By Matt Crenson
In April, 2015, Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury while in the custody of Baltimore police officers. His was one more name on a national roster of unarmed black men who died that year at the hands of the police. On the day of Gray’s funeral, rioting broke out. Buildings were burned, stores looted, vehicles smashed and set afire – especially police cars. Twenty officers were injured, and about 250 residents arrested. The town lay under a state of emergency for a full week.
Not long after the emergency ended, the New York Times ran an editorial under the headline “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.” It said that “the segregationist impulse in Maryland generally was particularly virulent and well documented in Baltimore, which is now 63 percent black…Americans might think of Maryland as a Northern state, but it was distinctively Southern in its attitudes toward race…the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore – and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time – have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history.”
The Times account of Baltimore’s racial history mentioned one tool of discrimination in particular – a residential segregation ordinance adopted by the city in 1910. It was the first law of its kind in the country and a model for several other cities. Superficially even-handed, it prohibited African Americans from moving to blocks where a majority of the residents were white, but also made it illegal for whites to move to blocks with black majorities. One hundred and five years before its editorial on the Freddie Gray riots, the Times had condemned the Baltimore ordinance as “the most pronounced ‘Jim Crow’ measure on record.”
Baltimoreans naturally had a different understanding of their ordinance. The law’s title set out its official purposes: “An Ordinance for Preserving Peace, Preventing Conflict and Ill-Feelings Between the White and Colored Races And Protecting the General Welfare of the City of Baltimore By Providing as Far as Possible for the Use of Separate Blocks By White and Colored People for Residences, Churches, and Schools.” The stated purpose, in other words, was to avoid racial conflict. But the law’s too-long title nearly sank it. A municipal court declared it invalid because it violated a provision of the city charter requiring that the title of an ordinance could mention only one purpose.
The City Council pruned the law’s title and passed an updated version in 1911, which included a new provision exempting racially mixed blocks from the scope of the ordinance. In 1913, a black man was charged with occupying a house on a majority-white block. The case was dismissed when a municipal judge held that the law’s language concerning mixed-race blocks made no sense. On appeal, a state court approved the disputed wording, but threw out the ordinance anyway. A black person who owned a house on a majority-white block before the passage of the law would be prohibited from occupying it. The City Council again revised their ordinance to meet the requirements of the courts.
It did not survive its next judicial test. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Louisville’s residential segregation law unconstitutional, not because it was racially discriminatory, but because it interfered with the right of property-owners to sell real estate to purchasers of their own choosing. Louisville’s law had been modeled on Baltimore’s. During the ensuing decades, residential segregation in Baltimore, as in other cities, depended on restrictive covenants and, later, on the redlining policies of federal loan and loan guarantee programs.
There is little here to give Baltimore a “singular place in the country’s racial history,” as the Times would have it. But there was something singular about the city’s political orientation toward race. The too-long title that introduced its residential segregation ordinance may have exaggerated the town’s devotion to “preserving peace and preventing conflict.” (Baltimore was known as Mobtown after all.) But it expressed a settled determination to avoid raising the race issue.
In 1838, James Silk Buckingham, a wealthy British social reformer recently retired from the House of Commons stopped off in Baltimore for about a month during a year-long tour of the United States. When he got back to England he published a book about his travels. “It is worthy of remark,” he wrote, “that in all our intercourse with the people of Baltimore, and we were constantly out in society, we heard less about slaves and slavery than in any town we had yet visited.”
Baltimore occupied the middle ground between slavery and freedom. Its position may have bred ambivalence about the peculiar institution that dictated only subdued discussion of the subject or none at all. But that was not the case in other border towns. They seemed to occupy the front lines in the slavery controversy. Abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy was slain by a mob in a border town. One of his counterparts, Cassius Marcellus Clay of Lexington, Kentucky, survived two assassination attempts only because he went nowhere without his Bowie knife.
Baltimore’s antebellum elite was distinctive, not only because of its geographic location, but its social composition. When Buckingham was “out in society,” he mingled with prominent citizens whose roots were in Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and points further South. Most took slavery for granted; some owned slaves. But he was also likely to have encountered prosperous Quaker millers, merchants, and bankers. Some of their ancestors arrived in Maryland under its Act of Toleration. Others were sons or grandsons of Quaker merchants who came to Baltimore when, during the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Philadelphia. Still others may have arrived in response to Baltimore’s astonishing economic growth from 1790 to 1820, when the town’s population quadrupled.
Pro-slavery patricians and abolitionist Quakers lived in close proximity to one another. They socialized with one another and, perhaps most important, did business with one another. It followed that the slavery issue rarely came up in polite conversation when Baltimore’s elite was “out in society,” because it posed a threat to politeness — and to business.
Back to Africa
Baltimore’s ambiguous position in the slavery debate found institutional expression in the American Colonization Society. Its goal was resolve America’s racial problem by shipping black people back to Africa – to Liberia. Robert Goodloe Harper, a Baltimore attorney, outlined the Society’s grand strategy in a public letter of 1817. Harper hoped that emigration would reduce Baltimore’s sizeable population of free black people – the largest in the country. Their presence was thought to arouse discontent among African Americans who remained in slavery. But emigration might also help to erode slavery itself. Slave owners, according to Harper, “who are now restrained from manumitting their slaves, by the conviction that they would generally become a nuisance if manumitted in this country, would gladly give them their freedom if they could be sent to a place where they could enjoy it, usefully to themselves and society.” In Africa, they could be free, equal, and distant.
In other words, white Baltimoreans who supported colonization could come down on either side of the slavery issue. They wanted to get rid of free blacks because their presence undermined the institution of slavery. But they also claimed to undermine slavery themselves. They encouraged the manumission of slaves by enabling their owners to avoid the inconvenience of having to live with them after they were free.
But while the Maryland Colonization Society straddled the slavery issue, the national Society was torn apart by it. John H.B. Latrobe explained that the “north looked to Colonization as the means of extirpating slavery. The south as the means of perpetuating it.” At the organization’s annual meeting in 1833, “the explosion came at last.” The clash between the Society’s proponents of slavery and it opponents was precisely what the Maryland Colonization Society was trying to avoid.
The Maryland Society’s directors, all Baltimoreans, deplored the controversy and tried to distance themselves from it. But they soon resorted to more drastic action. The Maryland chapter seceded from the national organization and purchased its own colony in Liberia to which it sent its own parties of colonists including both free black people and newly emancipated slaves.
Baltimore continued its delicate dance around the race issue for generations. When the rest of the country was swept up in the “irrepressible conflict,” Baltimore repressed it. The Know Nothing Party dominated the city’s politics and its agenda in the late 1850’s, years after the Party had collapsed everywhere else. Baltimore made an issue of nativism instead of slavery. Less than a week after Abraham Lincoln had been elected, the city’s new mayor declared in his inaugural address “that national politics should be entirely disregarded in the administration of municipal affairs.” An avowed “Unconditional Unionist” who represented a Baltimore district in the House of Representatives told his constituents, “The way to settle the Slavery Question is to be silent on it.” It was true that the town’s residential segregation ordinance temporarily broke that silence, but only to minimize occasions for interracial contact and friction.
In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education threatened to break Baltimore’s silence once again. But the Court did not require immediate desegregation. It held the Brown case over for a year to hear argument about how its decision should be implemented. But just 17 days after the announcement of the Brown decision, the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners voted unanimously and with no public discussion to desegregate the public schools when they opened in September.
That September, I would have my first exposure to desegregated education – at a school named for Robert E. Lee. No one at the school tried to explain to us what was happening or why or how we should respond to it. The silence at Robert E. Lee was system-wide. In 1956, a report sponsored jointly by the city and the state found that the Superintendent “and the administrators, backed by the Board of School Commissioners, believed that the less said in advance about integration the better, since talking about it would focus attention on presumed problems and create the impression that difficulties were anticipated.” A memorandum went out from school headquarters instructing teachers and staff to carry out desegregation “by ‘doing what comes naturally’ so that children would look upon it as a natural and normal development and hence nothing over which to become excited or disturbed.” It was no accident that our teachers said nothing about integration. The School Board’s sudden decision about desegregation, with no public discussion, was a preemptive strike to foreclose debate about the issue. When it came to desegregation, silence was school system policy.
Like other cities, Baltimore had adopted a “freedom of choice” desegregation plan. Black parents were free to send their children to predominantly white schools if there was room for them. But since most neighborhoods were segregated, white schools were frequently remote from black neighborhoods, and few black students could manage the journey. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided that freedom-of-choice plans actually had to produce desegregated schools, and that local authorities had a positive duty to achieve integration. Baltimore’s City Solicitor issued an opinion stating that the city’s schools were no longer in compliance with federal law. But the President of the City Council refused to reconsider the city’s desegregation policy because, he said, “immediately the question of race comes in.” Council President William Donald Schaefer wanted to keep it out. Three years later, he was elected mayor.
When Schaefer was elected governor in 1986, the city charter designated the City Council President as Acting Mayor – Clarence ‘Du’ Burns – Baltimore’s first African American mayor. His next hurdle was to become its first elected black mayor. His principal rival was another African American, Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s State’s Attorney. There might also have been an impressive white candidate. Robert Embry was President of the Board of School Commissioners. He had previously served on the City Council and as Baltimore’s Commissioner of Housing and Community Development. He resigned as School Board President, presumably to avoid the suspicion that he was using the position to advance his candidacy. But in the end, he decided not to run. One of the considerations that led him to this decision, he said, was that “I’m just not comfortable with the divisive aspects of it racially.”
The field of serious mayoral candidates narrowed to two black men, and unlike other cities, Baltimore elected its first black mayor without making an issue of race. It was not a political peculiarity of the moment, but one more episode in a settled continuity that was rooted in the city’s past. The uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray may seem to break with the past. But in at least one respect it marched with tradition. Though firearms were much in evidence during the disorders, only one shot was fired. One of the citizens in the street accidently dropped his weapon, and it discharged. Once “peace” was restored, however, there followed an epidemic of gunshots, many of them deadly. And they continue. Baltimore’s long silence has created a city where shooting has become a substitute for talking.
Matthew Crenson is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is a native Baltimorean who earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. In 1969 he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins after teaching at M.I.T. and spending a year as a predoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He has specialized in the study of American urban and national politics. At Hopkins, he a served as Chair of the Department of Political Science and Associate Dean and Acting Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Crenson is the author or co-author of eight books, including Baltimore: A Political History (Johns Hopkins University Press, (2017).
Featured image (at top): House in Negro section. Baltimore, Maryland, John Vachon, July 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress