Billie Holiday’s Old House
(Interview & photos by Jan Mooney with James Ozazewski on October 29, 2013)
James Ozazewski says he can set the history books straight as to which house Billie Holiday grew up in. How does he know that? Mr. Ozazewski explained, “It was definitely 217 and 219 S Durham St.” “My parents bought Holiday’s house at 217 directly from her aunt in the 1930’s.” “I heard several stories about it when I was growing up.” He added, “Billie and her mother moved to 219 S Durham St. in 1925 and then in the late 1920’s they moved to 217 S Durham St.”
James was born in September 1941 and lived in Holiday’s old house until 1950. Mr. Ozazewski stated, “There were 8 of us kids with only a total of 3 bedrooms – my parents slept in the front, my 5 sisters in the middle room and my older brother in the back.” “I shared the attic space with my younger brother which was the same room that Billie Holiday slept in.” “The view was great from up there – you could see all over town,” he added. While growing up, there was no bathroom inside – there was an outhouse in the back. At night they used “pee pots” so they wouldn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. Mr. Ozazewski stated, “To get our water, we had to use a pump that was in the back room.” His mother heated water on the stove and then poured the water into a large metal tub so they could take a bath. By the early 1950’s, Baltimore’s health department started shutting down public bathhouses and mandated that all residents remove their outhouses and put a bathroom with a regular bath or shower inside their houses. So to comply with the new law, his older brother’s bedroom became the bathroom.
When James (and Billie Holiday) lived at 217 S Durham St., the house was painted black and white. Formstone was added to many of the houses in the 1950’s. The streets were paved with a concrete/stone mix and there were sidewalks but “there weren’t any trees” said James. But there were corner bars and grocery stores throughout the residential areas just like today. James stated that the current Van Gough’s Café used to be a bar and that the new Cockeys (old Shed Row) was called Shadow Bar. James recalled when he was very young that his mother would send him out to find his father and tell him it was time to come home. So James walked around to a few of the corner bars until he found him. James added, “If someone’s mother needed bread or whatever, she would send one of the kids to the corner store.” “Unlike today, you didn’t have to worry about sending your kids out alone.”
According to James, there was an African-American family living at 215 S Durham, but he doesn’t recall their last name. He remembers playing with their kids and that their mother was always pleasant to him. James explained that in the late 1940’s, the City mandated that the African-Americans in the neighborhood be relocated to other housing in another area. After that, he never saw them again. He continued, “The Jaworski family lived at 213 S Durham St. and directly across the street from my house was a parking garage; their grandmother lived next to it.” James admitted that “the neighborhood kids nicknamed the Jaworski’s mother “Fat Annie” because there was another mother also named Annie (who they called “Italian Annie”) so they could keep it straight as to who they were talking about.”
There were several tailors in the neighborhood and James’ father was one of them. But to make ends meet his mother and the kids had to work too. In July and August, his mother and his siblings would take a bus to Hungerford or Shrewsbury, PA and work in the bean fields. The kids picked beans from 6:00am to 6:00pm while his mother worked in the factory packaging the beans. At night they slept in a shack that had wooden beds lined with a straw mattress and topped with blankets. James was paid 2 cents for every pound of beans picked. Said James, “It was tough work; we were bent over all day in the hot sun.” “We worked half days on Sunday just so we could get free ice cream.”
Also as a young boy, James worked with one of Baltimore’s Arabbers. (An Arabber is a street merchant who sells fruits and vegetables from a brightly painted horse-drawn cart.) He helped the owner sell fruits and vegetables to local residents. Explained James, “I packaged up whatever fruit or vegetables the customer wanted – basically did whatever was needed by the owner.”
At age 16 James quit school and went to work at Globe Venetian Blinds. He packed the boxes that the blinds were packaged in and after that he worked at Montgomery Wards as a stock boy. At age 17 he wanted to join the Marines but he had to have his mother sign the papers since he was under age 18. After the Marines he went to night school and finished high school. He then went to the University of Baltimore City and majored in accounting. After doing accounting work for a period of time, he saw a sign on Rte. 1 advertising jobs as a policeman so he signed up in 1969. Eventually he transferred to the homicide unit and spent 18 years there. In 1979 his unit became the #1 homicide unit in the entire U.S. In 1986 he retired from the police department and worked at various jobs but decided to start his own business (Excel Associates) as a private investigator. Now at age 72, he is still working. Explained James, “I don’t like to just sit and watch TV – I like to be active.”
Mr. Ozazewski said he “was so delighted to see all the artwork that the community has been doing to raise awareness about Billie Holiday – and to think that I grew up in her house – wow!”
Photo1: James today with his boyhood photo at 217 S Durham St. (photo by Jan Mooney)
Photo2 James Ozazewski (far right) as a young boy in front of Billie Holiday’s old house at 217 S Durham St, which his parents bought from her aunt in the 1930’s. (photo from James) (Notice that although the brick on the house was painted when James lived in Billie Holiday’s old house, the markings on the top brick above his head (far right) and the remains from the brackets for the old downspout can still be seen on the current house at 217 S Durham St.)
Also in the photo L to R:
Back row: (James doesn’t remember the name of the boy on the left), Edward Jaworski (lived in 213 S Durham St); Middle row: Ozazewski brothers: Norman, Melvin and James; Front: Jaworski boy (James doesn’t remember the little boy’s name).
Photo 3: Billie Holiday’s old houses at 217 and 219 S Durham St as seen today (photo by Jan Mooney)