Activist Businesses and Baltimore’s Overlooked History of Social Movements

By Joshua Clark Davis

Baltimore is not a city nationally known for its social movements. Urban historians have written extensively about the Black Power movement in Oakland, the labor movement in Detroit, Communists in Harlem, civil rights in Atlanta, radical feminists in Washington, D.C., and the LGBTQ movement in San Francisco. But aside from Rhonda Williams’s work on public housing activists and Andor Skotnes’s work on Depression-era labor unions, Baltimore’s social movements have received very little treatment in the way of historical monographs.

And yet, at the very same time, Baltimore has an incredibly rich history of social movements. It’s not that this history is invisible in scholarly literature. Rather, Charm City’s activists appear as part of broader stories on school desegregation or redlining in the city, or as part of accounts of a larger statewide civil rights movement, or they appear in brief essays on Black Power or second-wave feminism in Baltimore. Still, the histories of the city’s political activists generally receive far less attention than their counterparts in larger cities.

As I was researching for From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, my book on the history of social movement businesses in the 1960s and ‘70s, activists in Baltimore kept showing up, again and again. As I discovered, in 1970 a group of working-class teenagers in the city’s Hollins Market community launched the Pratt Street Conspiracy, a non-profit, cooperatively owned hippie head shop and clothing boutique that offered discount prices to low-income customers in and around the Hollins Market community. The co-op channeled any remaining funds after covering its costs back into two local anti-poverty community organizations and it was funded primarily by the Community Action Agency, a local group established through the federal Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty.[1]

Pratt Street Conspiracy, 1971 (courtesy of Harry)
The Pratt Street Conspiracy cooperative headshop, 1971, courtesy of Harry

Meanwhile, on the edge of the city’s Charles Village neighborhood, a pair of radical lesbian feminists with deep roots in the anti-war movement, Coletta Reid and KC Czarnik, launched Diana Press, an all-women’s print shop collective. By the mid-‘70s, the company had transformed into one of the leading feminist publishing houses in the country and helped to launch the careers of such writers as Rita Mae Brown.

In West Baltimore, there was Paul Coates, the local Black Panther Party Captain who opened a bookstore, The Black Book, in 1972 as an auxiliary of a campaign to provide reading materials to incarcerated individuals, the George Jackson Prison Book Movement. Decades later, Coates’ son, Ta-Nehisi, would dazzle readers with his explorations of growing up in Baltimore, housing segregation, and how young black men can survive in a white supremacist society.

Paul Coates, 1971 (courtesy of Harry)
Paul Coates during his Black Panthers days, 1971, courtesy of Harry

Thousands of activist businesses operated throughout in the country in the 1960s and ‘70s, but the ones I came across in Baltimore seemed unusually productive and influential, and some of them enjoyed afterlives that extended far beyond the 1970s, such as Black Classic Press, a company established Coates that publishes new and out-of-print works by Black authors. In 2018, the company celebrated its fortieth anniversary.

Not long after publishing my book last year, I started work on another book, this time joining Nicole King and Kate Drabinski in co-editing a forthcoming essay collection, Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City. For my own essay, I narrowed the focus of my first book but extended it chronologically. The activist businesses I’d uncovered in Baltimore had me asking myself a question that went beyond my typical time period: what was the long history of activist businesses over the entire sweep of progressive and radical movements in Baltimore?

What I found was that the city had a remarkable history of activist businesses stretching from the 1820s to today. I want to reflect here on some on these businesses but also examine the question: how and why does Baltimore have such an extensive history of social movement activity?

First, and this almost goes without saying, for most of its history Baltimore qualified as a “big city.” While its contemporary reputation is as a small or medium-sized city compared to East Coast neighbors like Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia, Baltimore was one of the country’s five largest cities from 1790 to 1860, and then one of the ten most populous cities from 1870 to 1980. Big cities, as we all know, are places where social movements thrive. This is especially true for cities like Baltimore whose port and railroad connections have long brought together people from all over the world.

Baltimore’s demographics also made it fertile ground for social movements. Barely one hundred miles from Philadelphia, the city was home to a sizable Quaker community. More importantly, Baltimore’s free Black community was one of the most significant in the country. While slavery had thrived in the city in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, by 1860 the enslaved population had dwindled and the free Black population had swelled, so that free Blacks made up more than 80 percent of the city’s overall African American population. Over 30,000 lived in Baltimore, by far the most of any city in the country. In the decades before and after the Civil War, free Blacks organized numerous political organizations, especially through churches such as Sharp Street United Methodist, founded in 1787, and Bethel A.M.E., founded in 1814. The city was home to what may have been the most developed abolitionist movement in any Southern slaveholding city. Abolitionists established businesses in Baltimore as early as the 1820s, a decade that Michael Kazin identifies as the starting point for the United States’ first radical social movements. In 1826, anti-slavery activists Michael Lamb and Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker publisher of the abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, opened a “free produce” store that banned any products produced by enslaved laborers. It was only the third of its kind in the United States. [2]

During Reconstruction, African American shipbuilders associated with the AME church led a collective effort to launch the worker-owned Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company in Fells Point. At the helm of this workers’ cooperative was Isaac Myers, a skilled ship caulker and later the president of Colored Caulkers’ Trade Union Society of Baltimore. Historian Philip Foner called Myers “the first important black labor leader in America.” The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company employed three hundred African Americans within a year of its founding, paying them a generous wage of three dollars per hour on average.[3]

The Knights of Labor cooperative shirt company

Baltimore emerged as a major hub for a variety of industries, not only shipping but also railroads. By 1877, when the city was the site of massive labor unrest during the Great Railroad Strike on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it became clear that Baltimore was at the national forefront of labor activity. Labor organizers started their own businesses, such as the Knights of Labor members who founded a bakery, a furniture company, and a textile firm in the 1880s, all of them cooperatives.[4] Later, in the 1930s, more radical critics of capitalism, namely the Communist Party of the United States of America, would launch a pair of bookstores in Baltimore.

By the ‘30s, Baltimore was home to an unusual blend of Southern-style de jure segregation and Northern de facto racism that was nonetheless blunted to a modest degree by a vibrant civil rights movement, including one of the largest and most organized chapters of the NAACP in the country. Following the Brown v. Board ruling, Baltimore’s city schools were among the very few in the South to desegregate immediately. In the 1960s, national media focused largely on desegregation campaigns in the Deep South, allowing whites in a place like Baltimore to cling to their identity as moderate Southerners. However, the massive uprising in Baltimore that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968 would shatter the illusion of the city as a capital of white racial liberalism, as would the later emergence of a local Black Panther Party chapter.

Not exactly an activist business but JoJo South Record Shop is indicative of the left of center businesses that thrive in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, Ryan Reft, 2015.

Again in this period, activists started their own businesses—not only Coates’ bookstore but also Congress of Racial Equality organizer Walter Lively’s Liberation House Press. And as Baltimore became a hotbed for the anti-war movement and second-wave feminism, organizers in those movements started stores too, including Diana Press and the 31st Street Bookstore. Fast forward to today, and activist businesses are alive and well, as seen in companies such as the socially conscious ice cream sellers Taharka Brothers and the radical bookstore, vegan restaurant, and bar that make up Red Emma’s impressive worker-owned.

By exploring the broad range of Baltimore’s activist enterprises over the last two centuries, we can see that most left movements in the city, even for all their differences, experimented with business. In a sense, the history of these businesses offers us a map to the city’s rich but fragmented and often overlooked history of movements, allowing us to recognize how Baltimore’s progressives and radicals sought to further their movements and their values through storefronts and small shops from the 1820s all the way to today.

Head Shot More Smaller copy.jpgJoshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, where he teaches and researches broadly in twentieth-century United States history with a focus on social movements, capitalism, urban history, and African American history. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how small businesses such as natural foods stores, head shops, feminist storefronts, and African American booksellers emerged out of movements in the 1960s and ‘70s and sought to advance justice and equality in the marketplace. 


Featured image (at top): Though not an activist business, “Outpost” is representative of the sort of left of center business that still thrive in some Baltimore neighborhoods, Ryan Reft, 2015.

[1] Jo Ann Harris, “The Pratt Street Conspiracy Is a Boutique,” Baltimore Sun, February 7, 1971; Clementine Flatbush, “S.W. Baltimore Conspiracy,” Harry, January 8, 1971; “Pratt Street Conspiracy,” Harry, April 24–May 7, 1971.

[2] Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 5; Michael Lamb and Benjamin Lundy, “Produce of Free Labor: Circular to the Farmers, Planters, Merchants, and others, in the United States, and elsewhere,” Genius of Universal Emancipation, August 5, 1826.

[3] Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 21-46; Bettye C. Thomas, “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon Its Inception,” The Journal of Negro History 59.1 (January 1974), 1-12.

[4] Daniel R. Randall, Cooperation in Maryland and the South, ed. Herbert B. Adams (Baltimore: Publication Agency of the Johns Hopkins University, 1888), 494-501.

Segregated by Design: “Free Choice” and Baltimore Public Housing

By Sara Patenaude

On the morning of August 20, 1995 a crowd gathered in the streets of downtown Baltimore. Thirty thousand people formed an eight-block-long parade and party, complete with band performances and vendors selling commemorative t-shirts and souvenirs. At noon, a hush fell over the crowd, after which the countdown began. As the chant hit zero, a series of explosions could be heard, and felt. In just twenty seconds, the six high-rise towers of the Lafayette Courts housing projects crumbled into dust and rubble.[1]

This moment, decades in the making, bookended the rise and fall of public housing in Baltimore. Planners initially envisioned Lafayette Courts as one of Le Corbusier’s “towers in a park,” meant to replace overcrowded slums with clean, comfortable, affordable provisions for the city’s working poor. Built in the mid-1950s as Baltimore’s first high-rise public housing, Lafayette was also the first of Baltimore’s public housing to open as a desegregated project.[2] The first residents in the project “were begging to get into this place,” former resident and custodian Joe Lamma remembered.[3] By 1995, however, the towers were plagued by constant maintenance issues, crime, and categorical disinvestment by the city and the citizenry of Baltimore.

The rise and fall of public housing is a popular topic for urban historians. The story has been told for cities from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York to San Francisco. While the story in Baltimore may not, at first glance, seem unique, the city has become known for its public housing and related issues of poverty, drugs, corruption, and crime since the critically-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, debuted in 2002. More recently, the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the resulting uprising in the city’s streets have brought Baltimore’s housing problems back to the public mainstream. Though its official motto is “The Greatest City in America,” Baltimore, Maryland is more likely to be colloquially referred to by the pejorative, “Bulletmore.”

Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet the projects have been home to thousands of Baltimore residents since 1940, when Poe Homes (named for one of the city’s most famous residents, Edgar Allen Poe) opened in West Baltimore. Poe Homes, and the twelve housing projects that followed, were divided into “Negro” and “White” projects. After 1954, when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) officially desegregated the projects in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, applicants to public housing were legally allowed to apply for residence in whichever projects they preferred, regardless of race.[4]

When it came to implementing these desegregation policies, however, the reality was not so simple. By ignoring the legacy of segregation and ongoing systemic racism, the focus on removing official barriers to “choice” did little to actually alleviate segregation among public housing residents. Even as federal officials mandated a new policy aimed at ending continued segregation, allowing local control provided Baltimore officials and residents ample opportunity to maintain several all-white projects—primarily in the interest of maintaining any white residents on their public housing rolls. In Baltimore, as elsewhere across the country, residential segregation was enforced not by government decree, but by individuals abandoning “block-busted” neighborhoods for the suburbs, pressuring elected officials to stop “encroachment,” and loudly proclaiming racially coded complaints about declining property values.[5]

Baltimore was one of the first cities in the nation to desegregate its public housing system in 1954, but the method with which they did so made little progress towards integration of the housing projects. Using a “freedom of choice” policy, officials in public housing removed the direct barriers which prevented black residents from applying for tenancy in white housing projects. This focus on free choice emphasized individual action, refusing to acknowledge systemic or community issues that could prevent black applicants from feeling safe moving into formerly all-white spaces. At the same time, it allowed elected officials and policy makers to act with decisive and swift action in a way that elided responsibility for healing any of these underlying problems.

After declaring the housing projects “desegregated,” officials had to grapple with the reverberating effects of post-war racial divides. Lower-class white people, afforded opportunity through FHA home loan programs and GI Bill benefits, moved in droves to the suburbs. In Baltimore, the city was soon left as a majority-black city surrounded by a majority-white county; with Baltimore’s unique municipal organization, the two were entirely separate political bodies. In Baltimore, public housing applicants submitted their applications to individual projects rather than being assigned by the central housing authority, a feature which officials insisted supported individual choice. Under the new desegregated application system, even those projects that did briefly meet the threshold of “integrated” quickly changed over to all-black occupancy.[6] More than a decade after the city’s “freedom of choice” plan was implemented, public housing remained effectively segregated; although the overwhelming majority of public housing residents in the city were black, three housing projects maintained all-white occupancy.[7] When HUD demanded affirmative steps to desegregate these three projects, local officials again turned to the rhetoric of “choice” to explain resistance by both white and black residents. Rather than racial animus on the part of officials, they insisted, allowing the continuance of these all-white projects was out of a desire to keep any white residents of public housing at all. Moreover, the reliance of public housing on tenant rents to pay for maintenance and operation costs made it necessary for the housing authority to capture as much rent as possible. The economics of race, then and now, meant that poor whites as a group were still better off economically than poor blacks.

Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the late 1960s, HUD revised their tenant selection policies and sought to phase out “freedom of choice” housing programs like Baltimore’s, with some limited success.[8] At the same time, HUD began efforts to deconcentrate public housing from low-income minority neighborhoods and experimented with new forms of public housing construction, forming the precursors to modern housing voucher programs. In Baltimore, officials struggled with decisions over how to deconcentrate public housing in a city that was rapidly losing white and middle-class residents. While the city’s public housing civil servants generally accepted HUD’s site selection guidelines and put forward requests to build housing in non-minority neighborhoods, elected officials refused permissions necessary to build new public housing outside of areas that were already majority black.[9] By 1970, the combination of white flight from the city, an ever-larger majority of black residents in public housing, and these site selection decisions created a situation in which integration of Baltimore’s public housing projects had become essentially impossible.

The continued disinvestment by local and federal officials created a perfect storm of underfunding, deferred maintenance, and underserved communities that changed public housing from programs of uplift to drug-addled areas of crime where residents succeeded despite, not because of, public housing programs. In 1995, the City of Baltimore received funds under HUD’s HOPE VI plan to finance demolition of the city’s public housing high-rises. Lafayette Courts was just the first of Baltimore’s public housing high-rises to come down. Less than a year later, 15,000 onlookers gathered for another “festive atmosphere” to see the five towers of Lexington Terrace fall.[10] Murphy Homes, with its four 14-story high rise towers and its grim moniker “Murder Homes,” followed in 1999.[11] Baltimore’s demolitions in the late twentieth century were part of a wider trend as public housing authorities across the country, supported by federal HOPE VI funds, divested from their large-scale public housing developments. As Baltimore Housing Authority spokesman Zack Germroth explained, “It made no sense to repair them from a sociological, physical or maintenance standpoint.”[12] Some units were replaced with new public housing in mixed-income projects, while others were converted into Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. The last of Baltimore’s low-income high-rises came down with the 2001 demolition of Flag House Courts.[13]

The policy rhetoric of “freedom of choice” continued even as the high-rise housing projects came down. As with the original slum clearance efforts that gave rise to large-scale public housing, proponents of HUD’s HOPE VI plan often touted its benefits as giving low-income residents more choices about where to live––thus the moniker, “Housing Choice Vouchers.” Despite releasing residents from the problems of pre-built public housing projects, the shift to voucher programs has been unable to further meaningful choice because of its reliance on a private housing market that still operates within a society replete with systemic racism. Even as the housing projects have come down, the decisions made by public housing officials can be seen in the segregated residential patterns in Baltimore that remain today.

PatenaudeHeadshot.jpgSara Patenaude has a PhD in History from Georgia State University. Her scholarly work investigates the intersections of race, public policy, and city planning in the twentieth century United States. She currently works as a real estate and economic development consultant in Atlanta.

Featured image (at top): Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] JoAnna Daemmrich, “Lafayette Courts Ends in 20 Seconds of Explosions, Cheers, Tears,” Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1995; Charles Cohen, “Destroying a Housing Project, to Save it,” New York Times, August 21, 1995.

[2] Lafayette opened in 1956 as a desegregated project, a significant change by city officials following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board declared “separate but equal” to be inherently unconstitutional.

[3] Cohen, “Destroying a Housing Project, to Save it”.

[4] The decision to desegregate was not an altruistic one. Housing authority officials worried that a delay in action would lead to federal intervention in a way that the city officials could not control. By forging and implementing their own policy ahead of any court orders, the commissioners hoped the housing authority might be subject to less scrutiny and oversight of their progress. Report on Racial Occupancy Policies of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City by Staff Committee, June 24, 1954, Baltimore City Archives; Oliver C. Winston, Speech entitled Desegregation Policy: An Address to All Employees of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, June 30, 1954.

[5] For more on blockbusting in Baltimore, see Edward Orser, Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994) and Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010).

[6] Despite all new housing projects after 1955 opening on a “desegregated” basis, all eight of these new projects were overwhelmingly black-occupied by 1970. Expert report of Karl Taeuber for the plaintiffs, Thompson v. HUD, ACLU collection, University of Baltimore Special Collections.

[7] Brooklyn Homes, Claremont Homes, and O’Donnell Heights were opened as all-white projects under the segregated public housing system. These same three projects remained overwhelmingly white-occupied into the 1980s. Eileen Canzian, “Baltimore Finds Integrating Public Housing an Elusive Goal”, Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1985.

[8] Assistant Secretary for Housing Management, Assistant Secretary for Equal Opportunity, HUD, Tenant Selection in the Public Housing Program, 1971 directives. When Baltimore’s program was questioned by HUD, local officials embarked on new efforts to encourage black tenants to move into white projects. The inverse was never attempted.

[9] Despite HUD guidance stating that new projects should be established outside of areas of minority concentration, Baltimore officials refused to allow innovative programs such as Section 23 Leased Housing to be implemented outside of designated “urban renewal areas,” all of which were in low-income, majority-black neighborhoods. Resolution No. 4 (Council No. 1349), Baltimore Ordinances 1965-66, 1045.

[10] “Baltimore to Demolish More Public Housing Units,” The Washington Post, September 30, 1995.

[11] Dylan Waugh and Megan Miller, “Murphy Homes Gone, Not Forgotten,” Capital News Service Maryland, December 19, 2008.

[12] Sharon Cohen, “Demolition of Dangerous, Decaying Public Housing Begins,” LA Times, May 26, 1996.

[13] Jewish Museum of Maryland, “Flag House Courts and Albemarle Square,” Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed June 3, 2018,

Member of the Week: Dorothee Brantz

TUB-BrantzProfDorothee04112013Dorothee Brantz

Center for Metropolitan Studies

Technische Universität Berlin, Germany

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently working on two new projects – one about the impact of seasons on urban life in the US and Europe between 1900 and 2000. The other asks about the role of nature in the transition from war to peace in 20th-century Berlin. As an urban environmental historian who doesn’t conceive of cities as simply human-made spaces, I am very interested in the ways natural forces continue to shape urban developments. Moreover, I am very curious about questions of temporality and how they manifest themselves in urban practices. Well, and as a historian of warfare and as a citizen in this contemporary world, I also keep wondering about the meaning of peace, which is quite puzzling to me.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This semester I am actually on sabbatical, which is great, not the least because it gives me a chance to really think about what I want to teach next semester to our MA students in urban history. Currently, I am playing with a new idea: rather than working with a set syllabus, we will start with “What is a City?” from Deyan Sudjic’s, The Language of Cities and based on it, each student will identify topics of interest that they will independently pursue in research groups and then present to the rest of the class. It’s an attempt to get students actively engaged in what they learn and to get them thinking about developing research topics. I am certainly curious if that can work…

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Right now I am reading Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. She is an award-winning journalist and her book is absolutely fascinating in how it moves through the centuries making all kinds of rainy connections all the while telling a beautiful story. It’s a different kind of writing, maybe less academic but in that maybe also more accessible and I must say I learned a ton of new things. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how we as urban scholars write books, and for whom? As an urban environmental historian I am very interested in generating a dialog with politicians, and urban policy makers as well as with a larger public, and traditional history books might not be the best way to do that.

As far as my own publications go, I just co-wrote a short piece with my colleague Avi Sharma, which was a very inspiring experience because it forced us to closely discuss a topic both on the level of content and narrative.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Think broadly about sources and potential inspirations! By that I mean read of course, but also walk, listen, smell, touch, and watch. Walk through the city and look around at urban life throughout the year. As urban scholars we have the great fortune to live in our field of research, so we should use all of our senses to tickle our minds and to continuously ask ourselves why we are studying the urban, why is it important? Be inspired by life!

Tell us about the transition from American to German universities. What was unexpectedly joyful about the move, and what made for a difficult adjustment?

Returning to Germany after receiving all of my secondary and university education in the US, it was quite a transition, not the least because I was trained as a historian, but now direct an interdisciplinary research center, so I had to learn a lot about the day-to-day workings of interdisciplinarity and also about management. The Center for Metropolitan Studies is a wonderful place because it brings together German and American perspectives on urban studies, in large part we usually have guest researchers from the US and Canada.

“Slum Clearance A la Mode”: The Battle for Baltimore’s Tyson Street

By Emily Lieb 

The story of twentieth-century Baltimore is the story of an expressway. Actually, it’s the story of the idea of an expressway, because most of the highways planned for Baltimore were never built. But the cat’s cradle of lines they made on planners’ maps changed the city all the same. They came close to strangling almost everything they touched.[1]

Explicitly, Baltimore’s planners yoked highway-building to something officials liked to call “slum clearance.” (Which is to say, as long as that was the justification for the road plans, then everything in their way was ipso facto a slum.) Implicitly, this meant what James Baldwin famously called “Negro removal”: that is, plowing under the residential neighborhoods where African-Americans lived and paving them over with bleak ribbons of concrete connecting downtown where white people worked to the suburbs where white people lived.

But what happened when white people were in the way?

“Picasso, Cats, and Gay Façades”[3]

In 1956, 10 years before Baltimore’s highway wars began in earnest, they sparked briefly on one 400-foot sliver of street so tiny it didn’t even appear on many city maps: the 900 block of Tyson Street between Read Street and Park Avenue in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

Shell Map Tyson Street 1956 copy
Tyson Street Map 1956 from larger Shell Map of Metro Baltimore, 1956

Neighborhood lore held that the little houses along Tyson Street had once been the slave quarters for the estate of the merchant George Carr Grundy. In fact, they’d been built in the first half of the nineteenth century for white working people whom the Sun later called the “arty Irish,” a group which included rugmakers, construction workers, carpenters, and (later) bootleggers and a manufacturer of artificial eyes.[4]

Through the early part of the 20th century, Tyson Street sat tucked between the whitest neighborhoods in West Baltimore, places whose residents had once banded together to write and pass the city’s Progressive-era residential-segregation ordinances. But by the time the highway engineers got to Baltimore in the 1940s, most of the houses along Tyson were occupied by African-Americans.

As a result, to Baltimore’s highway builders, Tyson Street looked like a “slum” that might profitably be eliminated—and so in the late 1950s, they announced a plan to run the inner ring of the bypass highway known as the Jones Falls Expressway right over it.


Tyson Street Map 2

But by then, Tyson Street had changed once again. In 1946, a white painter named Eddie Rosenfeld had bought, restored, and moved into one of Tyson’s little houses, a 200-year-old end row between Park and Read Streets. More white people soon followed, including artists, writers, teachers, engineers, nurses, a dentist, and the director of public relations for the YWCA.[5]

These gentrifiers were few in number—there were only a handful of houses on the block, after all—but outsized in influence. They had moved into the inner city from tonier, more suburban places like Roland Park and Ten Hills, and Baltimore’s white newspapers, especially the businessmen’s Sun, were captivated and bewildered by this choice.[6]

“Something of an artists’ colony seems to be in the making on Tyson street,” the Sun reported in 1947. The newcomers had brought a “Greenwich Village touch” to the “old and somewhat ramshackle” neighborhood—Rosenfeld, for instance, had installed “an 18-inch hobby horse as a table decoration and a butcher’s chopping block as a coffee table”—which gave the block a “‘before-and-after’ appearance.”[7]

Of course, not everyone thought “before-and-after” was something to celebrate. In 1948, Sun writer Virginia Paty visited the new Tyson Street, “a pocket-sized compound of Greenwich Village, the Left Bank and Old Baltimore,” and appraised the gentrification she saw there:

One block is still full of garages and storehouses. One block is still full of scraggly cats and old settlers. But the surrealistic third block is full of trick doorknockers, sleek cats and new settlers who have interspersed the standard red housefronts with giddy color patterns combining mustard yellow, bottle green, eggplant purple….

In this rainbow block live antique dealers, artists, a museum director, two department-store display artists, a photographer, a cellist, an art teacher, a few representatives of business. The story of the reclamation of their block from near-slum status makes an intriguing first in the Baltimore-housing record. It sends a cold fear into their colored neighbors in the next block, who wonder what happens to them if the art colony moves south.

Paty pointed out that the street had been named for the Quaker Elisha Tyson, whose fortune was built “by industry and temperance”:

He pleaded the cause of the Indians as well as the Negroes, and one of his life projects was a fight to secure liberation for a group of slaves captured by a Baltimore privateer and kept in bondage here. After a long legal battle, eleven of them were freed and repatriated to Liberia. Ten thousand Negroes, nearly the whole colored population of Baltimore, attended Tyson’s funeral in 1824.

In Paty’s framing, the new Tyson Street had betrayed its eponym. In 1946, Eddie Rosenfeld had paid $1,800 for his Tyson Street house. Six months later, someone bought a house down the block for $3,000. “Now,” she wrote, “a half-improved place is up for $6,500”; what’s more, some families reported spending more than $16,000 on renovations.

Who could afford that? Certainly not the African-American families who had been pushed off the street’s 900 block, and not the ones who lived on the 800 block or the 700 block either:

Sallie Keys, now in her seventies, has lived in the 800 block since she was a child, and she worries. “I don’t know any other street but Tyson, right where I’m at. I don’t think I could live anywhere else but here.”

Paty spent most of her piece mocking the newcomers’ “arty décor” (“Matisse and Picasso, kidney-shaped tables and low-slung chairs, fawn carpets and hurricane lamps are almost de rigeur”)—but for the displaced residents of Tyson Street, gentrification was no joking matter. “They don’t want to mix with us, but they come pushing us out,” one longtime Tyson Streeter said. “White folks got no right to put us out.”[8]

Tyson Street 1.jpg

In a letter to the editor published soon after Paty’s article, some of the Tyson Street “pioneers” responded:

The residents of Tyson street resent being butchered to furnish a reporter’s holiday. The word “arty,” for instance—we don’t like it. It conjures up visions of Greenwich Village in the bad old days, when artists and writers and such queer ducks stayed up till dawn carousing and generally behaving badly, then slept all day….

Actually the ‘few representatives of business’ are in a large majority, but of course it wouldn’t do to say so, for then people might get the idea that Tyson street has been restored by folks who simply wanted a nice place to live and work; which would make them seem just like everybody else, so why write the article?

Their letter continued:

Actually there are on Tyson street one small Picasso print and one low-slung chair. There are no Matisses, no kidney-shaped tables, no hurricane lamps and no fawn carpets. Your reporter was apparently once frightened by a fancy magazine and is still suffering from decorator’s hallucinations.

But the thing we resent the most is the implication that we wantonly pushed the colored people off the block without regard for their feelings or situations. If your reporter had taken the trouble to check facts it would have been found that, prior to renovation, every house in the block was substandard and violated all the health laws that have ever been heard of, that in all cases old residents were given as much time as they needed to find new places to live; that many of them were given financial assistance; and that the majority were placed in homes far better than the ones they left.

The need for good Negro housing is surely a crying one, but the loss of one block of Tyson street did not create it. And your reporter’s inference that the rents on the rest of Tyson street were raised because of our one block is so palpably untrue that it needs no denial. The Evening Sun, with its professed interest in good housing, would do well to give credit where credit is due to people who have, with imagination and by their own efforts, reclaimed a slum area. Instead, it publishes an article which, from beginning to end, is an ill-concealed sneer at honest effort.[9]

In at least one respect, the new Tyson Streeters were right: their homes had once been “substandard.” As a 1949 article in Living for Young Homemakers reported, just one house on the block had had indoor plumbing before Eddie Rosenfeld moved in. None had gas, hot water, or heat, and “cook stoves of the wood-burning variety were found in such inconsistent places as a cellar, on a second-floor landing, and smack inside a front door.” [10]

They were right about something else, too: the need for good housing for African-Americans in Baltimore was a crying one. This was not a secret. In fact, the city was becoming famous for it.

By the late 1940s, Baltimore’s campaign against bad housing—a push for code enforcement known as the Baltimore Plan for Housing Law Enforcement—had caught the attention of the national press. In a code-enforcement campaign, the blame for bad housing and the responsibility for its improvement fall to property owners, not the government. The Baltimore Plan was noteworthy because it was a compromise between intervening and not intervening in a private housing market that only worked for some people.

Like the gentrification of Tyson Street, the Baltimore Plan depended for its success on the good-faith initiative of property owners. However, those it targeted were not the householders who could be found on Tyson Street. Instead—in theory—the Baltimore Plan used the threat of city sanction to persuade “slum landlords” to clean up rental properties that they themselves did not live in, or anywhere near. [11]

But Tyson Street was Baltimore’s star. Its handful of glamorously spruced-up houses became a camera-ready symbol of the power of private initiative to reshape the urban landscape.

“This little street in downtown Baltimore and the group of people who have re-created it, have set an example for the city and the rest of the country for that matter in the campaign for better housing and slum clearance,” wrote Shelley Murphy, a white resident of Tyson Street, in a 1949 article for Baltimore magazine:

Tyson Street was a slum area! Here was a group of 18 houses, falling apart, filthy, and tax assessed for less than $1000 apiece…The character and spirit of early 19th century Baltimore was in these houses, and needed only a little lumber, a little paint, and a car-load of elbow grease to be brought to the surface.

“Tyson Street is certainly an unusual solution to the slum problem in downtown Baltimore,” Murphy concluded, “but it looks like the most economic and attractive solution found to date. Before endorsing tearing down any more of Baltimore’s old houses…think twice. Think about restoration instead of destruction. There’s room in Baltimore for many more Tyson Streets.” [12]

Tyson Street 7
Baltimore Sun Magazine, October 20, 1957

At home and afield, the mythology of Tyson Street caught on. In 1950, the Encyclopedia Britannica cited the neighborhood as a city landmark, a signal example of “private urban renewal” in a “reclaimed slum.” (“Reclaimed” from what, or whom, the encyclopedia did not specify.) Year after year, the residents of the 900 block kept themselves in the news: photographs of artfully arranged interiors became a staple of the local “Women’s Pages,” and starting in 1951 an annual house tour allowed looky-loos from all over the metropolitan area to see just what “arty” urban living was all about.

Tyson Street 2


Tyson Street 3

“A Highway Could Be as Bad to Us as a Bomb”[13]

As far as tourists, magazine photographers, and the Encyclopedia Britannica were concerned, the Tyson Street sophisticates had successfully laundered “blight” into “charm.” Critiques like Paty’s were all but forgotten, swamped by all the praise for the moxie of Tyson Street’s enterprising homeowners

Yet in August 1957, as one resident remembered, “I was lolling on a beach in New England when a neighbor from Tyson Street phoned to warn me, ‘come home at once, they’re going to run the Jones Falls Expressway through your kitchen!’”[14]

In fact, they were going to run the Jones Falls Expressway through a lot of people’s kitchens. They had been planning to do so for almost 20 years.

By the early 1940s, the idea that express highways were the solution to the problems facing aging cities was a popular one in urban-planning circles. Some people, among them members of Baltimore’s Planning Commission, believed that traffic was choking cities to death. [15] At the same time, highway-builders argued that it could be easy to eliminate the “obsolete buildings and lowered property values” that plagued the inner city: just pave them over.[16] Swapping these “slums” for expressways would make people want to come downtown again, and make it easy for them to do it.

On this theory, since 1942 planners had considered and rejected eight different expressway plans for Baltimore.[17] But all this waffling was basically academic: even if they had been able to settle on a route, the city and state still would have had to come up with almost all of the money to pay for the road’s construction.

This they could not do—until 1956, when Congress passed the $26 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act. Now cities and states could afford to build what they wanted, where they wanted. In fact, as reporter Mark Reutter put it in his account of Baltimore’s highway controversies, “with such mouthwatering subsidies, it was hardly worth not building expressways.”[18]

And so, in Baltimore as across the country, the urban highway went from being a means to an end to being the end itself.

With eyes on the promised federal funding, Baltimore’s highway engineers began to redraw the lines on their maps—lines that were, for the first time, more prognostic than speculative. One of these was the East-West Expressway between Franklin and Mulberry Streets. (The part of this road that was eventually built is familiar to Baltimoreans today as the “Highway to Nowhere.”) Another was a bypass highway that would draw through traffic around instead of through the clogged downtown. This was the road that would eviscerate Tyson Street.

Tyson St Map 1
Baltimore Evening Sun (September 19, 1956)

To the Tyson Street homeowners, used to being seen and heard, this decision seemed—at best— counterproductive. In a letter to the Mayor D’Alesandro, the president of the Save Tyson Street Committee wrote:

Not only does the 900 block of Tyson Street represent Baltimore’s most famous example of the elimination of slums through private enterprise, but…tax assessments and consequently revenue to the city have risen several hundred per cent over the last ten years. [19]

Tyson Street 5.jpg
“There’s No Joy In Tyson Street.” Baltimore American (September 30, 1956).

D’Alesandro gave a watery non-response that would become familiar to students of Baltimore’s highway politics: he told reporters that while he “sympathized with the plight of the Tyson Street residents,” he did not “want to be in the position of urging the expressway and then hindering it.”[20]

Planners temporized by bumping the highway’s route a few blocks north for the moment, deflecting but not eliminating the threat to the place the newspaper called “Baltimore’s freshly painted patch of antiquity.”[21] Then, in August 1957, the city’s director of public works sent a message to the Save Tyson Street Committee: “Expect the worst.” “It was a question, [he] said, of whether the highway is more important than Tyson street,” the Sun reported. “He made it clear that he thought the highway was the primary consideration.” [22]

Death Sentence Tyson.jpg

It wasn’t just the Tyson Streeters who disagreed. Some policymakers, especially those whose job it was to celebrate the power of private initiative to transform urban neighborhoods, were ambivalent about the highway, too. In September, at a symposium on the federal highway program in Hartford, housing official Albert Cole summarized this dilemma. There were, he said, “two great [federal] programs—urban renewal and urban highways. Surely it would be ironical if the two programs should operate in opposition to each other.”

Pointing to the highway administrator on the dais next to him, Cole concluded:

From his point of view, our carefully planned redevelopment of a slum section may be a threat to progress. He may fear his splendid roads may have to be relocated, perhaps at heavy cost. My plea…is simply this: keep in mind the little places with the window boxes—the Tyson streets…a bit of color here, a window box there, something a bit different, is not at all a bad thing in our steel and concrete and atomic civilization. [23]

To be clear, Tyson Street was not technically an urban-renewal project; as far as federal housing officials were concerned, it was something better. Inspired by the Baltimore Plan—or, more accurately, by the triumphant parable about private enterprise that the Baltimore Plan had become—the Housing Act of 1954 required cities receiving urban-redevelopment money from the federal government to show that they were using code enforcement and housing rehabilitation to revitalize blighted residential neighborhoods.

To Cole, this was the practical problem the highway through Tyson Street posed. How could you celebrate private enterprise if you weren’t going to respect its results? What message would it send if some planners watched as others bulldozed homeowners’ investments? Why would anyone in any city spend money on a place like Tyson Street again?

To the historian, these questions underscore bigger ones. What, and who, would the city’s future be? Which parts of it were worth preserving, and who got to decide? Were the new Tyson Streeters—“inverted block bust[ers],” the Sun called them—owed consideration that their African-American neighbors to the north or south were not?[24] Should Eddie Rosenfeld’s investment buy him more of a say about what happened to his home than Sallie Keys had gotten?

In the end, the little street never got plowed under; on the contrary, it thrived. In 1957, residents used the proceeds from the annual open house to hire highway engineers of their own to (the Sun reported) “devise satisfactory and constructive alternatives to wiping out the Pastel Block. They don’t want the Encyclopedia Britannica to be entirely wrong.”[25] The road plans moved on, toward paths of less resistance. In 1964, the annual tour of gentrified Tyson Street was extended oneblock south of Read Street—which was, one real-estate man told the Sun, “catching fire.” “I wish I had about twenty of these [blocks] in a row,” he said. “I’d show Georgetown up.”[26]

Tyson Street 4
“The beautiful result of this bootstrap operation”
Ford Times (February 1961)

Other parts of the city were not so lucky. During the 1960s, officials began to draw condemnation lines for the proposed East-West Expressway across the city’s midsection, now an eight-lane double-decker leviathan shoved along the Franklin-Mulberry corridor toward the western city line. Along its route lay the city’s most concentrated black neighborhoods—places lacking the photogenic “Parisian atmosphere,” not to mention the photogenic white homeowners, which had made Tyson Street so alluring to reporters and officials alike. These were the places that would suffer the most from the highway wars of the 1960s, and these are the places that have never recovered.

As for the 900 block of Tyson Street, though it’s now tucked under the dogleg of the six-lane Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard separating black West Baltimore from Mount Vernon and downtown, it’s still there and—along with the neighborhood around it—still comparatively gentrified. Unlike the poorer, blacker neighborhoods to its west, it bears few scars from its time in the highway’s crosshairs. In fact, you’ve probably seen it: film buffs say that the most famous scene in the movie Pink Flamingos—yes, that one—was filmed at the corner of Tyson and Read. One Baltimore icon has faded into another.

Read and Tyson Streets, Baltimore (1996) via


MatteoRicci_cjk_EmilyLieb_006.JPGEmily Lieb (@balti_less) teaches history and urban studies and is the former director of the Poverty Education Center at Seattle University. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. History from Columbia in 2010 and her A.B. from Brown in 1999. She is writing a book about the ways in which school and housing segregation shaped the Rosemont neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Featured image (at top): From the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 3, 1959. [2] 

[1] Note the title of the piece, namely “Slum Clearance A la Mode” is from Shelley L. Murphy, “Tyson Street…Slum Clearance A la Mode.” Baltimore (October 1949). Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Vertical File.

[2] This illustration and many others in this essay came from the Maryland Vertical File at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Thanks to the librarians there for keeping these clippings so well preserved!

[3] Virginia Paty, “Picasso, Cats and Gay Facades—That’s Arty Tyson Street Now.” Baltimore Evening Sun (May 17, 1948).

[4] “Frustrated Fables.” Baltimore Evening Sun (September 8, 1959). Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Vertical File.

[5] John Goodspeed, “Its Facades Delight Sightseers.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[6] It’s worth noting here that the Tyson Street newcomers were mostly young couples and, per the Sun, “bachelors.” By the time Eddie Rosenfeld arrived there were no schools for white children anywhere nearby, because Baltimore’s schools were legally segregated until 1954 and segregated in fact after that. This is the unstated reason why, as one reporter wrote in 1955, “there are no young children on Tyson Street.” “When Tyson Street residents have children,” she euphemized, “they move further out where the youngsters have companions and room to play.” “53 Tyson Street Pets Being Preened For Open House To Benefit Blind.” Baltimore Evening Sun (June 3, 1955).

[7] “Artist Colony-To-Be Seen For Tyson Street.” Baltimore Evening Sun (January 13, 1947).

[8] Virginia Paty, “Picasso, Cats and Gay Facades—That’s Arty Tyson Street Now.” Baltimore Evening Sun (May 17, 1948).

[9] “Tyson Street.” Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Evening Sun (May 28, 1948).

[10] “Tyson Street Skips a Century.” Living for Young Homemakers (September/October 1949), 53.

[11] See the author’s “‘Baltimore Does Not Condone Profiteering in Squalor’: The Baltimore Plan and the Problem of Housing-Code Enforcement in an American City” in Planning Perspectives (2017).

[12] Shelley L. Murphy, “Tyson Street…Slum Clearance A la Mode.” Baltimore (October 1949).

[13] John Goodspeed, “Tyson Street’s Pastel Block.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[14] Shelley Murphy, “On Tyson Street.” Baltimore Sun (January 29, 1989), 6E.

[15] “It has caused congestion,” Baltimore’s planners cried, “made our streets dangerous…and created blight.” Planning Commission of Baltimore, Traffic and You (1950), 7.

[16] Quoted in Mark H. Rose and Raymond A. Mohl, Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy Since 1939, 3/e (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 61.

[17] City of Baltimore Planning Commission, Study for East-West Expressway (1960).

[18] Reutter, “Before the City Council,” 13.

[19] “Tyson Street Backers to See D’Alesandro, Aides Today.” Baltimore Sun (October 3, 1956), 27.

[20] “Planners Ease Tyson St. Blues.” Baltimore Sun (October 11, 1956), 42.

[21] “Planners Ease Tyson St. Blues.” Baltimore Sun (October 11, 1956), 42.

[22] “Tyson Streeters Tell Mayor They Plan Fight To Finish.” Baltimore Sun (August 21, 1957), 23.

[23] “Tyson Street Discussion Held.” Baltimore Sun (September 10, 1957), 36.

[24] “Mr. Peep’s Diary.” Baltimore Evening Sun (June 1, 1960).

[25] John Goodspeed, “Tyson Street’s Pastel Block.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[26] Gabrielle Wise, “Tyson Street Tour Extended.” Baltimore Sun (June 2, 1964).

Member of the Week: Emily Callaci

faculty-callaci-300x300Emily Callaci

Associate Professor of History

University of Wisconsin, Madison


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’ve been working for a few years now on a project on the history of reproductive technology in Africa in the 1960s through the present day.  It’s not an urban history project in the conventional sense, but it did grows out of my first book, which has a section examining the role of Tanzanian family planning nurses as public intellectuals who shaped public debates about gender, national sovereignty and youth sexuality in a city filled with newly arrived youth migrants. In the process of interviewing some of these retired Tanzanian nurses, I became interested in a more transnational story about the circulation of biomedical contraceptives in Africa. So far, this project has taken me to archives in the US, UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Tanzania, and in the near future, I’m hoping to travel to several archives in Nigeria.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This semester I am teaching my Twentieth Century African History Survey and an MA thesis writing colloquium. One of my favorite classes to offer is an undergraduate course called The Global African City, which explores themes in global urban history through three case studies: the Swahili coast, Johannesburg and Lagos. In the future, I’m hoping to include Cairo as well, but I need to read and learn a lot more before I can teach with any confidence about that city. For that class, I’m always looking for interesting primary sources to share with my students—archeological site maps, works of art, noir fiction, Onitsha market literature, graffiti, pop songs, pamphlets, photography—and of course, this feeds into my interest in “street archives.”

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am very excited about two recent books in African urban history—one that I have already read, and one that I have not yet read. The first is Kenda Mutongi’s book Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Matatus are the vans and buses that are Kenya’s main mode of urban transport. They emerged in the 1960s out of an ad hoc informal sector venture, and over time, became the public transportation system, serving 70% of the population. They are an essential part of the infrastructure of urban Kenya: when the matatu drivers go on strike, the city grinds to a halt. Through ethnography, archival research and interviews, Kenda Mutongi uncovers a vast urban network of matatu owners, drivers, passengers, mechanics, graffiti artists, sound system engineers, politicians, gang members and investors.  She uses the fascinating history of the matatu industry as a critical lens into the complex political, economic and cultural history of Nairobi.

The second, which I have not yet read, is Joanna Grabski’s book Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar. I love the idea about thinking about a city, its economies and its global linkages, through the lens of the art world. Plus, Dakar has such an amazing art scene, so the book is sure to be a visual treat as well. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would say cast a wide net when it comes to thinking about what constitutes an archive. I did not go into my dissertation research planning to use pulp fiction and Christian self-help books and family planning pamphlets and pop songs as my main sources, but I ended up learning more from them than I ever could have anticipated.

For you first book, you worked with unconventional sources that you called a “street archive.” What would you collect if you were to build an archive of the street on which you currently live?

That’s a neat question. OK, here’s one idea. For at least the past two years, all over Madison, people have been putting signs on their front lawns that say “In this house we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything.” Of course, I agree with all of these statements. But I wonder what kind of work these signs do in a place like Madison:  a predominantly white liberal enclave in a state that voted for Donald Trump, and a state that consistently ranks among the worst in the country in terms of the wellbeing of Black people. Who is the intended audience for these lawn signs? How do households collectively decide to put them up? What is the actual effect of these signs on how people feel moving through Madison? Do these lawn signs do anything to make Madison a more inclusive, equitable, diverse place?  Conversely, to what extent do the lawn signs serve some kind of emotional need of the white middle class families who live in these neighborhoods? I don’t want to be a cynical jerk about it, but I can imagine some really interesting insights coming from an analysis of these signs as a kind of street textuality. I think you could write an interesting history of Madison liberalism through a collection of signs that people have posted on their front lawns over time. I wonder if anyone has been collecting or archiving these.

When Baltimore Was Hollywood East: Racial Exclusion and Cultural Development in the 1970s

By Mary Rizzo

It was intended to be the gala event of 1978. Under blazing Klieg lights, Al Pacino, in the midst of filming …And Justice for All, and Alan Alda, who had recently starred in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, would walk the red carpet, waving to adoring fans. John Waters, best known for films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble that featured sexual fetishes, drug use, and crime, and Barry Levinson, a former TV comedy writer making the shift into feature film writing, would make jokes as they accepted their awards. It would be just like the Oscars, except for the name and location. This award was called “The Don” and it celebrated filmmaking happening in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not just bombast, the awards gala, organized by the Mayor’s Commission on Motion Picture and Videotape Production and Fontaine Sullivan, the head of the mayor’s office on volunteerism, recognized the growing number of film and television productions happening in Baltimore. Waters’ independent films, made without permits, and Levinson’s studio productions shared street space with the Blaxploitation movie The Hitter, made by Christopher Leitch and starring Ron O’Neal, in 1979. In 1974, the city was the setting for a TV pilot called Dr. Max. Newspaper articles reported breathlessly on the camera crews around town. Sullivan even nicknamed Baltimore “Hollywood East” in 1978.

John Waters, film producer/director, in his home.
John Waters, film producer/director, in his home, Michael Geissinger, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did a city that appeared in a 1975 Harper’s Magazine article on the “Worst Cities in America” become Hollywood East three years later? While the urban settings of New Hollywood and Blaxploitation films required filming in real locations rather than studio backlots, Baltimore was not just a lucky beneficiary. Under the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer (1971-1987), Baltimore actively sought film and television production as part of his larger strategy of reimagining a deindustrializing metropolis as a city of arts and culture that would attract tourists, corporate dollars, and upwardly mobile residents. Unlike dirty manufacturing plants, Hollywood film productions were clean sources of revenue. They brought money into the city and also spread an image of Baltimore internationally. While he is best remembered for large-scale infrastructure projects like the Inner Harbor and Harborplace, Schaefer understood that infrastructure alone wouldn’t fix Baltimore’s problems. The image of the city had to change as well.

Like other cities in the 1970s, Baltimore experimented with urban branding, which Miriam Greenberg defines in her study on New York City as, “a dual strategy that was at once visual and material, combining intensive marketing—in this case place marketing—with neoliberal political and economic restructuring.”[1] The 1974 Charm City marketing campaign, in which visitors to Baltimore would collect charm bracelets and charms of various tourist sites, packaged the aging port city as eccentrically premodern, a place that stood outside of time thanks to its white ethnic neighborhoods, historic sites, and row house architecture.

Street in Baltimore Maryland with rowhouses and building with sign “Neighborhood Housing Services”, Warren K. Leffler, March 15, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Baltimore’s film and television production efforts were part of this branding and neoliberalization process. At the same time that Schaefer was using public-private partnerships to fund his infrastructure projects and creating a “shadow government” that operated outside public visibility, he created the Mayor’s Commission on Motion Picture and Videotape Production to eliminate “red tape, bureaucratic hassle, and false starts” to save film companies “precious time and money.”[2] The job of the city was increasingly becoming helping private businesses get around the city’s own rules. In return, film production companies would spend desperately needed money, even, at times, filling in gaps left by shrinking public funding under President Nixon’s New Federalism. While filming …And Justice For All, the crew installed new lights in a real courtroom, which remained after they left. An indictment of the serious financial needs of the city, Sullivan boasted in the Baltimore Sun that it was actually a smart way to utilize private dollars for public benefit.[3]

NYT Charm City Ad 4 August 1974.jpg

The organizers honored both Schaefer’s vision and his outsized ego with their name for the gala: The Don. “Anybody could go to Hollywood and earn an Oscar,” asserted its tagline, “but you have to be in Baltimore to earn a ‘Don.’”[4] Tamara Dobson, born in Baltimore and best known for portraying the Blaxploitation heroine Cleopatra Jones, called Mayor Schaefer personally to tell him that Los Angeles was buzzing with news about The Don awards. Ironically, though, Blaxploitation was ignored at The Dons. As I explore in my forthcoming book on cultural representations of Baltimore, the city consistently promoted the images created by white cultural producers over African American ones. The Don awards illustrate how the racial politics of urban renewal and infrastructure development were mirrored in urban branding and cultural production in Baltimore.

As urban historians have shown, urban renewal displaced African Americans more than whites in cities throughout the country. The buildings constructed in cleared spaces often excluded the former residents of the area through prohibitive rents and prices. Even Harborplace, the festival marketplace opened in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore in 1980, uses multi-lane Pratt Street to cut itself off from the predominately black neighborhoods of downtown Baltimore.

Senator Theater, York Road, Baltimore, Maryland, John Margolies, 1995, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This racial exclusion extended to the cultural infrastructure Schaefer promoted. Black films were being made in Baltimore. The Hitter actually spurred the creation of the film commission after city officials helped the film producers scout locations and realized the role they could play for other productions. In addition to The Hitter, Amazing Grace, a 1974 comedy starring Moms Mabley, was set in Baltimore (though filmed to a large degree in Philadelphia). Goldie, the sequel to Blaxploitation film The Mack starring Max Julien, also scouted Baltimore locations, though it was not completed. Even though black films were being made in Baltimore, the filmmakers honored at the Dons were overwhelmingly white. While all black films were ignored, white filmmakers of radically different styles were welcomed, including Waters, known as the Prince of Puke for his outrageous movies. The event organizers deemed his depictions of Baltimore as a town full of white perverts and criminals more acceptable in promoting the city than the antiheroes of Blaxploitation. Ironically, one of the other awardees at the event was Thomas Cripps, a professor at Morgan State University, who was slated to be honored for his book on the struggles of African American filmmakers and actors for equity in Hollywood, Slow Fade to Black.

Cultural productions by African Americans remained separate from those of white Baltimoreans, rarely receiving the same level of promotion, funding or visibility. The Baltimore Afro-American made this point in an article condemning …And Justice For All. After positioning the film within the context of the beginnings of the mass incarceration of black men, the author asks why the only black actors hired for the film play extras in courtroom and jail scenes, while whites play judges and lawyers. Continuing on, the author asks, “Were all the charges of police brutality swept under the rug just in time to cash in on Hollywood gold?” The parallels between racist law enforcement in Baltimore and Hollywood filmmaking were clear. To be acceptable to Hollywood filmmakers, Baltimore hid its internal problems in order to woo economic development opportunities that tended to portray African Americans in stereotypical ways as criminals, if at all. With a deep bitterness, the article ends by noting that, “the film company is expected to leave $1.25 million in B-more. It just might leave something else. A sense of shame, which might force the city to clean up its act.”[5]

The Enoch Pratt Free Library, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the oldest free public libraries in the United States, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For African American cultural producers, the lack of public attention meant that their work did not achieve the kind of visibility or funding of white cultural producers. However, black cultural producers used this invisibility to their advantage, working in the interstices between organizations and funding streams. The African American poetry magazine Chicory, for example, was published from 1966-1983 by the Enoch Pratt Free Library, becoming a black public sphere for residents in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. Able to be produced cheaply, it published cultural nationalist work that critiqued the city, racism, and poverty, among other things, with little to no oversight. Like the plant it was named after, it flourished in the cracks.

Moms Mabley, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, on stage, Moms Mabley, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Never mind the planning, the tickets sold and the RSVPs returned, The Dons were cancelled, a casualty of celebrity scheduling and chaos behind the scenes. Even though it never took place, The Don awards bring to light key issues facing Baltimore in the 1970s, a moment when the city was desperately trying to remake itself as Charm City. Even if The Dons were a failure, the Schaefer administration continued to promote certain kinds of arts and cultural activities. Baltimore came to be home to an international theatre festival, offered free performances in public spaces built through urban renewal, and supported an array of arts programs. The Mayor’s Office on Motion Picture and Videotape Production went dormant for a short time, but was revived as the Baltimore Film Commission, a private nonprofit that still works closely with the city. To this day, tourists see Baltimore’s sights before ever stepping foot on its streets. As Baltimore shows, urban historians studying the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy should consider the role of arts and culture and how race impacted whose images received official recognition.

Head Shot Close Up SMALLER.JPGMary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of History and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Her work is in American cultural history, urban studies, public history and digital humanities. Her book on the politics of cultural representations of Baltimore from 1953-the early 21st century is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Her chapter on the role of image and infrastructure in Baltimore tourism will appear in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a US City, edited by P. Nicole King, Joshua Clark Davis and Kate Drabinski (Rutgers University Press, 2019). She also leads a team that digitized Chicory and is developing digital and public humanities projects using the magazine. She tweets @rizzo_pubhist.

Featured image (at top): Baltimore, Maryland. Thursday night shoppers in a line outside a movie theatre, Marjory Collins, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Miriam Greenberg, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World (NY: Routledge, 2008), 10.

[2] Letter to Gary Stromberg, WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission 1978-1979 folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[3] “Presenting Baltimore,” WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission Folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[4] Don materials. WD Schaefer Papers, Box 387, Folder, Film Commission, 1978-1979, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[5] “Pacino movie about no justice in B-More,” Afro American, nd, WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission 1978-1979 folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

The Drug War in Baltimore: The Failure of the “Kingpin” Strategy in Charm City

By Will Cooley

How did Baltimore earn the unfortunate nickname “Bulletmore”? Though many factors converged to produce high homicide rates, observers frequently overlook the law enforcement strategy of destabilizing drug trafficking organizations. In the United States as well as Central and South America, policymakers have directed agents to decapitate the “kingpins” of narcotics businesses through arrests. As proponents frequently claim, if they can cut off the head of the snake the body will wither. The strategy is popular with the press, politicians, and the public, who want to see these so-called pushers punished. The results in Baltimore and across the hemisphere have been a disaster, however, and criminal justice reformers general unwillingness to speak out about the catastrophic costs of high-level prosecutions have hindered their ability to reduce the harms not only of drug abuse, but of the drug war.

By the mid-1970s, handful of kingpins with syndicates made up of family members and trusted associates controlled the lion’s share of narcotics distribution in Baltimore. Many owned small businesses and garnered community tolerance through donations, loans, and gifts. They enjoyed prized connections with wholesalers and sometimes pooled their buy money to get better rates. Among the most sophisticated was Maurice “Peanut” King. King aggressively marketed heroin and, after adult dealers were imprisoned for longer terms, brought on juveniles to hawk on the streets. King and his peers dished out force when necessary but were also businessmen with long-term outlooks. He laundered his proceeds through Atlantic City casinos and reinvested them in stocks and real estate. Peanut also boldly flashed his largesse by driving a DeLorean and indulging in luxury goods. For many black Baltimoreans expected the stay in their “place,” men like King were outlaw heroes.[1]

During the early 1980s, law enforcement waged an energetic, expensive effort to pursue these chiefs. One after another they fell: Ancel Holland, Peanut King, Melvin Stanford, Clarence Meredith, Melvin Williams. Narcotics agents and prosecutors gloated, noting that Baltimore was a trailblazer in utilizing the federal “kingpin” law to dismantle narcotics rings. Police Commissioner Frank Battaglia boasted that the million dollars spent annually on enforcement was absolutely paying off, as the police department had apprehended forty-one high-ranking suppliers while seizing over a million in cash, a million more in property, ninety-nine automobiles, and 1,110 guns. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, these prosecutions were money-making operations.[2]

Even as the busts were hailed by the media, reservations about the overall effect of this strategy crept in. The takedowns did not put a dent in Baltimore’s $900 million heroin market, an amount three times what city spent on its schools. After Peanut King’s territory in East Baltimore opened it descended into competitive chaos, while West Baltimore remained relatively placid under the thumb of structured operations. In honest moments, police officers expressed frustrations that touted breakthroughs did not slow the trade and violence continued to rise. The kingpins were undoubtedly ruthless, but they also enforced discipline. An undercover narcotics agent noted that neither he nor his targets carried guns, and as for business underlings, “you better not get caught carrying a gun if you weren’t authorized to carry a gun.”[3] The national offensive increased the incarceration rate for drug offenses by a factor of ten between 1980 and 1996, and veteran sellers were replaced by inexperienced, trigger-happy youths.[4]

Urban homesteading in Baltimore (World Trade Center, Maryland, in background), Thomas J. O’Holloran, March 2, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To make matters worse, in the mid-1980s New York City dealers flooded into Baltimore with deeply discounted products in what felt like an invasion. A DEA official acknowledged that the influx filled the void created by locking up men like King and Meredith. In the past, these gangsters would have “executed” outsiders horning in on the valuable commerce.[5] Where prosecutors had once claimed that putting away narcotics bosses had dealt “knockout” blows to large organizations, by the end of the 1980s they merely pledged to keep plugging away. All this enforcement rewarded Baltimore with the nation’s highest rates of drug addiction throughout the 1990s.

Further destabilizing any semblance of order, the dissolution of narcotics hierarchies coincided with the introduction of crack cocaine. Heroin produced strung-out, track-marked junkies, but crack maintained its glamorous image even as the price plummeted. Street traffic was already getting younger because of the clampdown on adults. Turning cheap and plentiful cocaine into smokable rock was something nearly anyone kid could do. Running a heroin operation was akin to managing a department store, but crack spots were more like pop-up shops. Baltimore had a proud history of black entrepreneurship – licit and illicit – and training programs tried to assist low-income people starting small businesses. To the chagrin of policymakers, though, narco-capitalism was the best microenterprise opportunity available. “We simply have to do more for ourselves,” Mayor Kurt Schmoke noted at his second inauguration. “The economy leaves us no choice.”[6] Many dealers could not have agreed more.

Two O’Clock Club sign, Baltimore, Maryland, John Margolies, 1995, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The evolution of a West Baltimore youth gang showed how crack changed the urban landscape. A group of about twenty boys banded together as Def City for camaraderie, sports, neighborhood protection, and the typical juvenile delinquency. In the late 1980s, though, the boys began dealing rock. It was not done as a gang, a member noted, as distributors instructed them in the Reagan-era ethos of going “into business for yourself.” The gang progressed from car thefts to owning cars, from fistfights to firefights. They became family breadwinners, but dangers lurked behind every transaction. After four were shot, some decided the risks were not worth it. One dealer quit after a bandit held a gun to his mother’s head demanding his drugs and money. He took a job earning $4.25 an hour at an Inner Harbor hotel with dreams to “Be like Donald Trump.”[7]

The treacherous stakes weeded out many youths, but there was always someone ready to step up. Experts had written off the urban underclass as “relatively permanent” and bereft of “avenues of escape.” Given the lack of opportunities, the African-American journalist and drug war critic William Reed noted, youths had “developed their own alterative occupations.”[8] The bold seized these roles with gusto. Tommy Lee Canty became a boss in his early twenties, an age when dealers in the past would become lieutenants. He and other cocaine cowboys lacked the experience and savvy earned in organized crime apprenticeships, making mistakes like not securing stash houses, leaving a paper trail, and hiring indiscriminately violent employees. A judge complained that the city suffered under “the tyranny of the children” and neighbors instigated public marches to fight back.[9]

Public Works Project in City of Baltimore (Cross Street Market), Thomas J. O’Halloran, October 26, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As in other cities, homicide rates climbed sharply through the combination of extreme poverty and segregation, an unwieldy drug market, teenage immaturity, and abundant handguns. “Kids whose minds should have been on Teddy Ruxpin,” Ta-Nehisi Coates recalled, “now held in their hands the power to dissolve your world into white.”[10] Baltimore, the city of neighborhoods, became the city of drug cliques, and if they controlled turf at all it only extended a few blocks. Homicides peaked at a city record of 353 in 1995.

Patterson Theater sign, Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland, John Margolies, 1995, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Frustrated BPD officials claimed that in the mid-1990s perhaps three out of four murders had a narcotics connection, and prohibition’s side effects also contributed to the bedlam. Ordinary activities – bike rides, walks, a trip to the store – could turn into tragedies. Petty disagreements escalated into bloodshed as Baltimoreans became more and more convinced they needed guns. When Mayor Schmoke asked an audience at a community meeting to disarm, he was greeted by laughter and jeers.[11] In a tumultuous environment, a weapon gave residents a feeling of control, especially for young men. “To be strapped was to grab the steering wheel of our careening lives,” Coates noted. “A gun was a time machine and an anchor – it dictated events. To be strapped was to master yourself, to become more than a man whose life and death could simply be seized and hurled about.”[12] Residents and politicians often proposed shifting enforcement from drugs to weapons, but under prohibition players felt exposed without them. Addressing firearms without admitting that the lawless narcotics business caused gunplay was futile.

Schmoke was a drug war critic, but as mayor he instituted Drug Free Zones and Community Policing. Neighborhood groups cheered these efforts, and wanted officers permanently assigned to areas to prevent crimes, not just catch criminals and pick up bodies. The Baltimore Sun suggested that the police department engage in “a turf battle that will pit the police and law-abiding citizens on one side and the criminal element on the other.” Reporter David Simon thought that securing corners could restore police credibility and allow communities to function (Simon went on to create the HBO series The Wire). Veteran cops believed they could “plant the flag” while BPD executives pledged to “take back the drug corners and hold them.”[13] The BPD had been making big busts for years but claimed that this scheme was different because it responded to citizen requests and improved local conditions. “This is not just your blanket kind of street sweep where you get a lot of low-level guys,” Schmoke claimed. “It’s different than what I’ve seen in the past. If this is what people want, they are going to see more of this.” The statement may have intended to boost city morale, but the rueful tone indicated that Schmoke knew that giving people what they desired would produce a fleeting victory at best.[14] Some applauded the actions, but the weary dismissed such efforts as “publicity stunts.” “After a couple of days, it will all be the same again,” a 25-year-old sighed. “It really doesn’t do anything at all but let the police and politicians get on TV.”[15]

The skepticism was justified, as “secure and hold” was impractical. Schmoke donned a bulletproof vest with community volunteers in a symbolic occupation of drug corners, urging citizens to work with the police. At one intersection, an addict explained the futility of the actions. Laid off two and a half years earlier from Bethlehem Steel where he earned $24.60 an hour, he turned to delivering $10 heroin packets, living off his cut.[16] While drug warriors offered slogans and moralizing, the narcotics economy paid the bills and provided bursts of pleasure.

Public Works Project in City of Baltimore (112 N. Stockton St. Waverly Terrace), Thomas J. O’Halloran, October 26, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Drug arrests continued to make commerce more anarchic. The “Strong as Steel” gang ran a business of 30-40 employees based in a dilapidated area in the northwest part of the city. It flourished by peddling potent heroin wildly popular with users, who could dilute it, shoot half and sell the rest. Police pressure destabilized the arrangement, creating mayhem as enforcers tried to claim new turf without the necessary inventory. Members turned to robbery to secure a heroin supply, often by posing as narcotics agents, leading to the murders of two small-time dealers in front of dozens of witnesses. The authorities brought down “Strong as Steel” in 1994, but as soon as they were off the streets rivals filled the vacuum.[17] The busts turned organized crime into disorganized crime. “Same activity – selling drugs – just done a different way, and it’s done with violence, and the most violent crew takes over,” narcotics agent Neill Franklin recalled.[18] By the late 1990s, BPD Commissioner Thomas Frazier reported that the city’s distribution system was made up of approximately 100 small, nimble cliques with fewer than ten operatives. The lesson, however, was that the BPD “must become quicker and just as nimble in putting them behind bars.”[19] For drug warriors, failures only led to declarations that the next tactic was the winner. Drug czar William Bennett coined the war’s motto: “Last year’s hopeless cause is this year’s revived opportunity for victory.”[20]

Despite its horrific track record from Baltimore to Acapulco and points in between, the kingpin strategy soldiers on. While many liberals have come on board with criminal justice reform, a common refrain is that law enforcers should be focusing on the major traffickers instead of small-time dealers. This myopia only leads to more carnage as the players change and the game goes on.


unnamed.pngWill Cooley is the author of Moving Up, Moving Out: The Rise of the Black Middle Class in Chicago (DeKalb, IL Northern Illinois Press, 2018).  His current research focuses on a bottom-up examination of the war on drugs.

[1] Karen Warmkessel, “6 Convicted of Conspiracy, Drug Charges,” Baltimore Sun, March 13 1986, 4B.

[2] Vernon Guidry, Jr. “Baltimore is Among Best in Using Drug Kingpin Law,” Baltimore Sun, February 16 1983, A1; Ann LoLordo, “City Narcotics Squad Seeks ‘Containment’” Baltimore Sun, September 18 1983, 1; Baltimore Afro-American, “Drug Agents Claim Victories in Ongoing War Against Drugs,” January 10, 1987, 3.

[3] Neill Franklin Interview, April 5, 2017.

[4] Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, “The Recent Rise and Fall of American Violence” in

Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, eds., The Crime Drop in America, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4-5.

[5] Karen Warmkessel, “7 in ‘N.Y. Boys’ Drug Probe Seized Here,” Baltimore Sun, April 11, 1987, 5A.

[6] Sandy Banisky, “Schmoke Begins Chapter 2,” Baltimore Sun, December 4, 1991.

[7] Scott Shane, “Drug Dealing Lures Flood of Teens,” Baltimore Sun, August 30 1992: 1A.

[8] President’s Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, Urban America in the Eighties: Perspectives and Prospects (Washington, DC: GPO, 1980), 19; William Reed, “Blacks and America’s Drug Problem,” Homeland, Jan. 1, 1993.

[9] S.M. Khalid, “Risky Business: Major Drug Dealers Are Getting Younger,” Baltimore Sun, October 27 1991, 1G.

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008), 29-30.

[11] Baltimore Sun, “Community Groups Gather to Plot War on Crime,” February 24, 1991, 3B.

[12] Coates, Beautiful Struggle, 35.

[13] David Simon, “Making the City Crime-Free, One Neighborhood at a Time,” Baltimore Sun, August 11, 1991, 1G.

[14] Peter Hermann, “Drug Sweep Targets East Baltimore,” Baltimore Sun, March 20, 1994.

[15] Baltimore Sun, “13 Arrested After Complaints of Drug Dealing Prompt Raids,” September 2, 1994.

[16] Paul Valentine, “Taking Back Baltimore’s Streets for a Day,” Washington Post, November 27, 1993.

[17] United States v. Corey Steven Johnson, 73 F.3d 359 (4th Cir. 1996).

[18] Neill Franklin interview, April 5, 2017.

[19] Thomas Frazier, “A Message to Citizens from the Baltimore Police Department,” n.d. but c. February 1997, box 14, Kurt Schmoke Papers, Baltimore City Archives.

[20] Pittsburgh Press, “Bush Claims Drug War Gains in a Year,” September 6, 1990.

Featured image (at top): Baltimore (Convention Center Construction), Marion S. Trikosko, December 2, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Member of the Week: James Wolfinger

James Wolfinger September, 2015James Wolfinger

Professor of History and Education

DePaul University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently working on a book about a World War II U.S. airman named Bert Julian.  Julian grew up in the Orange, N.J. area around 1910, in an era when the New Jersey suburbs were being more fully incorporated into New York City and people still rode to town in horse-drawn buggies.  Julian survived the Depression by doing odd jobs and sleeping on people’s couches.  He joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, trained as a waist gunner on a B 24 bomber, and was stationed in New Guinea, where he flew reconnaissance missions in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines.  Julian’s plane crashed in northern New Guinea and he was ultimately captured, interrogated, and killed by a Japanese officer in the commission of a war crime.  The inherent interest of Julian’s death coupled with the larger forces he experienced as an ordinary person swept up in huge events—world war and attendant globalization, urbanization, technological advance, and Depression—all drew me to this story.  What particularly fascinates me is how a young man who knew small town New Jersey, with its neighborhood stores, corner taverns, and concrete sidewalks, wound up on his knees in a muddy clearing in New Guinea with a man standing over him with a sword, screaming at him in Japanese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach a class for our graduate history education students with the prosaic title “Readings in American History.”  The class is chronological and covers American history from the colonial period to the present.  I like teaching it because the reading load emphasizes to future teachers that they are entering an intellectual occupation, it allows me to teach classics as well as cutting edge scholarship, and it has deepened my knowledge of many aspects of U.S. history.  Every book I read, whether it is on urban history or not, gives me new ideas on how to think about history, write history, ask historical questions.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited about a new book that I am editing for Temple University Press, with the working title “African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.” Covering the period from the Great Migration to today, the book brings together mostly young historians who are doing fresh research on black politics in twentieth century Philadelphia.  There is no other book like it—on Philadelphia or other cities—and it gives me the opportunity to work with exciting new authors and help bring their work to a larger audience.  “African American Politics” will analyze formal politics, community organizing, women’s leadership, and many other topics.  It will focus on Philadelphia while offering a model for how scholars might examine the history of other cities.  In today’s political climate, this book will speak to historians but I believe it will also find a much larger audience.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Follow your passion!  Research and write about what interests you.  My daughter is currently an undergraduate in college, and I always tell her: “If you don’t do what you love, if you don’t try to make it your life’s work now, then you never will.”  I grew up in Oklahoma City, and I remember as a child listening to Boston Bruins hockey games on my dad’s old shortwave radio.  I was probably the only person in Oklahoma doing so!  Large Northern cities seemed so far away, so foreign to me as a child.  I wanted to learn more about them, live in one of them, be urban.  I have always been fascinated by cities, how they work and how people live in them.  Living in and exploring cities was my passion then, and now.

Do you have a favorite book about teaching? Is it one that’s personally resonant and meaningful? Or is it one from which you learned the most and gleaned the best advice?

Let me change the question a bit, to a favorite book to teach.  More than any other book, the work that helped me see the power of history to illuminate the past and better understand the present is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  To me, Morgan analyzed the central issue for understanding the American experience: the vexed relationship between race and class throughout all of American history.  I tell my students that if there’s one book that they should read as a starting point for understanding the promise and problems of the United States, this is the one.

The Brotherhood of Liberty and Baltimore’s Place in the Black Freedom Struggle

By Dennis Patrick Halpin 

On June 2, 1885, Reverend Harvey Johnson called five of his fellow clergymen and close confidants —Ananias Brown, William Moncure Alexander, Patrick Henry Alexander, John Calvin Allen, and W. Charles Lawson—to his Baltimore home. During the previous year, Johnson had orchestrated challenges to public transportation segregation and Maryland’s prohibition on black attorneys. Now he hoped to accelerate the fight for racial equality by forming Baltimore’s first civil rights organization, the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty.harveyjohnson.jpg

The founding of the Brotherhood of Liberty was a turning point in the long history of the black freedom struggle. The Brotherhood, active between 1885 and 1891, was not only Baltimore’s first civil rights organization but also one of the first in the nation. Its vision for racial equality, its strategies, and its uncompromising demand for civil rights laid the groundwork for later national groups including the Afro-American League and the Niagara Movement.[1] The organization also made Baltimore the epicenter for movements that challenged the emergence of Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century.

Johnson’s decision to form the Brotherhood did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, Baltimore’s history and circumstances made it particularly fertile grounds for civil rights activism by the time Johnson organized the Brotherhood. Baltimore had straddled the border between different worlds. It was a city with slaves located in a slave state. But Marylanders were divided on the issue of slavery, and the institution’s importance to Baltimore’s economy waned as the Civil War approached. By the 1830s, Baltimore was home to the largest free black population in the country. Free black Baltimoreans had organized schools and protested against slavery and colonization throughout the antebellum era. Finally, Baltimore was a port city that welcomed immigrants and their presence would make instituting Jim Crow complicated for segregationists in Maryland.[2]

Baltimore’s borderland status continued to play a role during the Reconstruction Era. Although it is tempting to see the Border States as the moderate middle between the Confederacy and the Union, this borderland status actually made states like Maryland more fraught for African Americans after the Civil War. Since Maryland had not seceded from the Union, it did not undergo federal Reconstruction like states further south. Furthermore, Maryland did not have a strong Republican Party, which had helped African Americans vote and win elected office throughout the former Confederacy. In 1868, the Democratic Party had regained control over the state government and rewrote the state constitution to negate the meager steps Maryland had taken towards racial equality.

With political avenues all but closed, black Marylanders (including many Baltimoreans) built upon the activism of the antebellum era by adjusting it to match the realities of the post-emancipation world. During Reconstruction, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property” regardless of race.[3] African Americans used this legislation to ignite a new era of political and social protest in Maryland through the courts. Throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, black Marylanders mounted several legal challenges to racial inequality. African Americans contested a law that barred them from testifying in court against white citizens. They petitioned the courts to end the odious practice of “involuntary apprenticeship” that allowed slaveowners to extend the life of slavery past the end of the Civil War. Between 1866 and 1871, a number of black Baltimorean men and women either purposefully violated segregation laws or filed lawsuits to challenge discrimination. Their efforts paid off: in 1871, the US Circuit court ordered streetcars open to black and white riders; black Baltimoreans had desegregated public transit in the city.

Isaac Myers

During this period, black Baltimoreans also looked beyond Maryland’s borders. Activists sought to make common cause with African Americans in other Border States and further south in order to pressure the federal government to intercede on their behalf. Black Baltimoreans planned and hosted a Colored Border States Convention in 1868. The next year they organized a National Convention of Colored Men to demand racial equality. Isaac Myers—an entrepreneur, activist, and labor organizer—started his efforts locally. After white waterfront workers forced black caulkers from the jobsite on the Baltimore waterfront in 1866 he helped build a co-operative shipyard to provide needed jobs. Myers then looked nationally when he helped organize the National Colored Labor Union in 1869.

This was the politically charged atmosphere that Harvey Johnson entered when he moved to Baltimore in 1872. Johnson was born into slavery in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1843. In 1868, the twenty-five year old Johnson found his calling in the Baptist church and moved to Washington, D.C. to enroll at Wayland Seminary. After graduating, Johnson accepted a pastorate at the small Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, which at the time only had 250 members. Johnson initially focused on expanding his church. By 1875, Johnson grew the church’s membership to 928 congregants. By 1885, Union Baptist had over 2,200 parishioners, which made it the largest and most influential black church in Baltimore.[4] Just as importantly, Johnson helped build new black Baptist churches across the city and state in the 1870s and 1880s.  In total, at least fourteen churches and eleven ministers traced their roots to Union Baptist and/or Johnson’s mentorship.[5] These churches not only tended to the spiritual needs of black Baltimoreans but also provided spaces to organize. At each of these churches, Johnson’s allies became ministers and political allies.

As Johnson and his cohorts were building their churches, African-American activism in the city underwent important changes. In part, this was influenced by national developments. In early 1883 the Supreme Court upended parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This meant that the federal government could no longer assure African Americans equal accommodations and equality on transportation, or guarantee that they could serve on juries. This decision came on the heels of others that had scaled back the protections instituted during Reconstruction.

These developments infuriated Johnson and other activists. Beginning in the early 1880s, many black Baltimoreans advocated abandoning both political parties. Johnson was one of these individuals. At a meeting in 1883, Johnson said “that the condition of the colored people of Maryland was worse than in any other State, that the laws relative to them were enacted before the war were still in force.” The minister listed numerous wrongs including the state’s prohibition on black attorneys, its bastardy law that punished African-American women, and its jury selection system that excluded black Marylanders. For Johnson, the moment to act had come. He ended his speech by predicting that “the day was dawning when the power of the colored people in Maryland would be seen and felt.”[6] What is particularly interesting about Johnson’s speech is that the wrongs he listed would all be things that he challenged individually or as part of the Brotherhood.

out-26About year after this speech, Johnson and his parishioners opened a new chapter in Baltimore’s fight for equality. The events of 1884 and 1885 were crucial in Johnson’s plan to build a civil rights organization in Baltimore. On August 15, 1884, six of Johnson’s parishioners boarded the Steamer Sue, which plied the waters between Maryland and Virginia. The travelers—including Martha Stewart, Winnie Stewart, Mary M. Johnson, and Lucy Jones—had reserved a first-class sleeping cabin for the night’s journey. When they attempted to retire for the evening, the steamboat’s agents refused them entrance and offered to house them in “first class” accommodations reserved for blacks in another part of the ship.

The women, who had previously taken this journey and knew that they were likely to face discrimination, had experience challenging their treatment. In 1882, Winnie Stewart recalled that two of her sisters had refused the steamboat operator’s demands to leave their first class accommodations. The women’s aunt, Pauline Braxton, had similarly refused these orders on another earlier voyage. Upon their return to Baltimore, Johnson helped them file a lawsuit against the Baltimore, Chesapeake and Richmond Steamboat Company that operated the Steamer Sue on the grounds that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The women prevailed, though the damages they recovered were considerably less than they had hoped for and the judge issued a narrow ruling that did not speak to the larger questions about whether segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[7]

Despite the limited victory, Johnson was encouraged. In the wake of the Steamer Sue case, he spearheaded a new effort to get a black attorney admitted to the Baltimore bar. In 1885, Johnson contacted Charles S. Wilson. The thirty-year-old Wilson had graduated from Amherst College. After earning his license to practice law, he worked as an attorney in Boston before he moved to Maryland to teach in the town of Sunnybrook.[8] Wilson agreed to challenge Maryland’s prohibition of black attorneys before the city’s Supreme Bench on the grounds that the exclusion violated the Fourteenth Amendment. On March 19, 1885 the city’s Supreme Bench overturned Maryland’s 1872 exclusionary law, although their decision only applied in Baltimore.[9] For African Americans the decision was an important victory. Activists could now hire attorneys dedicated to fighting inequality.

The culmination of these two cases helped Johnson lay the foundation for the Brotherhood of Liberty. Local grievances and developments were important catalysts but Johnson was also influenced by national developments. The Brotherhood’s founding came at an important juncture in the long struggle for civil rights. During the early 1880s, African-American journalists across the nation, including Ida B. Wells, T. Thomas Fortune, and John Mitchell, Jr. used their newspapers to challenge the advent of Jim Crow. In New York, Fortune—whose newspapers were read in Baltimore—began promoting the idea of a permanent, non-partisan civil rights organization as early as 1884. Although it would take years for Fortune to realize his plan, the Brotherhood quickly incorporated many of his ideas to challenge racial inequality in Maryland. The group organized independently, demanded the fulfillment of the Constitution’s promises of civil rights, and aggressively challenged discrimination.

Over the course of the next six years the Brotherhood became a force in Baltimore and Maryland. After overturning Baltimore’s prohibition on black attorneys, Johnson convinced recent Howard graduates Everett J. Waring and Joseph S. Davis to move to Baltimore. With their legal team set, the group helped organize a successful challenge to Maryland’s prejudicial bastardy law. They undertook numerous protests against educational inequality, eventually compelling the city to fund a new African American high school and staff it with black teachers. The Brotherhood also defended black laborers who had rebelled over deplorable working conditions on Navassa Island, located off the coast of Haiti. That case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where the Brotherhood’s Everett J. Waring became the first black attorney to present an argument before the highest court in the land.Waring

As politicians, citizens, and the courts slowly rolled back the modest gains made during Reconstruction, the Brotherhood of Liberty challenged the dictates of the emerging Jim Crow Era. Even as the organization faded in the early 1890s it left behind important legacies. Johnson and Alexander continued to lead a variety of movements for racial justice in the city. Johnson would become one of the earliest members of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the NAACP, while Alexander organized efforts in the early 1900s to stop Jim Crow disfranchisement. On August 13, 1892, Alexander published the first issue of the Afro-American from Sharon Baptist. In the years to follow, the Afro-American became a potent counterweight to the city’s white papers, provided a platform for black businesses, churches, and individuals and, perhaps most importantly, served to highlight nationwide and local racial injustices, as well as the efforts of activists to fight them. Alexander would successfully lead the fight against Maryland’s efforts to disfranchise African Americans in the early 1900s.[10]

For many black Baltimoreans, the modest steps toward equality in the Reconstruction Era did not occur between 1865 and 1877 as they had for African Americans living further South. Instead, they began in 1884 when black Baltimoreans spearheaded judicial challenges to inequality and organized the Brotherhood of Liberty. The Brotherhood’s use of test case litigation also reverberated throughout the nation. In 1887, T. Thomas Fortune contemplated the direction of his Afro-American League, the first nationwide civil rights organization. Joseph S. Davis, one of the Brotherhood’s attorneys, wrote to Fortune’s New York Freeman to offer his support and weigh in on the deliberations. “The time has come when we have got to fight our greatest battles,” Davis declared, “and win our greatest victories in the courts and at the bar of public opinion.” Davis proposed pursuing test cases to achieve civil rights to “try the strength of our great Constitution.” “To accomplish this result we must follow such cases as are suitable from the station house to the Supreme Court. We must employ the best legal talent attainable,” Davis argued, “and we must pay these men and pay them well. Here the League can make itself heard, felt and respected.”[11] Davis spoke from experience. This was a vision that the Brotherhood of Liberty had already put into practice in Maryland. Now it would serve as the blueprint that other national civil groups would follow throughout much of the twentieth century.

Dennis Halpin

Dennis Patrick Halpin is an Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech.  His book, A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2019.   


[1] For more information on the early stages of the black freedom struggle in the United States, see: Susan D. Carle, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Shawn Leigh Alexander, An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[2] Black Baltimoreans developed a history of activism stretching back to the antebellum era. For Baltimore’s antebellum era, see Christopher Philips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[3] “The Civil Rights Bill and its Consequences,” The Baltimore Sun 9 April 1866, p. 2.

[4] George F. Adams, Baptist Churches of Maryland (Baltimore: J.F. Weishampel, Jr. 1885) p. 130-32 and A.W. Pegues, Our Baptist Ministers and Schools (Willey & Co: Springfield, MA 1892) 89, 291.

[5] “Funeral of Reverend Wm. M. Alexander on Monday,” The Afro-American Ledger 11 April 1919, p. A1 and “Sharon Baptist Church,” The Afro-American Ledger 17 February 1912, p. 7. A. Briscoe Koger, “Dr. Harvey Johnson—Pioneer Civic Leader,” (Baltimore: Self-Published, 1957) 3.

[6] “Movement of Colored People,” The Baltimore Sun 25 April 1882, p. 1.

[7] Accounts of the “Steamer Sue” case taken from: “District Court, D. Maryland. The Sue,” Westlaw 2 Feb. 1885 22F.843; Koger, “Dr. Harvey Johnson: Minister and Pioneer Civic Leader, 9-10; “Colored Passengers,” The Baltimore Sun 3 February 1885, p. 6.

[8] “Can Colored Men Be Lawyers,” The Baltimore Sun 16 February 1885, p. 6 and F. Johnson, “Legal Lights of Baltimore,” The Afro-American Ledger 26 March 1910, p. 6.

[9] “Admitted to the Bar,” The Baltimore Sun 20 March 1885, p. 1 and “Admission of Colored Lawyers to the Bar,” The Baltimore Sun 20 March 1885, p. 2.

[10] For information on the publishing history of the Afro-American see: Hayward Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998).

[11] Joseph S. Davis, “A Baltimore Lawyer’s View of the Case,” The New York Freeman 16 July 1887, p. 1. I found this letter through: Carle, Defining the Struggle, p. 56.

CFP for UC-Berkeley: Landscapes of Memory

The Metropole digs symposiums. Who doesn’t? Recently, the Global Urban Humanities Initiative (a joint venture between the UC Berkeley Arts & Humanities Division of the College of Letters & Science and the College of Environmental Design) contacted the UHA about its upcoming two day symposium: Techniques of Memory: Landscape, Iconoclasm, Medium, and Power.  Needless to say, we see plenty of opportunity for urbanists so check out the CFP below!

CFSAAA – Call for Scholars, Artists, Architects and Activists

Techniques of Memory

Landscape, Iconoclasm, Medium and Power

Before WWII Robert Musil famously claimed that there was nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. Musil, alongside critics like Lewis Mumford, was determined to disclose the inability of the monument to adapt itself to modern times. Yet, recent events in Charlottesville, and New Orleans are only one of many signs that Musil might have been mistaken: monuments and memorials can be easily awakened to cause local politics and streets to burst into flames. While old monuments are falling, new memorials get erected at heightened speed. The distance between an injustice, tragedy, or deed, and its memorialization seems to be rapidly decreasing.

The groundbreaking literature on the field of memorialization, which includes classics like Maurice Halbwachs’s On Collective Memory, Pierre Nora’s Liex de Memoire, James Young’s The Texture of Memory, Andreas Huyssen’s Twilight Memories, _________dealt with a historical phenomenon rooted in the 80s and heightened by anxieties about the new millennium. Almost two decades later its seems pressing to reassess the role that memory and its physical manifestations ­–memorials, monuments, plaques, calendars, photographs, xxx– play in our contemporary world. The 2019 Global Urban Humanities conference, Techniques of Memory, invites scholars, artists, architects, and activists to submit abstracts that analyze memorialization as a historical phenomenon, discuss the contemporary role of memorials, and examine the changing role of memory in diverse geographical areas and historical periods.

The Global Urban Humanities Initiative is a joint venture between the UC Berkeley Arts & Humanities Division of the College of Letters & Science and the College of Environmental Design. Thanks to the vision and support of the Mellon Foundation, it brings together scholars and practitioners from the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, city and regional planning, and multiple humanities disciplines – ranging from comparative literature and history of art, to theater, dance and performance studies. Together, faculty and graduate students are developing new theoretical paradigms, research methods, and pedagogical approaches in order to help address the complex problems facing today’s global cities and regions.

Techniques of Memory: Landscape, Iconoclasm, Medium and Power will be a two-day symposium organized by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative at UC Berkeley, from April 17th to 18th 2019 at the Brower Center in Downtown Berkeley. Following the principles of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, our symposium seeks to bring together not only scholars, but practitioners, activists and artist to think about monuments, memorial landscapes, iconoclasm, mediums and materiality, as well as memory politics and power from the unique interdisciplinary standpoint that this platform provides. The symposium will consist of four panels: Landscape, Iconoclasm, Medium and Power. We ask submissions to reference which of the four panels they would like to be considered for:

  1. Landscape: Contributions that engage with what could be largely defined as memorial landscapes: geographies of memory, geopolitics of memorials, as well as memorials in specific social and cultural contexts. Design interventions, scholarly examinations, activism projects and community appropriation examples are all encouraged to participate.
  2. Iconoclasm: Contributions that engage with the destruction, removal, intervention, mobility and stasis, re-appropriation, and re-signification of monuments and memorials. Scholarly contributions, architectural designs, artistic interventions, performance works and new media approaches are encouraged to participate.
  3. Medium: Contributions that examine the materiality, production, and labor of memory and memorials. Scholarly contributions, architectural designs, artistic interventions, performance works and new media approaches are encouraged to participate.
  4. Power: Contributions that engage with politics and institutions of memory, race and memory, gender and memory, debates around postcolonial memorialization, as well as struggles for recognition and reparation. Design interventions, scholarly examinations, activism projects and community appropriation examples are all encouraged to participate.

Additionally, keynote speakers Austin Allen (New Orleans), Jason Berry (New Orleans), Lauren Kroiz (Berkeley), Marita Sturken (New York), Hans van Houwelingen (Amsterdam), will each contribute to one of the four themes of the conference and will serve as respondents to the delivered papers.

Submissions should include the following:

–       Contact information (name and email)

–       Institutional affiliation and/or address

–       Title of contribution

–       Type of contribution (paper, performance, artist talk, design talk)

–       Preferred panel (landscape, iconoclasm, medium or power)

–       Abstract (300 words)

–       CV (no more than 4 pages)

Selected papers will be supported to present their contributions at the symposium with $800 for travel and lodging expenses for presenters from outside California, and $400 for presenters travelling from within California.

The deadline for submissions is December 20th, 2018.


Symposium Organizing Committee:

Susan Moffat – Global Urban Humanities Project Director,

Anna Brand – Landscape Architecture Department;

Sarah Hwang – Global Urban Humanities Program coordinator,

Valentina Rozas-Krause – Architecture Department

Andrew Shanken –Architecture Department;

Bryan Wagner – English Department