now; however, the Cedar Motel, one of the only white-owned places that welcomed black customers during Jim Crow, still rents out rooms in 2020.
Around the time that black and white business integrated, Maryland’s highways pushed traffic away from Route 1 and the trend was that fewer black-owned businesses on Route 1 survived than white-owned businesses.
Today, Howard County’s stretch of Route 1 is still blue collar and quiet. But back in the early-to-mid 1900s, it was the place to be and the only road to use when driving between cities.
Howard County’s Route 1 conjures a quintessential Green Book image: the busy road everyone travels but nearly all the places on it separated by race. And yet in America, everyone shares each other’s space, physically and in identity, even when they are segregated.
Even dissociation and separation, let alone hate, is a choice we make in life that defines who we are. And that history still defines us all as a people, even after we hopefully reform.
Max Mason is a journalism major and received his BA in English at Belmont University. He works as a Howard County Historical Society intern researching and writing history from Howard County’s past.