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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.’” 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Mary 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. 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.” Many dealers could not have agreed more.
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.”
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.”
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. While drug warriors offered slogans and moralizing, the narcotics economy paid the bills and provided bursts of pleasure.
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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.
 Karen Warmkessel, “6 Convicted of Conspiracy, Drug Charges,” Baltimore Sun, March 13 1986, 4B.
 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.
 Scott Shane, “Drug Dealing Lures Flood of Teens,” Baltimore Sun, August 30 1992: 1A.
 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.
 S.M. Khalid, “Risky Business: Major Drug Dealers Are Getting Younger,” Baltimore Sun, October 27 1991, 1G.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008), 29-30.
 Baltimore Sun, “Community Groups Gather to Plot War on Crime,” February 24, 1991, 3B.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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 SteamerSue, 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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 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.
 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).
 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).
 “The Civil Rights Bill and its Consequences,” The Baltimore Sun 9 April 1866, p. 2.
 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.
 “Funeral of Reverend Wm. M. Alexander on Monday,” The Afro-AmericanLedger 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.
 “Movement of Colored People,” The Baltimore Sun 25 April 1882, p. 1.
 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.
 “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.
 “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.
 For information on the publishing history of the Afro-American see: Hayward Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998).
 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.
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).
Despite being one of the nation’s oldest cities, some might argue Baltimore crested in the popular mind during the early twenty-first century. Musically, Animal Collective, Dan Deacon and Beach House emerged to rave reviews. Tori Amos and Sisqo also hail from Charm City, as Complex magazine noted: “‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ and ‘The Thong Song’ were indirectly or maybe directly influenced by this fair city on the Chesapeake.” Today, Future Island serves as the standard bearer for the local indie rock sound. In film, John Waters and Barry Levinson carry the torch.
Baltimore has been a key character in new media as well. The first season of the podcast Serial (2014) traversed metropolitan Baltimore. Journalist and podcast founder Sarah Koenig waded into true crime territory exploring the facts of a 2010 case in which Adnan Syed had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. It both led to a boom in true crime podcasts and proved to be the rising tide that lifted all boats, raising the visibility of podcasts more generally in what is sometimes referred to as the “serial effect”.
Of course, one is compelled to make the obligatory reference to The Wire. Set in Baltimore and featuring several Charm City natives in its cast, the show spoke to the metropolis’s specificity while also encapsulating the struggles of many American cities. In retrospect, the oft-maligned and nefariously underrated second season presciently documented the collapse of the white working class; it appears to have been a canary in the pop culture coal mine signaling the coming populism. The HBO production has become the standard by which to gauge narrative depth and serves as a constant reminder to burgeoning writers to remain humble, a point Johns Hopkins historian and UHA Board Member N.D.B. Connolly made at #UHA2018.
.@ndbconnolly: “If you want to feel inadequate in your storytelling, binge-watch The Wire.” #uha2018
Yet, to emphasize only the last fifty years ignores the contributions of other creative Baltimoreans. The cantankerous reporter, columnist, and literary tastemaker H.L. Menken issued proclamations about democracy and American culture from his perch in Charm City. In 1920, aggrieved by the dueling presidential campaigns of Warren G. Harding (R) and James M. Cox (D) Mencken quipped: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Frederick Douglass toiled away in Baltimore appreciating the city for what few shards of opportunity it offered enslaved peoples. “A city slave is almost a free citizen, in Baltimore, compared with a slave on Col. Lloyd’s plantation,” he wrote years later as he ascended in prominence as a leading abolitionist, civil rights leader, and newspaper editor.
Taking one long stride even further, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his stories of suspense, intrigue and horror as a resident of the city. The modern day football team derives its name from arguably his most famous work, “The Raven.”
The city’s founders probably never envisioned Poe’s creativity, Douglass’ determination, or The Wire’s almost Dickensian narrative power emerging from the small settlement they inadvertently birthed. Judging by the new political history of the city by Matt Crenson, no one had planned for Baltimore, period. The city “just happened.” After its 1729 charter that declared it “Baltimore Town,” it descended into “chronic political turmoil.” 
Roiling politics aside, it gradually grew, though Crenson writes it “was no boom town.” The grain industry eventually took off. Annexation added more land than people, but colonists eventually migrated to the city. Between 1730 and 1770 the number of merchants in the city grew by 150 percent; in 1750, 5,000 people resided in the city, making it one of the fastest growing cities in all of the colonies.  It would be the first “major city” incorporated after the American Revolution and to also establish a municipal government outside of British colonial authority. 
The War of 1812 brought America the “Star Spangled Banner” by way of Baltimore. “The citizen soldiers of Baltimore repulsed the British and their triumph was recorded in a ballad that would become the national anthem,” historian Mary P. Ryan writes. However, the war also created the opportunity for two of the city’s more famous public memorials: The Battle and the Washington Monuments. Each emerged as an expression of political ideology and tumult from the period, the city emerging as one of the “first and most fervent locations of aggressively popular and partisan politics” Ryan points out. The memorials operated as a testament to the city’s place in American history as it transformed in the burgeoning national consciousness from “mob town” to “the monumental city.” “Baltimore’s place in patriotic lore is memorialized not just in the strains of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in stone as well.” 
A vigorous public sphere, “a hive of free labor and merchant capitalism” and with a port location just beyond the Mason Dixon line, Baltimore became a destination for escaped and free blacks. Even before emancipation, the city’s population of free blacks outnumbered enslaved persons. Its mercantile and entrepreneurial economy put it at odds with the largely rural state.  “It is worthy of remark,” noted British journalist James Silk Buckingham in 1838, “that in all our intercourse with the people of Baltimore, and we were continually out in society, we heard less about slaves and slavery than in any town we had yet visited.” In contrast, in other border towns such as St. Louis and Alton, violence often visited the homes and offices of abolitionists. 
Slavery in Baltimore was fluid. Enslaved people enjoyed greater freedom in the city than their plantation counterparts. Masters hired out enslaved people to manufacturers and shipyards, and despite juxtaposing this work against plantation life, Douglass recognized that even in Baltimore being a slave was an ambivalent existence. “I endured all the evils of being a slave,” remembered Douglass, who labored in Fell’s Point, “and yet suffered all the care and anxiety of a responsible freedman.” 
After the war, African Americans flocked to the city. Between 1860 and 1880, 25,000 black migrants settled within city boundaries, doubling the city’s number of black residents who now made up 16 percent of Baltimore’s overall population. 
They arrived to a late nineteenth-century city in flux, transformed in the wake of emancipation and under the thumb of industrialization. The city’s tax base failed to adequately expand to fund urban improvements. Owners and renters refused increases in tax assessments leading to only a five percent gain in real per capital municipal expenditures from 1870-1895. Being a city of neighborhoods, 300 by one account, merchants and local residents sought to “forge strong political organizations outside the normal institutions of politics,” as Joseph Arnold wrote in 1979. As a result, residents witnessed the rise of neighborhood associations as counterweights to city hall. Emerging in the 1880s, by 1900 30 such associations canvassed nearly the entire city and several suburbs. 
At the turn of the century, Baltimore’s population exceeded 500,0000. At the ward or neighborhood level, the city contained multitudes, but at the block level segregation defined lived experience. “The rich lived on the widest best paved streets, the middling families on the side streets, and the lower classes in the alleys and courts,” Arnold wrote. Urban facilities and services, despite block level segregation, were by standards of the day, “fairly evenly distributed.” Neighborhood associations sought to exert power over distribution of resources, city finances, and other such matters. “Almost all the associations were established by men who believed their areas had been shortchanged by the municipal [or] by the county government.” 
Though not initially involved in segregation, by the early twentieth century associations advocated the exclusion of African Americans from white communities. Association leaders trafficked in the typical racist rhetoric of the day making references to “negro invasion,” expressing fear for “white womanhood”, and lamenting lower property values. Typical of the tenor of this discourse, one Harlem Improvement Association meeting attendee stated, “Negroes are but 400 years from savagery.” The association’s members hailing from a tenuous middle class; its officers identifying as clerks, businessmen, and artisans; its board of governors constructed similarly, consisting of a needlework artist, a paper bag manufacturer, a doctor, and a clothing wholesaler. “[P]recisely the white people most invested in segregation,” writes Gretchen Boger. 
While many associations stressed the protection of their investments and social standing, others asserted a loss of political power. Maryland whites had spent a decade trying, unsuccessfully, to disenfranchise black voters before abandoning the cause. This failure probably fed larger anxieties as greater numbers of African Americans moved to the city. The leaders of one such association agreed that it went beyond housing. “The three men felt that African Americans were slowly wresting control of white politics from white males,” writes Dennis Halpin. In reality, African Americans largely lived bunched into the seventeenth ward (Northwest Baltimore).
Considering the tone of the debate, white fears about increasing political impotence (despite evidence to the contrary), and base racism, conflict unsurprisingly followed as black families, already enduring substandard and overcrowded apartments and homes, looked for better housing. 
Progressives hoping to eliminate the threat of street level violence and protect middle class interests related to segregation passed the West Ordinance, a law shaped in part by the influence of neighborhood associations who over the years had built political power and experience. Middle class white Baltimoreans also played a critical role in the law’s development, in part by serving as the aggressive front lines against integration in the steed of their wealthier counterparts. “The preeminence of a middling stratum of white residents in Baltimore’s residential segregation battle was telling,” notes Boger. “Many of the proponents of the West Ordinance represented a tier of whites with a tenuous hold on middle-class reputation—a petty bourgeoisie—who often had moved to the neighborhoods in question just ahead of African Americans.” They sought to protect their social and economic reputations.
City planners and elites evidenced little participation in the ordinance. Elites and reformers were more than happy to allow their middle class counterparts to serve as “the frontline attack” against integration. 
The ordinance, which became the nation’s first residential ordinance in the country when it was signed into law December 19, 1910, critically cited the city’s right to deploy “police power” for “preserving order and securing property and persons from violence, danger and destruction.” This use of “police power” in the West Ordinance “cemented the contention that African Americans—not the angry whites who attacked black families—caused disorder and violence by their very presence,” argues Halpin. The ordinance transformed the police into “foot soldiers in the fight against integration” with black Baltimoreans as the “threat to the social order.” 
Whereas the pre-industrial city and its boundaries changed slowly, in turn-of-the-century Baltimore change was swift. The ordinance attempted to address this by banning white residents from moving into majority black neighborhoods and blacks from doing the same in majority white communities—a non-partisan solution deployed in a very prejudicial way. African Americans rejected the idea that segregation protected both races. The Afro American Ledger called the ordinance “anti-American.”
At the time, Baltimore had the highest rates of home ownership among nearly 75 southern cities. Such status escaped most black residents however as the city ranked 72 in African American homeownership. From 1900 to 1920, the city’s black population expanded by over 30,000 yet only 100 black families added their names to the list of Baltimore homeowners during the same period so the housing crunch in black communities proved particularly acute. 
The law’s implementation caused far more headaches than anticipated. The ordinance stifled black dreams of homeownership in new communities, but it also hurt white residents. The law boxed in white families living in already mixed neighborhoods; it limited their ability to sell their homes while also undermining attempts at renting out properties. “Proponents of the ordinance sought to solidify their social status at the expense of not only black Baltimoreans but of other whites as well,” asserts Boger. 
Believing residential segregation to be a critical piece of the larger battle for equality, the ordinances drew the ire of the city’s African American community. “Physical slavery has been abolished, but its subtler forms are still here. Disenfranchisement, ‘jim crowism’ and segregation are but subtler forms of race slavery,” said Warner T. McGuinn civil rights activist and attorney at a meeting in 1913. Black Baltimoreans boycotted merchants who refused to break with the law. Churches organized protest rallies and collected money for a legal challenge. The Baltimore branch of NAACP solicited funds toward the same end as legal challenges were mounted. 
Ironically, the municipal courts declared the original statue invalid weeks after it became law. New ordinances were quickly drafted to replace it. Written by a narrow, racist set of interests, it demonstrated the weakness of the segregationist argument. The West Ordinance did not force any family to move, it ceded land in the city to areas already occupied by African Americans, and generally just sought to control who lived next door. Its supporters hoped “to freeze the racial make up of Baltimore’s residential blocks just as they were in September 1910.” By 1913, the ordinance had been suspended which enabled black Baltimoreans to open up additional neighborhoods for settlement. 
In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled in Buchanan v. Warley against state laws imposing segregation. The Kentucky law under dispute in the Supreme Court case had been written based on the Baltimore ordinance. Even in Baltimore the West Ordinance cast a powerful spell over the city’s spatial development. By legalizing segregation, the municipal government legitimized segregationists and their like-minded neighborhood associations and enabled the discourse of declining property values, without evidence, that would be repeated so many times it became institutionalized in the architecture of the real estate industry and the government’s redlining policies. 
The second episode of The Wire’s third season, “All Due Respect,” opens with local project resident and Barksdale soldier, Preston “Bodie” Broadus (J.D. Williams), relating a recent conversation he had with two apparent tourists who got lost looking for the Edgar Allen Poe house. Bodie relates, “He’s like, ‘Young man, you know where the Poe House is?’ I’m like, ‘Unc, you kidding? Look around, take your pick.’” When the older couple circled back and asked again, Bodie repeated his incredulity: “Shit, you back already? First of the month, yo. I’m like, ‘I don’t know no Edward Allan Poe.’ The man look at me all sad and shit, like I let him down.”
To be fair, one could unpack a lot in that quote, hence the resigned but admittedly awed reference to the show earlier. The reality is that while Poe’s Baltimore residence still stands, it does so amidst a very different community, one created by a world opened up by the West Ordinance.
As always, this overview is just a starting point—as is the bibliography below. We welcome suggestions in the comments. Moreover, based on correspondence with our contributors and others working on Baltimore, it sounds as if urban historians might be in store for a “golden age” of historical interpretations of Charm City as several new publication are forthcoming. We’d like to thank Seth Rockman, Paige Glotzler, Dennis Halprin, and Sara Patenaude for their help with the bibliography.
Arnold, Joseph L. “The Neighborhood and City Hall: The Origin of Neighborhood Associations in Baltimore, 1880-1911.” Journal of Urban History 6.1 (1979): 3-30.
Baum, Howell S. Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.
Belfoure, Charles and Hayward, Mary Ellen. The Baltimore Rowhouse. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
Boger, Gretchen E. “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore’s Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910-1913.” The Journal of Urban History. 35.2 (January 2009): 236-258.
Brugger, Robert J. Maryland: A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye. “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon its Inception and Ownership.” The Journal of Negro History. Volume LIX, No. 1 (Jan 1974): 1-12.
Crenson, Matthew. Baltimore: A Political History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Crooks, James B. Politics and Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Davis, Josh. From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Doster, Dennis. “‘This Independent Fight We are Making is Local’: The Election of 1920 and Electoral Politics in Black Baltimore.” Journal of Urban History 44.2 (2018): 134-152.
Durr, Kenneth D. Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Elfenbein, Jessica I. The Making of a Modern City: Philanthropy, Civic Culture, and the Baltimore YMCA. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Elfenbein, Jessica, Thomas Hollowak, and Elizabeth Nix, eds. Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.
Elfenbein, Jessica, John H. Breihan, and Thomas L. Hollowak eds. From Mobtown to Charm City: Papers From The Baltimore History Conference. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2005.
This summer, The Metropole is departing from its Metropolis of the Month format and will instead feature travelogues from globetrotting urbanists. We’ve asked some great contributors to share photos, reflections, and lists of their favorite things to do in the cities they’re visiting. But before we bid Buenos Aires adios, we actually have two travelogues from the city. Next week we have a post from Anton Rosenthal, who has collected perspectives on the city from 19th and 20th century travelers , but first I want to share some recollections of my three encounters with Buenos Aires and a list of recommendations for those making a visit.
My siblings and I each got to take a big international trip the summer after we turned 16, and my turn, in 2003, was to Buenos Aires. That year I became fascinated by Latin American literature and magical realism after reading Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, ironically in my Sophomore English class. I had been taking Spanish for a few years and my parents, watching my enjoyment of learning the language, wanted to give me an opportunity to practice. Argentina’s economy was still spiraling after its crash in 2001 and the favorable exchange rate gave us an opportunity for a slightly more luxurious vacation than we might otherwise be able to afford.
We stayed in a nice hotel in Palermo, within walking distance of the Jardín Japonés and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (MALBA). I recall visiting both, and being particularly enchanted by MALBA’s permanent collection. I bought several postcard-sized prints in the museum shop and they were prominently displayed in my bedroom for years afterwards.
My most vivid memory from that trip, however, was the day we spent in La Boca—the working class neighborhood whose colorful row houses are most vividly associated in the public imagination with the city. We walked around, and saw outdoor tango performances, and who knows what else. It had been several hours of exploring, and I was tired. That’s when “the incident” occurred, the one thing for which my father will never forgive me.
We were walking past La Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors football club, and a game was about to begin. A life-long soccer fan, my father’s face lit up. The gears began turning in his mind, as he imagined himself in the stands cheering for Boca and enjoying what would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In equal measure the gears began turning in my mind, but I imagined being simultaneously bored and scared by the pressing crowd of screaming men surrounding us. So I put my foot down, literally stomping my foot and crying and refusing to go. I won, and my father angrily hailed us a cab back to the hotel.
During that week Buenos Aires made a strong impression; I remembered it as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with delicious and cheap food. Four years later, I decided to spend a semester abroad there during my junior year of college. By 2007, the economy had not measurably improved and it was still the best bang for your educational bucks.
My experience of the city as a twenty-year-old college student was mixed. I had hugely formative experiences–I took a modern dance class at a community center, which kicked off a three year love affair with, if not talent for, dance; I attended services at Jewish congregations throughout the city and realized that religious practice was important to me; I attended concerts and festivals and films and by the end could actually understand the Spanish–but I also found myself exhausted by porteño culture. My clothes were too casual by the standards of the formal, fashionable women of Buenos Aires, and as I ate and drank my way through a city obsessed with thinness I had fellow passengers on buses and trains admonish me for standing (because I was “clearly” pregnant). In an email I wrote to friends back at home, I shared an anecdote capturing the best and worst of the city and my experience abroad:
Standing on a crowded bus yesterday, a woman yelled at me for not making someone give me a seat, since I was so obviously pregnant. Although it was the 4th time now that this has occurred, it was still humiliating. It was worse this time though, because despite 4 months of constant language immersion, I could not formulate even the most perfunctory response. Eventually I just managed to say “No, no lo necesito” and got off the bus (luckily, it was my stop).
I got off the bus at the Palermo Wine Tour. For 40 pesos, we got a souvenir wine glass, and all of the businesses on CalleHonduras had representatives from various bodegas (vineyards) offering unlimited samples. We were celebrating my friend’s 21st birthday, so we got pretty sloshed. It was a good time.
I found myself back on Calle Honduras in 2015, when I dragged my husband and in-laws to Buenos Aires so they could experience the city themselves. Seeing the city through their fresh eyes, it felt bigger than when I left in December 2007. Quickly, though, I found myself gravitating towards what I had always loved about Buenos Aires: lingering over long meals without being harassed by waiters, watching films in immaculately clean theaters, visiting craft fairs on Saturday afternoons, buying candy and snacks from the kioskos, and drinking lots of cheap, delicious Malbec.
This is my number one recommendation to anyone traveling to Buenos Aires. The permanent collection of Latin American art is one of my favorites of any museum in the world–and I’ve been to a lot of museums! Make sure to see the Wifredo Lam and Xul Solar paintings. Before going, also check what films they are showing.
Most neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have an arts/crafts/antiques fair each weekend, but my favorite has always been the one in the neighborhood of Palermo (though multiple times I found jewelry I loved at the feria in Belgrano, and the one in Recoleta, outside the cemetery, isn’t bad either). These fairs are the best place to find distinctly Argentine gifts.
If you leave Buenos Aires without trying Cumaná, you screwed up. The empanadas are above average but the restaurant is really known for their cazuelas, or little casseroles. Just know that at lunchtime there can be lines, so don’t go starving–or make sure to arrive before noon or after 2-3 PM.
The recent explosion of black studies in Argentina has been a welcoming effort of various scholars and activists that have refused to accept the old and tired categorization that Argentina is a country of European descendants. For instance, most recently activists challenged Argentine president Mauricio Macri’s association between Mercosur and the European Union at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2018. There the president stated, “I think the association between Mercosur and the European Union is natural because in South America we are all descendants of Europeans.” I can’t say I wasn’t proud to see and hear the strong backlash that challenged this outdated and very tiresome notion that Argentina has always been a white nation. But is that all that is left for us? What I mean more specifically is we can and will continue to dispel that Argentina is a white country of only “European descendants,” but as the field of black studies in Argentina develops it is also time that we take a hard look at the scholarship and ask ourselves what comes next.
My response is that it is time to expand westward. Why? Because scholars of Argentina’s black history have tended to focus on Buenos Aires. So much so that the black experience in Buenos Aires has become the national narrative. In other words, Argentina’s black history and more specifically the process of black disappearance references the black experience of Buenos Aires during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. By the mid-nineteenth century intellectuals such as Juan Batista Alberdi and Domingo Sarmiento (president of Argentina 1868-1874) justified policies that encouraged European immigration using pseudoscientific theories that purported to prove the biological superiority of “whites” over “nonwhites.” In effect, Sarmiento, and similar intellectuals joined the larger Latin American process of blanqueamiento, or whitening. Blanqueamiento serves as an operative word to describe the late-nineteenth-century state-led modernization process. Like Argentina, many other Latin American countries looked to European immigrants as the way to bring civilization. Historians have argued that this ideological erasure is one of the main reasons for the disappearance of people who identified as black in Argentina.
Instead of enforcing segregation policies to sanction white superiority, Argentine authorities sought to eliminate blackness through European immigration and miscegenation. The constant arrival of European males through immigration made this goal attainable. For example, Sarmiento often touted mulatos as proof of progress because they “had the brute force of the African and the intellect of the European.” By the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed that the whitening project had achieved success. In 1905 Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote in the magazine Caras y Caretas, “The [black] race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. An African tree is producing white flowers.”
In turn, scholars have also documented the importance of the Black press, which has proved paramount in understanding how African descendants in Buenos Aires responded to blanqueamiento.  Prominent Black newspapers such as La Broma were geared toward a more elite audience, while others, such as, La Juventud appealed to working-class audiences. La Broma perpetuated the politics of respectability while La Juventud focused on the social and economic choices left for a community whose proportion in the population continued to decrease every year because of European immigration. Over time, the newspapers revealed a developing class conflict within the Black community which failed to reach a consensus regarding how to deal with blanqueamiento.
The country’s adoption of blanqueamiento and the reactions to it in the Black press demonstrates the “success” of a state-led project that marked the beginning of the myth of black disappearance and more recently has propelled the field of black studies in Argentina. However, this is a Buenos Aires narrative. To be fair, this practice reflects larger trends in Argentine history as Buenos Aires’s history eclipses the histories of other prominent cities and regions in the country. And to borrow Macri’s natural analogy, it is very much because it is the capital as well as the largest city in the country. But if we are continuing to develop the field of black studies it is time to expand westward first to acknowledge that African descendants resided in all of the cities throughout Argentina and second that cities’ geographic, political, and cultural characteristics directly shaped and molded how they disappeared. In studying other cities, we not only extend the scholarship, but we also acknowledge that diverse and dynamic history of Argentina beyond Buenos Aires. My forthcoming book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina focuses on the city of Córdoba and expands our understanding of Africans and their descendants. It concentrates on the process of disappearance during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prior to state-led and institutionalized whitening at the end of the nineteenth century.
Córdoba was a prominent city that served as a center of distribution because of its central location in the Río de la Plata during the colonial period 1573-1810. Like Buenos Aires, Córdoba had a large black population. But unlike Buenos Aires, Córdoba did not experience a wave of enslaved Africans at the end of the eighteenth century. Instead, the city of Córdoba remained a small, close-knit society of ruling families who could trace their lineage back to the conquistadors, Indians and their descendants who survived the conquest, and Africans and their descendants both enslaved and free. Together, they numbered roughly 7,240 inhabitants according to the 1778 city census. This small concentrated population stood in stark contrast to Buenos Aires which around the same time had 24,363 inhabitants. 
Absent of state-led institutionalized notions of blanqueamiento during the eighteenth century, individual choices and negotiated identities described the process of disappearance in the small but prominent city of Córdoba. This is because identity remained influx and dependent on dress, phenotype, occupation, and an individual’s reputed persona, which culminated into calidad during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Examples of calidad labels in Córdoba included negro (referenced the enslaved or freed Africans) mulato (mixture between European and African), indio (Indian), pardo (mixture between descendants of European, Indian and/or African mixture), mestizo (mixture between European and Indian), and español (referenced people born in Spain or their descendants). As a result, when possible, African descendants—especially those whose phenotype was often described as “the color of a Spaniard” in the documents—chose whiteness, as evidenced through contested marriage cases, to achieve privilege and status. Moreover, African descendants who risked enslavement sought Indian status in contested freedom cases, because Indian status meant freedom. Cases of contested freedoms continued throughout the early nineteenth century and African descendants continued to claim a case of mistaken identity and they were in fact Indians. After providing extensive proof of Indian identity which included dress, place of origin, voluntary service, and maternal Indian lineage, African descendants evaded enslavement and gained their freedom.
African descendants’ transformation into Indians complicates the notion that all African descendants attempted to ascribe to whiteness. My findings have determined African descendants’ attempts to achieve freedom by transforming into Indians provides a more colorful narrative about the disappearance in the interior city of Córdoba. In particular, the transformation from African descendant to Indian status represents a “browning” rather than “whitening” process. As a result, Córdoba’s browning process at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century provides a stark juxtaposition to blanqueamiento, which is very much associated with the late nineteenth century and the Buenos Aires experience.
By examining black experiences in interior cities such as Córdoba, the developing field of Black Studies in Argentina will not only continue to dispel myths of black disappearance but expanding westward will result in a field that reflects the varied and diverse black experiences in Argentina.
Erika Denise Edwards is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an expert on the black experience in Argentina. She has written various articles, book chapters, and has given lectures about her current research about the myth of black disappearance in Argentina. She has also been quoted and/or consulted by the New York Times, National Geographic, and interviewed by La Voz del Interior, an Argentine newspaper. She is currently finishing her manuscript Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina.
 George Reid Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980); Miguel Rosal, Africanos y afrodescendientes en el Río de la Plata : siglos XVIII-XIX (Buenos Aires: Dunken, 2009); Marta Goldberg, “La población negra y mulata de la ciudad de Buenos Aires 1810-1840,” Desarrollo Económico 16, no. 61 (1976): 75–99; Marvin Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996); Lea Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX. (Rosario, Argentina: Prohistoria Ediciones, 2010); Alejandro Frigerio, “‘Negros’ y ‘blancos’ en Buenos Aires: repensando nuestras categorías raciales,” Temas de patrimonio cultural 16 (2006): 77–98; Edwards, “Slavery in Argentina.”
 Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900.
 Domingo Sarmiento, Obras de D. F. Sarmiento: viajes por europa, áfrica i américa 1847–1854, vol. V (Paris: Belin Hermanos, 1909), 67.
 Juan José Soiza Reilly, “Gente de color,” Caras y Caretas, November 25, 1905.
 Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. Afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX.; Tomás Platero, Piedra libre para nuestros negros: la broma y otros periódicos de la comunidad afroargentina (1873-1882) (Buenos Aires: Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 2004); Norberto Pablo Cirio, Tinta negra en el gris del ayer: los afroporteños a través de sus periódicos entre 1873 y 1882 (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2009); Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora.
 Alex Borucki, From Shipmates to Soldiers: Emerging Black Identities in the Río de La Plata (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).
 Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900, 66.
Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay, are located approximately 120 miles away from each other across the Río de la Plata. Over the decade from 2003 to 2013, I traveled by boat between Argentina and Uruguay approximately 20 times while living in the two cities for an aggregate of six of those years. A fair number of these trips were primarily to renew 90-day tourist visas in Argentina, where I lived from 2003 to 2008. I was far from alone among the many Americans and other foreigners residing in Buenos Aires that would travel back and forth across the world’s so-called widest river. I had a Brazilian friend that would join me for the occasional overnight trip to Montevideo and to the closer Uruguayan port of Colonia del Sacramento for his own visa renewal reasons. I also made numerous trips to Uruguay for beach holidays in the months of December, January, and February.
Most memorably, I was once stranded on a ferry boat that failed to dock in Colonia del Sacramento due to a large thunderstorm. Our boat ran out of gas in the middle of the river, and we were towed back to the port of Buenos Aires by a tug boat. About 12 hours after leaving Buenos Aires on a planned boat trip to Colonia that would lead to a connecting bus to Montevideo and a weekend meetup with friends, I returned to Buenos Aires without having successfully stepped foot onto the sought-after Uruguayan soil. The return of our stranded ferry was broadcast live on Argentine television news. My doorman in Buenos Aires told me the next day that he had seen me on television looking rather worn down by the odyssey at sea as I returned to the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires along with my fellow travelers to have our exit visa stamps cancelled.
Long before the early 2000s and my experiences with river crossings, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a long and shared history dating back to the late 16th century and the arrival of Spanish colonial rule in the region. During the early colonial era, Spanish settlers created a network of urban spaces in South America to administer colonial trade and settlements. Buenos Aires became the largest urban center. Across the river, Portuguese colonists founded Montevideo. By the early 18th century, Montevideo had become a Spanish colonial possession. Buenos Aires became a Spanish viceregal capital in 1776 with dominion over the whole of the Río de la Plata region. During the late 18th century, merchants in the two cities were key participants in the growth of Atlantic commerce. Buenos Aires and Montevideo both functioned as major centers for the transatlantic, trans-imperial, and regional slave trade, which expanded to the South Atlantic in the late 18th century.
By the early 1800s, Montevideo’s citizens began to pursue their own political autonomy. When a Spanish colonial militia was needed to liberate Buenos Aires from a British invasion in 1806, they came from Montevideo. When Argentines and Uruguayans fought for independence from Spain during the 1810s, militia leaders in both cities forged alliances and lasting rivalries. Buenos Aires-based forces invaded Montevideo during the 1810s and then Uruguayans, led by national hero Jose Artigas, fought back to redefine the political alliances of the different regions of Argentina’s hinterland. From 1816 to 1825, Montevideo also fought for national independence against the occupation of Portuguese imperial forces from Brazil. Ultimately, Argentina won its decisive independence over a decade before Uruguay, but by the late 1820s, both Buenos Aires and Montevideo were the political centers of new nations in formation. Since then, connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo have been shaped by ever-expanding commercial exchanges, but also by waves of migrations, political exile, boats and planes, tango and rock music, Carnival festivals, soccer rivalries, and familial ties.
In my book manuscript in progress, I examine the shared urban and cultural histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the 20th century. My research focuses on the rise of Buenos Aires as a mass cultural capital in Latin America during the period from 1910 to 1960 and the under-explored role of cultural connections with Montevideo in shaping Buenos Aires’s emergence as a Broadway and Hollywood of Latin American mass culture. (I also have published an essay on the close ties between Uruguay’s small film industry and Argentina’s far more sizable cinematic industry from the early 20th century to the present). My work builds on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship by Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians, Americans, Spaniards, and others who have paid attention to the varied aspects of connections between the two cities. This essay is an exploration of the shared political histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo that underpin my work and the second part is a brief introduction to the long history of cultural exchanges between the two cities. It is also an opportunity to argue that the long-standing connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo as urban spaces for political exiles also speaks to the global historical importance of cities in shaping the transnational dynamics of oppositional political movements. As historian Michael Goebel has documented for Paris, an anti-imperial metropolis during the interwar period of the 20th century, it is crucial to understand how modern political movements have been shaped by the environs of interconnected cities. In Buenos Aires and Montevideo, I would argue that the shared significance for urban history comes from how the two cities contributed to a shared intellectual world of universities, print culture, and the cultural effervescence of mass culture.
Political currents have repeatedly shaped Buenos Aires’s relationship with Montevideo (and vice versa) since the independence of both countries. In the 1830s to 1840s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a new form of connection as Montevideo functioned as a primary site of political exile for opponents of the Argentine government led by Federalist caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. Political exile of prominent Argentines in Montevideo and Uruguayans in Buenos Aires is a pattern that has repeated itself again and again. During most of the period from 1829 to 1852, Juan Manuel de Rosas was the Governor of Buenos Aires Province (including the city) and his opponents were members of the Unitarian political party. The most famous Federalist slogan was the succinct “Death to Unitarians.” The Unitarian Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentina’s most prominent constitutional thinker and arguably the country’s James Madison, was exiled in Montevideo in the 1830s and early 1840s. Alberdi and other intellectuals wrote for Montevideo publications such as El Iniciador and imagined a post-Rosas Argentina from Uruguay. Alberdi was joined in Montevideo by Florencio Varela, Esteban Escheverria, Hilario Ascasubi. As literary scholar William Acree has written, Ascasubi was the most potent pen in angering Rosas and his allies. (Another prominent anti-Rosas intellectual and eventual Argentine president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, was exiled in Santiago del Chile, in large part because it was closer to his native San Juan in northwestern Argentina.)
In Montevideo during the 1840s, Alberdi fled during a siege of the city led by the forces of the Uruguayan general Manuel Oribe and backed by Rosas from Buenos Aires. In 1848, Varela was assassinated in Montevideo on orders from Oribe and Rosas, an act of political violence that would echo throughout the late 20th century with Argentines and Uruguayan civilians targeted while in exile from their respective homeland. After the fall of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, Montevideo was not as synonymous with exile from Buenos Aires for the duration of the 19th century.
During the 20th century, the cities would continue to switch roles back and forth as sites of exile. The Uruguayan capital would become a privileged space of exile for a few anti-Peronist politicians during the first government of Juan Perón from 1945 to 1955. Argentine intellectuals would also seek employ at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo during this period, including the University of Buenos Aires professor and historian José Luis Romero. In the 1960s, more Argentine intellectuals would go to Montevideo when the University of Buenos Aires’s administration was taken over by another in a long array of military governments. In the early 1970s, Uruguayan politicians, intellectuals, and leftist activists would flee to Buenos Aires after the Uruguayan military began to violently repress Uruguayans considered opponents of the new junta. In March 1976, Argentina suffered a violent military coup and the new regime murderously targeted both Argentine and Uruguayan political opponents in Buenos Aires. A number of prominent Uruguayan politicians had chosen exile in Buenos Aires since 1973. Among them were Zelmer Michelini and Héctor Gutierrez Ruiz. Michelini was a Uruguayan senator and political leader of the Frente Amplio political movements in Uruguay. In May 1976, Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz were kidnapped and killed on the same day in Buenos Aires. The murders were the work of military officers involved in Operation Condor, the transnational network of political assassinations involving military and intelligence officers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. Since the return of democracy, human rights organizations in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo have worked together in pursuit of justice and accountability for this period of state terrorism.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and committed leftist, wrote in the heartrending “Chronicle of the City of Buenos Aires” in his The Book of Embraces about his experience of returning to Buenos Aires in 1984 after fleeing Montevideo in 1973 and then having to escape in 1976 from Buenos Aires to Spain.
In the middle of 1984, I traveled to the River Plate. It was eleven years since I’d seen Montevideo; eight years since I’d seen Buenos Aires. I had walked out of Montevideo because I don’t like being a prisoner, and out of Buenos Aires because I don’t like being dead. By 1984, the Argentine military dictatorship had gone, leaving behind it an indelible trace of blood and filth, and the Uruguayan military dictatorship was on its way out.
The exile of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti coincided with Galeano’s in Buenos Aires before he too departed for another exile in Lima, Peru. Benedetti’s short story “La vecina orilla” (in translation with the title of “The Other Side”) is an evocative tale of the exile of a young Uruguayan political activist in Buenos Aires. The two stories shared the experiences of both writers and the conditions of double exile that shaped the lives of many Montevideo natives who felt almost at home in Buenos Aires during a dark chapter of Latin American history.
While political exiles colored the relationship between residents of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at decisive moments in the 19th and 20th centuries, decidedly more cultural exchanges proliferated during the same period and were not shaped by formal politics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Podesta family popularized the Creole circus in cities including Buenos Aires and Montevideo and numerous towns throughout Argentina and Uruguay. In the early 20th century, playwrights and performers from both cities increasingly traveled back and forth between Buenos Aires and Montevideo to forge a shared world of popular culture. The two cities also functioned as incubators for the world’s greatest tango singers, musicians, and composers during the 1910s and 1920s. For Uruguayan dramatists like Angel Curotto, Buenos Aires’s Avenida Corrientes was the South American equivalent of Broadway and increasingly offered what Montevideo could not. However, with the rise of Peronism in Argentina during the 1940s, numerous leading Argentine performers pursued theatrical opportunities in Montevideo where there was less political tension and censorship. Curotto became a major figure in attracting Argentine directors and performers to Montevideo’s Teatro Solis in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With the rise of film culture in the 1930s and 1940s, Buenos Aires simultaneously attracted more and more performers from Montevideo and Santiago del Chile to pursue their dreams on screen while working for Argentine film studios. At the same time, mass audiences filled Buenos Aires’s dozens of movie theaters, thereby popularizing Argentine films. In addition, Buenos Aires developed as urban metropolis for various exiles; many of these figures contributed to the city’s mass cultural marketplace in different forms of intellectual production. In the late 1940s, the African-American writer Richard Wright opted to film an adaptation of his novel Native Son in Buenos Aires while collaborating with the émigré French director Pierre Chenal.
During the 20th century, Buenos Aires and Montevideo continued to influence each other’s imaginations. The Hotel de los Pocitos, located on the Río de la Plata beachfront in Montevideo, was a prominent vacation destination for middle and upper-class Argentineans in the early 1900s before being destroyed by a hurricane in 1923. Montevideo’s “salubrious climate” attracted international visitors and helped to transform it into a summer resort for Uruguayans, Argentines, and Brazilians during the early decades of the 20th century. By the 1950s, Argentines began to vacation en masse in Uruguay’s ocean town of Punta del Este, which had more coastline than the Argentine capital and was largely on the Atlantic Ocean. In different moments, residents of Buenos Aires imagined Montevideo as a city of anti-Peronism, frequent business trips, extramarital affairs, and offshore accounts. Buenos Aires occupied the urban imagination of montevideanos as South America’s modern metropolis, and in the 1960s and 1970s as a city of revolutionary and then violently repressive politics. These urban imaginaries ebbed and flowed to shape generations of porteños and montevideanos. In the framework of transnational urban history, my work grapples with the appropriate comparisons to explore the relationship between the two capital cities. Many comparisons come to mind, but the cities lack the clear political schisms of Havana and Miami, are not equally global and political metropolises like London and Paris (and do not differ in languages), and unlike New York and Toronto the cities exist in closer proximity and function as national capitals. My framing of the comparative and transnational histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo seeks to trace the connections between the cities as contributing to Buenos Aires’s place as a capital of Latin American mass culture and builds on the longer histories of political and cultural connections between Argentina and Uruguay.
Daniel Richter is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. He received his doctorate from Maryland in Latin American history in 2016. His research focuses on the urban and cultural history of 20th century Latin America, transnational urban history, and global histories of mass culture and commodities.
 Roger Mirza, Teatro rioplatense: cuerpo, palabra, imagen: la escena contemporánea, una reflexión impostergable. Montevideo: Unión Latina, 2007.
Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
 William G. Acree, Jr., Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Río de la Plata, 1780-1910. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011, 72-74.
 Juan Carlos del Bello, Osvaldo Barsky, Graciela Giménez, La universidad privada argentina. Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2007, 69.
 John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents. New York: The New Press, 2012, 145-147.
 Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces. Translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, 188-189.
 Mario Benedetti, “The Other Side,” in Blood pact and other stories, edited by Claribel Alegría and Darwin Flakoll. Translated by Daniel Balderston. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1997.
 Juan Carlos Legido, La orilla oriental del tango. Historia del Tango Uruguayo. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Plaza, 1994.
 Daniela Bouret and Gonzalo Vicci, “Relaciones creativas y conflictivas entre el teatro y la política. La institucionalidad de las artes escénicas en Uruguay en la Comisión de Teatros Municipales,” Telondefondo. Revista de Teoría y Crítica Teatral Publicación semestral (December 2011), 123-143.
 Edgardo Krebs, Sangre negra: breve historia de una película perdida. Mar del Plata: Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata, 2015.
 Edward Albes, Montevideo, The City of Roses. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1922.
How many times have the city, its architecture, and the theatre been intertwined, for the theatre is often a foil for the representations of public life, and public space frequently is arranged as if for a theatrical performance. Both the theatre and urban space are places of representation, assemblage, and exchange between actors and spectators, between the drama and the stage set.
M. Christine Boyer, The City in Collective Memory
By Kristen McCleary
The cliché phrase that Buenos Aires was the Paris of South America exemplifies the exaggerated focus that elites placed on the French capital as they promoted and shaped the national identity of Argentina. Marcy E. Schwartz explains the fascination with Paris as follows: “Since the early independence period, criollo culture has had to confront and define itself with European urban models in its continuing attempt to determine political and aesthetic boundaries. The Paris written into Latin American cultural consciousness has emerged from this persistent confrontation.”
While all of Latin America’s elite were fascinated by Paris around this same time—indeed Porfirio Díaz of Mexico went into exile there on the cusp of that nation’s revolution—the link between Argentine elites and Parisian culture was especially strong. Buenos Aires served a particularly important role in connecting Paris to the rest of Latin America through publishing. Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters underscores the links between Paris as the world capital of literature and Buenos Aires, where Nicaraguan modernist writer, Rubén Dario, first published Prosas profanes in 1896.Casanova argues Dario, “rearranged the literary landscape of the Hispanic world” by importing the latest edition of modernity from Paris to Buenos Aires. Dario worked for and disseminated his work in the largest Latin American daily newspaper of the era, Buenos Aires’ La Nación.
In contrast to a large body of scholarship supporting a relationship between Paris and Buenos Aires, there is very little that discusses the relationship between Madrid, the Spanish capital, and Buenos Aires. In his study of Spanish immigration to Argentina, José Moya writes, “volumes on the ‘conquistadores’ fill shelves but not one scholarly book has been written about these more recent and more numerous [Spanish] newcomers to Buenos Aires.” In the Independence-era historiography, there is a deliberate neglect of Buenos Aires’ connections to Madrid, or to Spain more generally, particularly in relationship to culture. It makes sense that Argentina would distance itself from the country that had once colonized it. And that is largely what the elites did. Argentine elites looked for their national foundations outward to Paris or inward to the Pampas and the mythification of the disappearing gauchos.
Julio Ramos explicitly links the writings of the Argentine elite after independence to modernity:
Beginning with the 1820s, the activity of writing became a response to the necessity of overcoming the catastrophe of war, the absence of discourse, and the annihilation of established structures in the war’s aftermath. To write, in such a world, was to forge the modernizing project; it was to civilize, to order the randomness of American ‘barbarism.”
Domingo F. Sarmiento in his 1845 narrative Civilization and Barbarism bifurcated the political ideologies of his era into urban and rural and positioned the “civilized” city against the “barbaric” countryside: “The nineteenth century and the twelfth century coexist, the one in the cities; the other in the countryside.” Sarmiento and many of his like-minded brethren were influenced by French enlightenment thought. In particular, Sarmiento disparaged Argentina’s Spanish ancestry—absorbing the tendency in literature and history to demonize Spanish culture as uniquely backwards and obscurantist. Sarmiento and other liberal elites, like Bernadino Rivadavia, advocated the de-Hispanicization of Argentina in the aftermath of independence. On the stages of Buenos Aires, however, an entirely different story might be reconstructed than the one told by the elites. This counter narrative concerns the dominance of Spanish popular theater from the colonial era up until 1904—the first year that Argentine theatrical productions outnumbered Spanish zarzuelas.
The main theatrical entertainment during the era of Argentine independence was a number of short musical genres that originated in Spain and which were performed by Spanish acting companies: loas, tonadillas, and sainetes. Oscar F. Urquiza Almandoz notes that in the colonial era Madrid and Lima set the standard most South American cities followed. In Madrid and Lima, a night at the theater would be loa, tonadilla, sainete, and then comedy. Loas were prologues from the Golden Era of Spanish theater that attempted to get the audience’s attention before a play began. Tonadillas were one of several small genres of music that gave rise to the zarzuela, a Spanish operetta with both sung and spoken dialogue. Sainetes (farces) were short one-act plays drawing characters from the urban working classes and employed their vernacular as well.
In 1817, the year after the nation declared independence at the Congreso de Tucumán, independence war hero Juan Martín de Pueyrredón formed La Sociedad de Buen Gusto [The Society of Good Taste] in order to harness and promote theater as a ‘civilizing’ tool. Promoting particular plays about the ‘American experience’ and about independence, the Society attempted to suppress popular theater, in particular the Spanish tonadilla and its main instrumentation, the guitar. Audiences knew what they liked, however, and more than once demanded the return of tonadillas to the stage. The failure of the Society of Good Taste to achieve its mission speaks to the power of the ingrained customs and habits of audience members, who continued to demand Spanish tonadillas, sainetes, and zarzuelas, over dramatic or lyrical theater.
The nineteenth century was a turbulent one for Argentine nation-building and theatrical entertainment waxed and waned along with economic and political stability. Spanish-originating theater and actors remained a constant presence on Argentine stages, simmering on the back burner, so to speak, until society transformed enough to sustain urban commercial theater. This would happen after 1880, the moment that the port city of Buenos Aires became designated as the federal capital, cementing its power over the provinces. Between 1879 and 1914, almost six million people came to Argentina with a little more than half of them permanently settling.
The constancy of Spanish theatre and acting troupes in Buenos Aires throughout the nineteenth century provided a base from which the Spanish zarzuela would arise to dominate urban entertainment in the 1890s. Zarzuelas were written in Spain and often reproduced on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a few days. Playscripts were transmitted via the telegraph and acting companies arrived to Buenos Aires on steamship. A touring company might leave the port city of Cádiz, Spain, arrive to Buenos Aires, rehearse, and perform in under three weeks time. Zarzuela performers were drawn to Buenos Aires for many reasons. The city had strong cultural ties to Spanish theatre and a large enough population to make a sojourn there profitable. The high season of theatre in Buenos Aires coincided with the off-season in Europe. In addition, the natural audience, Spaniards, comprised a large immigrant group in the 1880s, making up over 20 per cent of the population, and could sustain upwards of ten zarzuela companies. In 1886, zarzuelas comprised 8 per cent of the city’s indoor leisure time entertainment. By 1895, this number had jumped to over 60 per cent.
The zarzuela was an inherently urban form of theatre. Originating in Madrid, the topics of the zarzuelas were Spanish. Some of the titles centering on Madrid and the provinces of Spain: La verbena de la Paloma, de Madrid a Paris (From Madrid to Paris), La gran vía (The Great Thoroughfare), La Romeria de Miera (Miera’s Pilgrimage), Un gatito de Madrid (A Cat From Madrid), La Salamanquina (The Girl from Salamanca), and Olé Sevilla.
Spanish zarzuela companies dominated urban culture in Buenos Aires in the 1890s. They quickly began to adapt Madrid-centered themes to Argentine ones. For example, La gran vía, written by Federico Chueca (1846–1908) and Joaquín Valverde Durán (1846–1910) and first performed in Madrid in 1886, was performed in and adapted to Buenos Aires as well as Havana, Cuba and Santiago, Chile. It was even adapted and performed in the United States. The first scene of La gran vía opens with performers personifying Madrid’s streets and plazas, lamenting their fate in the face of urban renovation where a new Grand Boulevard will result in their destruction.
Justo López de Gomara, a Spaniard by birth and prominent Spanish journalist and playwright in Argentina, debuted his play De paseo en Buenos Aires [Strolling Through Buenos Aires] as a loose adaptation of La gran vía in 1890.
De paseo travels through the quintessential institutions of Buenos Aires, from the San Martin Theatre, to the police commissary, the Plaza Victoria (later the Plaza de Mayo), the Immigrants’ Hotel, La Boca del Riachuelo, a fruit market, the port, the stock exchange, and the Avenida de Mayo [May Avenue]. It also includes local character types, like compadritos, gauchos, and Italian and Spanish immigrants, and borrows from La gran vía several allegorical representations of urban life: squabbling street sweepers and cooks, boys selling newspapers, an Italian opera singer, French chorus girls, and [yes, apparently the porteño infatuation with dogs dates back to the nineteenth century] a professional dog walker.
If in the early 1890s there was a demand for zarzuela performances to be exact replicas of those in Spain, by the decade’s end audience members were increasingly contesting performances that they viewed as inauthentic, especially in regards to the presentation of national themes and character types. The zarzuela resulted in collaborations between Argentine playwrights and Spanish actors who set the template for Argentine national theatre. It also fostered a network of intellectuals and performers who unified their work with political activism during moments of democratic openings. The genre also generated conversation and debate about what it meant to be ‘Argentine,’ as Spanish performers and Argentine playwrights colluded to create a hybrid genre known as the zarzuela criolla where Argentines wrote the plays and Spaniards performed them.
If zarzuela performers tended to integrate themselves smoothly with Argentine audiences most of the year, twice a year it was impossible to forget the historical relationship between the two countries: May 25 and July 9, Argentina’s two days celebrating important moments in their independence from Spain. During independence days, theatres were decked out in the national colours of whichever nation was being celebrated. Streamers were hung, national anthems were sung. As such, theatres were arenas where patriotic gestures and national traditions were embraced and displayed. In addition, theatres were largely masculine spaces and young elite men went there to enact their own sense of manhood by protecting (and over-interpreting) slights to Argentine national identity. The fact that Spanish performers were required to sing the Argentine national anthem, which included lyrics derogatory against Spain also assured that theatres would be loaded affairs on these days.
The preponderance of Spanish performers on Argentine stages resulted in the curious case of the first actor to dance the tango on the stages of Buenos Aires: a Spaniard that performed in blackface. Ezequiel Soria’s Justicia criolla [Creole Justice] (1897) is a Spanish zarzuela that focuses on Benito, an Afro-Argentine doorman for the national congress who peppers his dialogue with political commentary and who also attempts to seduce Juanita, a white Argentine woman. Benito’s primary characteristics are his flirtatiousness, verbosity, and musicality. Benito is famously remembered for being the character credited with introducing the tango to the stages of Buenos Aires. Enrique Gil, an actor from Spain, who directed theater in Buenos Aires, first played Benito.
It was inevitable that the Spanish zarzuela would decline as Argentine theatre matured. 1904 was the last year that the zarzuela genre dominated in Buenos Aires. After the passage of a law that gave Argentine writers a guaranteed 10% of the box office for their plays, something which Spanish writers had secured in 1890, Argentine national theatre became a relatively lucrative business. While Buenos Aires has often been referred to as the Paris of South America, throughout the nineteenth century in matters of popular culture, Buenos Aires looked towards Madrid.
Featured image (at top): Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Kristen McCleary is an Associate Professor of history at James Madison University. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, “Engendering the Urban Sphere: Theater and Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880-1920.” She has published a number of articles about popular culture in Argentina on topics ranging from the transformation of carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, to the performance of masculinity on the city’s stages, to narratives of theater fires as a way in which to understand processes of urban modernization in Buenos Aires. Her courses on Latin America focus on visual and popular culture, gender, and social change. She has co-directed a study abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2008.
On a casual stroll through Buenos Aires City, the pedestrian’s eyes can follow the public spaces lined with colorful graffiti. Though the latter is illegal, it is socially accepted, and for some urban residents and tourists it is even valued. Indeed, they locate their graffiti, including name tags, screen printing, and murals, in highly visible and trafficked areas to share messages or evoke memories across time and space.
Europeans learned the history of graffiti in Spanish America thanks to Hernán Cortés—even though he, in the words of Angel Rama, “condemned graffiti because anyone could produce it.” Yet that very condemnation of its popularity is—perhaps ironically—why it is such an effective art form throughout modern Latin America. In Buenos Aires in particular, graffiti has become an art of protest, messaging, and spectacle.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo serve as evidence regarding graffiti art’s importance and its intersection with protest and public space. The Plaza de Mayo has symbolized Argentina’s urban core space since the early twentieth century. Through a discussion of the Mothers and how others use the Plaza space, we can better understand the strength of their physical protest and their ability to evoke memory
The Plaza de mayo
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elite leaders sought to control spaces within the city. Influenced by positivist philosophy, they engineered public space to represent their bourgeois ideals of order and progress—and materialized their imagined modernization.  With rising city income from sales of exported cereals and beef, they were able to finance their new city, an “ordered city,” which they envisioned as an architectural urban style and grid that emphasized order and progress. Such a new, ordered city would promote politics, public health, and culture.
The core of this ordered city was a public square, the Plaza de 25 de Mayo, established in 1884. Ironically, though termed a modern square, the Plaza de Mayo appeared similar to a traditional sixteenth-century Spanish plaza, surrounded by the essential buildings of administration, finance, and religion, including the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada Nevertheless, elites perceived that this central area demonstrated their high culture, including beautiful landscapes in geometrical shapes. This architectural landscape of Plaza de Mayo has remained relatively consistent for more than a century
By the mid-twentieth century, the Plaza de Mayo became less a symbol of beauty and modernization, and more of a central, public space for rallies and protests. During the Presidency of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955), for instance, his allies often organized pro-government rallies in the Plaza de Mayo, conveniently across from the Casa Rosada, where Perón could wave from the balcony of his office. The political and cultural significance of the Plaza was clear with numerous demonstrations taking place in this space—though the larger, truly mass demonstrations took place near the former building of the national labor organization, Confederation of General Labor (CGT), about a mile south of the Plaza. International audiences likely became aware of the importance of this Plaza through English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita.  In Webber’s version, he placed Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada during her iconic speech in which she announced her resignation as the vice-presidential candidate. In reality, her speech took place in front of the CGT building.
Protest and memory of the mothers of the plaza de mayo
During the second half of the twentieth century, mothers whose children had “disappeared” (desaparecidos) used the Plaza as a space of protest against the military dictatorship and its Dirty War (1976-1982). During this period, the military tortured, killed, and disappeared persons that it viewed as subversive. By 1977, fourteen women collectively demanded information regarding their missing children. They eventually called themselves the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They silently walked around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon—and still do to this day. They wear white head kerchiefs, carry signs of their missing children to recognize each other, and allow onlookers to join them. They intentionally remained visible to be “politically effective” and stay alive during the Dirty War. By the end of the Dirty War in 1982, they held large demonstrations in the Plaza demanding information on their disappeared children.
Though the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group have split into two, both groups, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Línea Fundadora, continue to walk around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon. Both groups wear the head kerchief, which was once embroidered with the name and date of their disappeared loved one. Today, the kerchiefs are embroidered with “aparición con vida de los desaparecidos” (making visible the lives of the disappeared). Though most mothers have accepted the death of their loved ones, their weekly march continues to memorialize the living, and most importantly, remind Argentines how their lives were taken during the Dirty War.
The two groups are distinguishable from each other only through their marching banners and followers. The first group, Línea Fundadora (founding mothers), is the smaller of the two and focuses on the original goal of the Mothers, demanding answers as to what happened to the disappeared. The second group, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has a much larger following because they march for the disappeared and in support of other social justice issues.
In addition to walking around the Plaza to protest, the mothers evoke memory even when they are not physically present. Through graffiti, they continue to demonstrate their power. In 1999, for instance, they drew outlines of the bodies of the disappeared on the Plaza de Mayo with white paint . Within each body they wrote the name of the disappeared and the date that they went missing. Through the display, the mothers made the disappeared “re-appear” on the Plaza. But the sketches of the bodies slowly faded with time. By 2002, they remained but were clearly fading as expected, having a ghostly appearance, such as an apparition
During the early twentieth century, the mothers varied the symbolic graffiti art painted on the Plaza. The head kerchiefs had become a symbol of the Mothers; hence, their allies painted them in white paint on the Plaza de Mayo in 2002. That same year, there were numerous protests on the Plaza in response to the major economic crisis of December 2001. The piqueteros (protesters) set up signs, posters and audio speakers to demonstrate in the Plaza. They were physically located near the painted head kerchiefs on the Plaza. The synergies of the protests highlighted the importance of creating spectacle to enhance the power of dissent.
By 2016, the Mothers and their allies combined the white outline of the disappeared bodies and the kerchiefs on the Plaza. This time, the bodies were painted in dynamic poses, resembling ghostly figures moving along the plaza, rather than the original drawings of static figures in 2002
Today, the Plaza continues to be a diverse urban core space for protests. In addition to the Mothers, veterans and a host of groups representing social, environmental, and economic justice issues use graffiti or install art in the Plaza. In 2016, a reproductive justice group demanded legal abortions in hospitals to reduce the number of injuries or deaths due to illegal procedures. Painted clearly on the divider fence is “aborto legal en el hospital,” which ironically, is behind the painted kerchiefs of the Mothers (Image 14. Aborto Legal). It is a message for women’s rights to control their own bodies, and that women should have the right to choose whether they want to be mothers or not.
Representations of the mothers across the city
Graffiti in the city includes themes of encouragement, love, identity, soccer, labor, and of course, protest. It is so varied that a few tourist companies specialize solely in graffiti tours in the northern and southern parts of the city. They offer bike, walking and shuttle tours, helping commodify graffiti. The influence of the mothers has been strong in this process across space and time. On graffiti tours, the guide cannot skip the homage to the Mothers. In the upscale Palermo district/neighborhood, the mothers’ white head kerchiefs are painted on the side of a building facing a playground. The kerchiefs float above all the other graffiti on this wall, and appear like powerful ghosts
In the south side of the city, artists in the working-class neighborhood of Boca represent the mothers as powerful indigenous warriors, showing their physical and emotional strength that helped carry the movement of memory and protest.
In the final image, the names of the missing in Boca are listed on the wall, and clearly written is “Ni Olvido, Ni Perdón.” It powerfully conveys the message that the struggle will continue until each and every disappeared person is accounted for.
Dr. Yovanna Pineda is Associate Professor of history at the University of Central Florida. Currently, she is finishing her manuscriptInnovating Technologies: Farm Machinery Invention, Rituals, and Memory in Argentina and its companion documentary The Harvester. She has published works on various topics including industrialization, farm machinery users, development, patent records, and labor. She writes articles about advising and empowering our first generation students. Her courses on the history of South America, science, and the global drug trade focus on how culture, politics and economics intertwine.
 Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Duke University Press, 1996), p. 38. [Italics added].  Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive (Paris: Bachelier, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1839); The porteño (as Buenos Aires was known) elite were very much aware of the international Park Movement, and interested in shaping spaces like Georges-Eugène Haussmann had done for Paris. Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque: Espacio público y cultura urbana en Buenos Aires, 1887-1936 (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes Editorial, 2010).  Gorelik, Chapter 1, “Ciudad nueva: La Utopía del ‘Pensamiento Argentino’,” La grilla y el parque.  Angel Rama, The Lettered City; Gorelik, La grilla y el parque.  May 25, 1810 is the declaration of independence day. Today, this space is simply known as the Plaza de Mayo.  Regarding the struggle for physical and symbolic space, see Mariano Ben Plotkin, Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina, translated by Keith Zahniser (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2003)  Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the lyrics to “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” depicting Evita Duarte de Perón’s resignation speech of the vice-presidency in his musical Evita (1978).  An estimated 30,000 persons were disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1982).  Diana Taylor, “Making a Spectacle: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Volume 3, number 2 (2001): 97-109.  Vikki Bell and Mario Di Paolantonio, “The Haunted Nomos: Activist-Artists and the (Im)possible Politics of Memory in Transitional Argentina,” Cultural Politics, Volume 5, number 2 (2009): 149-178.  Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas, editors, Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America (Duke University Press, 1994).
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