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.

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