Category Archives: Baltimore

The Metropole November Round Up

As we close out November with stuffed bellies and eyes toward impending December holidays, The Metropole’s editors would be remiss not to draw attention to one of the blog’s strongest months since its founding in 2017. With a new UHA board, filled with recent arrivals, readying to assume responsibilities in January, we profiled four incoming members: Llana Barber, James Wolfinger, Emily Callaci, and Dorothee Brantz. Get to know your new board!

December 1st also brought to an end to our most prolific Metro of the Month, Baltimore. In November, The Metropole published, counting our usual overview, eight pieces of scholarship on Charm City. We’ve provided a round up of each below. Delve into the history of the iconic Mid-Atlantic metropolis!

Baltimore, Maryland Row Houses
Row houses, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, November 1, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mobs, Monuments, and Charm: A Baltimore Bibliography: From current 21st century popular culture attentions to the city (The Corner, The Wire, Beach House, Future Islands) to the story of Charm City’s unfortunately very influential residential segregation laws of the early 1910s, our annual overview/bibliography provides a bite sized bite of the larger whole.

House in Negro section. Baltimore, Maryland, John Vachon, July 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Race in Baltimore:

Longtime resident and Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matt Crenson, author of 2017’s Baltimore: A Political History, reflects on the city’s struggle with race relations. Equal parts academic analysis and memoir, Crenson juxtaposes his lived experience with the historical reality of the city.


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

Virginia Tech historian Dennis Patrick Halpin draws upon his forthcoming work on the city, A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920, to discusses the history of Baltimore’s first black-led civil rights organization (and one of the first nationally) and the struggles it encountered to deliver the rights of citizenship to Charm City’s African American community.

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

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

Walsh University historian Will Cooley delivers an account of 1970s and 1980s law enforcement drug policies in Baltimore. Unsurprisingly, the “Kingpin” approach failed to fully address the tragedy of the drug trade in the city. Cooley writes deft historical analysis with a journalistic eye in one of The Metropole’s most popular pieces of the last four months.

Baltimore, Maryland. Thursday night shoppers in a line outside a movie theatre, Marjory Collins, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

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

The world does not have enough cultural history that manages to both provide insight about material culture while also exploring how such cultural productions contribute to larger municipal policy goals, or in this case, failed to. University of Rutgers-Camden historian Mary Rizzo delves into 1970s Charm City to explore how municipal leaders and others hoped to create a new Mid-Atlantic Tinseltown that would also undergird urban renewal efforts.

Tyson Cartoon
From the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 3, 1959.

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

As most urban historians know, highway construction in America’s cities hollowed out metropolitan America particularly for working class African Americans and other minorities who found themselves forcibly removed from their communities. Yet Seattle University historian Emily Lieb, whose forthcoming book examines the West Baltimore neighborhood of Rosemont, explores the question “But what happened when white people were in the way?” Her account captures numerous problematic aspects of “slum clearance” particularly in regard to race and class.

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

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

Rhonda Y. Williams published her groundbreaking work, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality in 2004. Urban planner Sara Patenaude also saw in the city’s public housing history important historical data points. In this thumbnail summary of her dissertation, Patenaude documents how “choice” in public housing failed to lead to greater opportunity or integration for black residents.

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

Activist Businesses and Baltimore’s Overlooked History of Social Movements:

When discussing social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, one often envisions collective action and critique of capitalist organization and impulses. But, what about those “activist entrepreneurs” who attempted to meld social justice with business? Drawing upon his recent book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, University of Baltimore historian Josh Clark Davis explores Baltimore’s forgotten social justice enterprises.

We look forward to delivering more content in December!

Featured image: Bohemian Beer special, Hampden neighborhood, Baltimore Maryland, Ryan Reft, 2015. 

Activist Businesses and Baltimore’s Overlooked History of Social Movements

By Joshua Clark Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Knights of Labor cooperative shirt company

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sara Patenaude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Emily Lieb 

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

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

But what happened when white people were in the way?

“Picasso, Cats, and Gay Façades”[3]

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

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

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

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

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


Tyson Street Map 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyson Street 1.jpg

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

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

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

Their letter continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyson Street 7
Baltimore Sun Magazine, October 20, 1957

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

Tyson Street 2


Tyson Street 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Sentence Tyson.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read and Tyson Streets, Baltimore (1996) via


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mary Rizzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYT Charm City Ad 4 August 1974.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Will Cooley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Coates, Beautiful Struggle, 35.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Dennis Patrick Halpin 

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Halpin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race in Baltimore

By Matt Crenson 

In April, 2015, Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury while in the custody of Baltimore police officers. His was one more name on a national roster of unarmed black men who died that year at the hands of the police.  On the day of Gray’s funeral, rioting broke out.  Buildings were burned, stores looted, vehicles smashed and set afire – especially police cars.  Twenty officers were injured, and about 250 residents arrested.   The town lay under a state of emergency for a full week.

Not long after the emergency ended, the New York Times ran an editorial under the headline “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.”  It said that “the segregationist impulse in Maryland generally was particularly virulent and well documented in Baltimore, which is now 63 percent black…Americans might think of Maryland as a Northern state, but it was distinctively Southern in its attitudes toward race…the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore – and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time – have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history.”

The Times account of Baltimore’s racial history mentioned one tool of discrimination in particular – a residential segregation ordinance adopted by the city in 1910.  It was the first law of its kind in the country and a model for several other cities.  Superficially even-handed, it prohibited African Americans from moving to blocks where a majority of the residents were white, but also made it illegal for whites to move to blocks with black majorities.  One hundred and five years before its editorial on the Freddie Gray riots, the Times had condemned the Baltimore ordinance as “the most pronounced ‘Jim Crow’ measure on record.”

Baltimoreans naturally had a different understanding of their ordinance. The law’s title set out its official purposes: “An Ordinance for Preserving Peace, Preventing Conflict and Ill-Feelings Between the White and Colored Races And Protecting the General Welfare of the City of Baltimore By Providing as Far as Possible for the Use of Separate Blocks By White and Colored People for Residences, Churches, and Schools.”  The stated purpose, in other words, was to avoid racial conflict.  But the law’s too-long title nearly sank it.  A municipal court declared it invalid because it violated a provision of the city charter requiring that the title of an ordinance could mention only one purpose.

The City Council pruned the law’s title and passed an updated version in 1911, which included a new provision exempting racially mixed blocks from the scope of the ordinance.  In 1913, a black man was charged with occupying a house on a majority-white block.  The case was dismissed when a municipal judge held that the law’s language concerning mixed-race blocks made no sense.  On appeal, a state court approved the disputed wording, but threw out the ordinance anyway.  A black person who owned a house on a majority-white block before the passage of the law would be prohibited from occupying it.  The City Council again revised their ordinance to meet the requirements of the courts.

Row houses. Baltimore, Maryland, photograph by Arthur Rothstein, April 1939, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


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.

Silent Racism

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.

A view of Fort McHenry, and the entrance of the harbour of Baltimore, by Richard Granville Harrison, 1818, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


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

Robert Goodloe Harper, by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret Saint-Mémin, 1799, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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 Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated in Baltimore, May 19th, 1870, Kelly Thomas, 1870, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


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.

Quiet Continuity

African American parents and children stand across the street from School No. 34, as white pickets march, Baltimore, Maryland, 1954, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


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.

IMG_5816[1]Matthew Crenson is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is a native Baltimorean who earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. In 1969 he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins after teaching at M.I.T. and spending a year as a predoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He has specialized in the study of American urban and national politics. At Hopkins, he a served as Chair of the Department of Political Science and Associate Dean and Acting Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Crenson is the author or co-author of eight books, including Baltimore: A Political History (Johns Hopkins University Press, (2017).

Featured image (at top): House in Negro section. Baltimore, Maryland, John Vachon, July 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mobs, Monuments, and Charm: A Baltimore Bibliography

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.

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.”

Mural in Baltimore, Maryland
Mural in Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 29, 2008, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress

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.” [1]

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. [2] It would be the first “major city” incorporated after the American Revolution and to also establish a municipal government outside of British colonial authority. [3]


Washington Monument, Baltimore, William Henry Jackson, c. 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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.” [4]

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. [5] “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. [6]

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.” [7]

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. [8]

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. [9]

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.” [10]

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. [11]

Baltimore from the Emerson Tower, between 1910-1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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. [12]

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. [13]

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.” [14]

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. [15]

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. [16]

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. [17]

Group portrait of NAACP Baltimore Branch members, between 1940 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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. [18]

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. [19]

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.

Hampden neighborhood, Baltimore, Ryan Reft, c. 2015

Baltimore 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.

Hampden neighborhood Baltimore, Ryan Reft, c. 2015

Farrar, Haywood. The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Fee, Elizabeth, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman, eds. The Baltimore Book: New Views on Local History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009

Fuke, Richard Paul. Imperfect Equality: African Americans and the Confines of White Racial Attitudes in Post-Emancipation Maryland. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Street level yarn bomb in Hampden, Ryan Reft, c. 2015

Gardner, Bettye. “Ante-Bellum Black Education in Baltimore.” Maryland Historical Magazine 71.3 (Fall, 1976): 360-366.

Glotzer, Paige. “Exclusion in Arcadia: How Suburban Developers Circulated Ideas about Discrimination, 1890-1950.” Journal of Urban History 41.3 (2015): 479-494.

Gomez, Marisela. Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America. Lexington Books, 2015.

Graham, Leroy. Baltimore: The Nineteenth Century Black Capital. New York: The University Press of America, 1982.

Halpin, Dennis P. “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty’: Segregation, Violence, and African American Resistance in Baltimore, 1898-1918.” Journal of Urban History 44.4 (2018): 691-712.

Harris, Jennifer. “Black Canadian Contexts: The Case of Amelia E. Johnson.” African American Review 49.3 (Fall 2016): 24-259.

Hemphill, Katie M. “‘Drive to the Commission of this Crime’: Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835-1860.” Journal of the Early Republic 32.3 (Fall 2012): 437-461.

Kargon, Jeremy. “A Symbolic Landscape for Suburbia: Baltimore Chizuk Amuno’s ‘Hebrew Culture Garden.’” Journal of Urban History 40.4 (2014): 762-791.

King, P. Nicole. “Preserving Places, Making Spaces in Baltimore: Seeing the Connections of Research, Teaching and Service as Justice.” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (2014): 425-449.

Malka, Adam. The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Morrow, Diane Batts. Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Orser, Edward. Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmonson Village Story. University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

See-Saw ahead?, Hampden neighborhood, Baltimore, Ryan Reft, c. 2015

Orser, Edward. “Secondhand Suburbs: Black Pioneers in Baltimore’s Edmondson Village, 1955-1980.” Journal of Urban History 16.3 (1990): 227-262.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African-American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Pietilla, Antero. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. Ivan R. Dee, 2010.

Power, Garrett. “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913.” Maryland Law Review 42 (1983): 248-349.

Roberts, Samuel K. Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease and Health Effects of Segregation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Ryan, Mary P. “Democracy Rising: The Monuments of Baltimore, 1809-1842.” Journal of Urban History 36.2 (2010): 127-150.

Schley, David. “Tracks in the Streets: Railroads, Infrastructure, and Urban Space in Baltimore, 1828-1840.” Journal of Urban History 39.6 (2013): 1062-1084.

Shufelt, Gordon H. “Jim Crow Among Strangers: The Growth of Baltimore’s Little Italy and Maryland’s Disfranchisement Campaigns.” The Journal of American Ethnic History 19(4): 49-78.

Street scene, Hampden neighborhood, Baltimore, Ryan Reft, c. 2015

Smith, C. Fraser. Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Thomas, Bettye C. “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon its Inception and Ownership.” The Journal of Negro History Volume LIX, Number 1 (January 1974): 1-12.

Williams, Rhonda Y. The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Digital resources: 

Explore Baltimore Heritage. Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Maryland Historical Society.

[1] Matt Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017), 9-16.

[2] Crenson, Baltimore, 15-17.

[3] Mary P. Ryan, “Democracy Rising: The Monuments of Baltimore,” Journal of Urban History 36.2 (2010): 129.

[4] Ryan, “Democracy Rising,” 128, 143.

[5] Ryan, “Democracy Rising”, 129.

[6] Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History, 161.

[7] Crenson, Baltimore, 164.

[8] Dennis Halpin, “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty’: Segregation, Violence, and African American Resistance in Baltimore, 1898 -1918,” Journal of Urban History 44.4 (2018): 692-693.

[9] Joseph L. Arnold, “The Neighborhood and City Hall: The Origin of Neighborhood Associations in Baltimore, 1880-1911,” Journal of Urban History 6.1 (1979): 6.

[10] Arnold, “The Neighborhood and City Hall”, 7, 14.

[11] Gretchen Boger, “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore’s Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910-1913”, Journal of Urban History 35.2 (January 2009): 244.

[12] Halpin, “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty,’” 695.

[13] Boger, “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City,” 237-238.

[14] Halpin, 697.

[15] Boger, 248.

[16] Ibid., 246.

[17] Halpin, 702, 706-707.

[18] Boger, “239.

[19] Ibid., 707.

Featured image (at top): Row houses, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, November 1, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress