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You’re listening to In Search of Black Power. I’m Lawrence Grandpre.
In Search of Black Power is a podcast which challenges conventional narratives around black policy, black movement, and black life. We’re coming to you from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots thinktank in Baltimore, Maryland looking to extend their platform New Timbuktu.
You can find out more at www.newtimbuktu.com.
So we’re going to try something new for this episode.
As a researcher, I am deeply influenced by a lot of different podcasts I listen to. One of them is called Hardcore History, and in it the person who does the podcast, Dan Deacon, does a longform analysis of different historical topics.
And while I think it’s a great concept, I realized that there was nothing similar for black folks to tell our stories. This is a story that I’ve been telling for a while, but I’ve never had the time or space to get the depth that I really feel I need to on this story.
It’s the story of three riots that happened in Baltimore, and while I’m more interested in the history side, and the politics side, I am interested in the hardcore side, so for folks who are fans of Hardcore History there will be some blood, there will be some violence.
But there’s going to be more analysis and historical context that I think probably shows more of how we here at LBS do our unique form of historical analysis, so with that, let’s go on to the conversation.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
That’s a poem by a man named Percy Shelley, and when I think of it, I think of Baltimore.
I think a lot of folks think that Baltimore is a city that has no history. And I think that that history has been lost.
Baltimore is in a unique position that’s not quite north, but it’s not quite south. Nowadays it likes to think of itself as part of something they call the Northeast Corridor, but that’s not it’s real history.
Maryland’s, of course, a slave state, and it has a fraught and problematic history when it comes to issues of race. I’m interested in telling this story because I think that few cities have been so constantly seen as both heaven and hell.
The Wire has a line that says, “there’s a thin line between heaven and here.” I think that you see this cycle in Baltimore of Armageddon, destruction, but also belief the city can be renewed. So few cities make a mockery of human ambition the way Baltimore does.
And that’s what this poem is about. Shelley is an Englishman, writing in the 19th century, and in that time a statue of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramses, who he called Ozymandias, is coming to the United Kingdom from Egypt.
Shelley looks at this and he says “Look, you thought you were so great, you had these military battles,” – there’s this great battle called the Battle of Kadesh in the Egyptian war against the Hittites, this war of Egyptian expansion. Not all of African history is as great as some of us like to think.
Shelley looks at this and says that this guy thought that he can rule the world but look at him now. He’s been humbled by his failure. And this is interesting because while Shelley is getting at the universal human experience, we have to view it through the lens of a white man looking at Egypt.
There’s an entire study of Egypt called Egyptology and, if we are to believe the cynics of Egyptology, of which I am one, it’s essentially written to explain Egypt out of Africa. Egypt has all these great historical advances, and if they were African, we would have to challenge our beliefs on race.
So Egyptology comes around to try and theorize and explain how Egypt was related to the Greeks, and derivative of the Greeks, and this poem is part of what some call an Orientalist view of the world, this sort of romanticizing of Egypt, but also making them inferior to the West.
As we know now, that’s not true. Many of the advances that many claim Egypt copied from Greece actually works the other way around – Greece copied them from Egypt – but the people studying it just couldn’t see it.
And I think that we’re in the exact same position as the Egyptologists as we are today with black folks and Baltimore. There’s a deep history but people don’t see it. They see the riots, they see despair, they see the Wire.
This podcast is designed to fix that history as well as I can.
So this started around the 2015 riots and I have made it a personal point to not talk about the 2015 riots – well, first of all, we don’t call them riots, we call it the 2015 uprising – but I make it a personal point not to say anything about the 2015 riots without mentioning the other riots in Baltimore’s history.
Even when I do that I don’t have the time to really go in depth and explain all the links, all the nuance, and all of the complexity that go into how Baltimore became what it is. How it is this emblematic example of the human desire to fear Armageddon but believe that somehow, someway, we can bring utopia here on Earth.
If we view that sort of racialized lens, we can really begin to maybe understand what’s happening in Baltimore. So, all that to say that I’m going to do a historical analysis of Baltimore. And even with all the time I have on this podcast, I won’t do all of it justice. I’m not John Henrik Clarke, famous historian of black history, but I want to do an analysis of Baltimore as an example of Armageddon and rebirth, what some people call the study of eschatology.
This is a term that comes from bible study, the study of revelation, the second coming of Jesus, the ending of things, and the potential rebirth of things.
So, while I’m not John Henrik Clarke, I do believe what he says when he says “history is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day; it is a compass that they use to find themselves on the map of human geography,” and that’s what I hope to do today.
And with that, let’s start at the beginning. All the way at the beginning – I’m talking 1600s, I’m talking John Smith, I’m talking about something called the tidewater.
This is a term that they used in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to explain the Chesapeake Bay area, early colonization, tobacco plantations, and this is when Baltimore, for the first time, perhaps, is seen as a potential utopia.
John Smith writes in his diaries about the beauty of the land around the Chesapeake Bay. He writes, “the north cape is called Cape Charles. Within this country they have the prerogative over the most pleasant lands known, for large and pleasant, navigable rivers. Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”
I learned this quote in geography class, and while he was talking about the Chesapeake Bay in general, including Virginia, we learned it as part of our history that we learned about Baltimore. Baltimore was once a place that could be this utopia.
But, of course, one man’s utopia is another man’s (or woman’s) Armageddon.
You don’t have to stretch the imagination – when one hears John Smith, many people think of Pocahontas, and that is indeed that John Smith. You can imagine the white-washing of the destruction of Native Americans here in this part of the country.
He goes on in his journals to say that this land around Baltimore was not inhabited by natives, and we now know that’s not quite true. The Piscataway tribe used this as hunting grounds, and indeed there was a Native American settlement just south of the city.
But if we go forward a little bit in time, we can begin to see again one man’s heaven is another man’s hell, because this theory of what they call the “Land of Pleasant Living”, this tidewater culture, meant you had to have a plantation. This is the theory of “the good life” that we’re talking about here.
Other people making you rich, and you enjoying a life of culture and leisure, at the expense of stolen human capital.
You don’t have to look far to Frederik Douglass for whom Baltimore serves as the torture of Tantalus in many ways. Tantalus, of course, being the figure from Greek mythology who’s starving but can’t reach the grapes; who’s thirsty but can’t reach the water.
Douglass is starving for knowledge, and people around him are reading in Baltimore, where he’s taken as a teenager, but he struggles to get it. He sees the ships leaving, going far away but he can’t quite get on it yet.
Of course, he eventually steals himself away, but the idea is that Baltimore serves as this perfect storm, this middle ground between the north and the south, the two competing visions of the good life. One where you have a plantation and you own slaves; the other where you get access to Native American land for free and you are industrialist and you are building factories and bringing America onto the world stage.
These two can’t coexist. You can’t have a big plantation run by slaves and open that land up for settlement by white settlers. So, when people say that the civil war wasn’t only about slavery and morality, they’re exactly right. And many of these tensions can be seen in Baltimore.
For example, think of the Free Soil Party, which is a notorious anti-slavery party that rises up in the 1850s. When they say “free soil” they mean just that – but for white people. This is not about ending slavery because of the moral arguments, it’s because slavery makes it harder for white people to take over Native American land and become what Thomas Jefferson called the Yeoman, the self-made individual through rugged individualism, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps.
Remember that term “rugged individualism.”
So, Baltimore is at a crossroads, and here, as the civil war begins to present itself, there’s a moment in which these two competing visions of “the good life,” of heaven and hell, of utopia, begin to clash.
In the build-up to the civil war, there is a moment at which President Lincoln, newly elected, has to travel to DC through Baltimore, and journalist Michael Williams, in a book that he was writing called City Under the Guns which talks about the Baltimore occupation, talks about what happened when the republican, anti-slavery president and his army goes through Baltimore, which at that time had a huge pro-confederate base.
Fun fact: the book that Mr. Williams claims to be writing with this beautiful prose, I don’t believe ever gets published. Again, it looks like Baltimore has no history.
Jeff Davis, of course, being Jefferson Davis, the upcoming leader of the Confederacy.
And just for you listeners who may not be from Baltimore, imagine Baltimore as a square with a small triangle attached to its left end. It’s a square, but there’s water going through the middle of the square, which only leaves a sliver of land on its left side that turns into a triangle that juts out, essentially along the water.
This is right where the land meets the water, in the center of the city. Baltimore’s port. So you can imagine, the center of the city is being the epicenter for the oncoming riot.
The quote continues…
On the afternoon of April 18, 1861, Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown dispatched a strong letter of warning to Abraham Lincoln. “The people are exasperated to the highest degree by the passage of troops,” Brown wrote, “and the citizens are universally decided in the opinion that no more should be ordered to come. The authorities…did their best to day [sic] to protect both strangers and citizens and to prevent a collision, but [in] vain….it is my solemn duty to inform you that it is not possible for more soldiers to pass through Baltimore unless they fight their way at every step.”
Earlier that day five companies of Pennsylvania militia and a detachment of 4th Artillery Regulars ran into a rock- throwing mob at the Bolton Street station. Nicholas Biddle, a 65-year-old black orderly, caught the brunt of the crowd’s wrath. That incident, though minor, reflected the sectional tensions which destined America for civil war.
It was another thread in the seemingly endless tangle of problems facing the embattled U.S. president. Since December 1860, death threats had been pouring into Lincoln’s office. More than half a dozen states had already left the Union, and more were sure to follow. In the week leading up to the Baltimore confrontation, matters worsened. Confederate batteries fired on the besieged Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, and Virginia passed an ordinance of secession, leaving only a strip of river between the unguarded Union capital and enemy territory.
On top of this the president had to contend with Baltimore, a city the British once branded “a nest of pirates.” Its deeply pro-Southern populace made it unfriendly ground for the Rail Splitter, who had won a paltry 4 percent of its total popular vote in the last election. And now he’d received a letter in which Baltimore’s mayor expressed his citizens’ “universally decided” wish that he withdraw his order for 75,000 troops.
The suggestion was completely out of the question. The Confederate Army was preparing for battle just across the Potomac. Without a substantial military force to protect it, the U.S. capital remained an inviting target, and Northern troops’ shortest route was through the major railroad hub of Baltimore, the North’s gateway to the South. Lincoln knew that if Union forces were denied this vital transportation route, the North would lose the war before it started. He would have his soldiers, and he would have to get them by way of Baltimore—even if they had to fight their way through as Brown had warned.
The next morning a wood-burning locomotive chuffed south along the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad carrying 700 members of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, the first outfit drilled and equipped to answer the president’s call for troops. Like the Minutemen of 1775, the 6th’s ranks had reported for duty without question or delay. On April 16, Major Benjamin Watson closed his law office in Lawrence with scarcely two hours’ notice. In Lowell 17-year-old Private Luther Ladd traded his machinist’s apron for a uniform and buff trimmings. Addison Whitney left his job in the Middlesex Corporation’s No. 3 spinning room. When members of this 11-company regiment—once farmers, merchants, tradesmen and lawyers—left for Washington, they were heralded by Northerners as the Union’s heroic protectors.
But the journey’s romance soured for the new troops as their train neared Baltimore. The regiment’s commander, Colonel Edward F. Jones, held dispatches from railroad officials warning that his men would likely meet strong resistance there. It was a stark contrast to the trip’s first 300 miles, throughout which jubilant crowds hailed them with refreshments and patriotic demonstrations at every station.
They would find no such hospitality below the Mason-Dixon Line, where a warlike mood prevailed. Quartermaster James Munroe issued each man aboard the train 20 rounds of ball cartridges in preparation for their arrival at the Baltimore station. According to Private William Gurley of Company K, all accepted their lot “solemnly [and] with unchanged features,” then capped and loaded their .58-caliber Springfields as ordered.
Few of the men spoke as they neared the city. The metallic scraping of ramrods and the train’s rhythmic clatter were the only sounds that filled the coach—that is, until Colonel Jones entered the car and broke the silence with an ominous set of instructions. “The regiment will march through Baltimore in column of sections, arms at will,” he announced. “You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and, perhaps, assaulted, to which you must pay no attention…even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles….[B]ut,” Jones added, “if you are fired upon and any one of you is hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him.”
With that, Jones moved on to the next car, leaving Gurley and his comrades to contemplate their fate. Ghastly images of mob violence flashed in their minds as they approached the northeast waterfront and Fort McHenry’s ramparts came into view, with a Union flag still flapping in the breeze.
Around noon the 6th pulled into the PW&B’s President Street depot, where things seemed eerily quiet. Their arrival went largely unnoticed by pedestrians, most of whom hadn’t yet realized that the train was carrying Federal troops. The calm wouldn’t last.
Rumors of the Federals’ arrival had already begun circulating, and Baltimore’s residents and local leaders made no secret of their disdain for the Union’s new administration. Some Baltimoreans’ distaste for the new president had no doubt been heightened by a recent incident involving Lincoln himself. Just two months before, the president-elect opted to sneak through Baltimore under cover of darkness, to avoid a possible assassination plot. Southern cartoonist Adalbert Volck lampooned that humiliating maneuver in an etching, Passage Through Baltimore, depicting a cowardly-looking Lincoln peeking through the side door of a boxcar.
Like all Washington-bound passengers arriving from Philadelphia, Lincoln had to switch trains at the B&O line’s Camden Station, a mile and a half west of the PW&B’s depot. Because a city law prohibited the passage of locomotives along busy thoroughfares, however, drivers had to use horses in teams of four to pull each car across town, where railroad workers then recoupled them to a B&O engine. The tedious transfer took passengers around the city’s harbor, four blocks north on President Street, a mile west on Pratt and two blocks south on Howard. Lincoln had traveled the route while the city slept in February, but on April 19 the 6th Massachusetts was about to make that trip in broad daylight, through streets teeming with Southern sympathizers. This short distance between stations would test the newly minted Union troops’ mettle as soldiers.
Baltimore had always been seen as an explosive city, hypersensitive to the shifting currents of politics. The present crisis was no exception. While most Baltimoreans felt that Lincoln should keep his hands off the South, there was also a smaller contingent of Confederate zealots there who were more than willing to go to war over it. Sending Northern troops through their hometown was like putting a lit match to a powder keg.
Railroad officials, keenly aware of the danger, wanted nothing more than to get the Massachusetts men out of town as quickly as possible. Before Colonel Jones could even begin organizing his planned march, workers had uncoupled the engine and hitched teams of bay mares to each car. In swift succession they rolled out of the yard and onto President Street. What happened next would catapult the 6th Massachusetts to near-mythic status—and also doom Baltimore to a lengthy military occupation.
Inside the rail cars, the air was thick with tension. Every man tightened his grip on his Springfield, and most avoided looking out the windows, for fear of locking eyes with a pro-Confederate rough. Meanwhile bystanders couldn’t help but notice the soldiers; their military caps and upright muskets betrayed the railcar passengers’ identities. By the time they had gone just a few blocks, the 6th had attracted an angry crowd, spewing a torrent of epithets punctuated by cheers for “Jeff Davis!”
- Say something to break this up
Include riot sound effects
The growing mob followed the line of cars, now seven long, as it turned onto Pratt suddenly the onlookers unleashed a shower of paving stones and gunfire on the seventh coach, which was carrying Major Watson and 50 troops. Two men were hit in the head and upper body with bricks, while another soldier lost his thumb to a pistol shot. Holding up his bloody hand, the latter requested permission to return fire, which Major Watson promptly granted. That volley repelled the rioters long enough for the major and his men to escape. Their car was the last to make it to Camden Station, arriving windowless and riddled with bullet holes.
Back at Pratt Street, an orgy of destruction unfolded. Rioters dumped heavy anchors and cartloads of sand onto the tracks. Charles Pendergast, a shipping agent who profited handsomely from transport between Baltimore and South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, handed dockworkers crowbars and pickaxes with orders to pry the rails from the cobblestones and put the road out of commission.
Merchant Richard Fisher, in the middle of a business transaction with a Spanish sea captain, watched the rioters in horror from the second floor of his counting house. “You seem much agitated,” remarked the mariner. “This is nothing. We frequently have these things in Spain.” Fisher replied, “In Spain this may mean nothing; in America, it means Civil War.”
To the four companies stranded at the PW&B’s depot, it meant marching through a gauntlet of narrow streets flanked by tightly packed rows of brick buildings—terrain that put the 6th at a marked disadvantage. Military training of the day involved Napoleonic tactics for open battlefield scenarios, not a crowded, urban landscape such as Baltimore’s. What’s more, the Union men faced a plain-clothed enemy familiar with every inch of the neighborhood.
Once word came that the tracks were now impassable, the 220 men who still needed to reach Camden Station wheeled into columns outside the President Street depot under the command of stout Captain Albert S. Follansbee. Without hesitation, he gave the order to march. But as the columns moved forward, they were surrounded by a howling mob of secessionists shouting that they would kill every “white nigger” of them before they reached Camden Station.
The soldiers pressed on while onlookers pelted them with anything they could throw. The rioters had littered their path with makeshift barricades, to slow the troops’ progress. One rioter drew a swell of cheers from the mob as he took up position at the front of the 6th’s line, marching oafishly while dangling a Southern Palmetto flag from a piece of flimsy lumber. Three blocks of this charade was all that Lieutenant Leander Lynde could take. He coolly stepped out of line, ripped down the flag and shoved it under his coat, then rejoined the march as though nothing had happened. The crowd responded with a fusillade of bricks and gunfire that injured at least six troops.
Meanwhile Mayor Brown rushed east on Pratt Street to find the bridge near President Street covered with anchors and scantling. He curtly ordered nearby police officers to clear the obstructions, then hurried off to meet the advancing Massachusetts soldiers. They rounded the bend from President Street at the double quick, firing haphazardly at the mob, which was close on their heels. Just moments earlier some of Follansbee’s men had been attacked. A few were shot or beaten senseless.
The mayor and Follansbee met at the base of Pratt Street, and Brown introduced himself. “We have been attacked without provocation,” gasped the winded captain. Brown nodded, adding the laughably obvious recommendation, “You must defend yourselves.” Follansbee pushed on without a word. No one was safe. Bullets whistled past from all directions, striking rioters, soldiers and bystanders.
Four blocks west, at the corner of Gay and Pratt streets, the mob let loose a heavy barrage of stones and hot lead. “[That’s] right! Give it to them!” a rioter shouted. “They won’t shoot, they’re too afraid of their cowardly necks!” shrieked another.
Finally Follansee barked out the order to fire. The 6th’s men raised their rifles and delivered a volley, then jogged 200 feet to South Street, where more stones and pistol shots rained down. Again the 6th returned fire. Eleven rioters dropped in that salvo, one of them hit in the throat.
That kept the mob at bay temporarily. But two blocks farther on, near the corner of Light Street, rioters hit the 6th’s men again, this time killing teenager Luther Ladd, who just two days before had traded his machinist’s apron for regimental dress. As the soldiers brought their guns to shoulder, Mayor Brown ran forward, shouting at them, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Given the noise and chaos at that moment, it’s unlikely that anyone heard him.
The regiment fired into the crowd one last time before Police Marshal George Proctor Kane and 50 officers arrived to form a barrier between the troops and the mob. To ensure that no one attempted to pass, Kane, a burly, no-nonsense tough, raised his revolver and cried out, “Keep back, men, or I shoot!” Kane’s reputation intimidated even the roughest thugs, helping to quell the riot. Moments later the 6th was able to march the rest of the way to Camden Station, where they boarded a train to Washington, D.C.
Though the fighting had lasted less than an hour, there was a sizable butcher’s bill. From the 6th Massachusetts, Addison Whitney, Luther Ladd, Sumner Needham and Charles Taylor were killed during the march. What’s more, Taylor’s face had been smashed beyond recognition from repeated blows with heavy paving stones. Thirty-six others in the regiment were wounded, many of them seriously. Of the rioters, 11 died—among them a ship’s cabin boy who was hit in the stomach by a stray bullet. Countless others stumbled away to nurse their wounds.
Reaction to the riot extended well beyond Baltimore. Many Americans, North and South, had still held out some hope that the conflict might be resolved before much blood was shed. North Carolina Congressman A.W. Venable, for example, had optimistically proclaimed that he would be able to wipe away every drop of blood shed in the war with a handkerchief.
The events of April 19 extinguished that last spark of hope. It was now clear that a long and bloody conflict lay ahead. The men of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment came to Baltimore with romantic notions of war. They left knowing how bitter it would be.
The union went on to occupy the state of Maryland during the civil war. Many of you know that Maryland is a so-called border state, so while it had slaves it did not go to the Confederacy, essentially because it was occupied.
Also, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Maryland when it was issued.
So, this begins a political shift in Maryland away from slavery directly. That doesn’t mean there was a shift away from white supremacy.
The Republicans – again, Lincoln’s party – took over for a while, but then the Democrats took over, and, with certain exceptions they’ve remained in power ever since.
That meant a lot of things. One thing it surely meant was that the land that John Smith envisioned, the land of pleasant living, was gone for good.
Hi, Lawrence again to talk to you about LBS sustainers. So, as I hope you know by now, LBS is based in Baltimore and it meant something very specific to be from this town.
It’s a town run by Democrats who all say they love black people, that they’re in favor of racial justice, but has deep problems with racism and white supremacy. Maybe that’s why we’ve been so hard on the assumptive logic of liberalism in this podcast series, but when you’re from Baltimore you understand the importance of building an independent political power.
We’re hoping that you all in the audience can begin to understand that and go to LBSBaltimore.com/sustain to help support the work that we do.
We’re not just doing podcasts. We’re producing books, we’re producing research, and we’re doing real political work from the ground. And if you happen to not be from Baltimore, I really hope that you value the autonomous intellectual innovations we’re producing because we’re looking to expand the amount of work that we do, in terms of producing knowledge which can help serve as a model for people across the country.
All of this is contingent upon your support. We’re trying to innovate, not be a non-profit, and be entrepreneurial and self-sustaining in our work. So, if you think this is valuable, whether you’re from Baltimore or not, please go to LBSBaltimore.com/sustain.
So as I put together this outline, I had to figure out how to organize information. And so, what I’m going to talk about now is not going to be in strict chronological order, but there was time in the outline to put at the forefront something that I thought was necessary, and that’s a conversation of black folks not as passive recipients of history, but active agents within their own history.
It’s pretty easy to see, again, this illusion that black folks have no history, because history is written from a dominate perspective.
But if you look at Baltimore, you see over and over again that the exact opposite is true. That Baltimore’s history of black agency is actually exemplary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many people don’t know that Baltimore had the highest population of free blacks anywhere before the civil war, and that does a few things.
First, it makes Baltimore a fertile ground for things like the black church, black businesses, and black guilds but it also means that Baltimore has a long history of class differentiation between blacks. I believe that plays itself out in Baltimore’s history.
So, let’s look at some of these institutions that show black agency.
You have the American Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME church, one of the examples of this is Baltimore’s Beth El AME, a venerable black church that didn’t capitulate to what many people think of as the narrative around Christianity, it being inculcating docility.
In fact, it was the exact opposite, the black church is one of the few spaces where black folks could come together, pool their money, and build things for themselves. My favorite story about this comes from a man named Sterling Stuckey, in his book called Slave Culture.
There was a preacher going around saying that black folks were worshiping the wrong way. That they were too emotional in their praise. Some people would call this “catching the holy ghost.”
He would try to teach them how to worship in ways that conformed to the Eurocentric idea of Christianity. It was actually in Baltimore that he spread this message, and he was actually beaten up by two black church women, and that was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever experienced reading a history book.
That just shows you the strength of the culture of black folks in Baltimore, but it wasn’t just limited to the church. We also have the Chesapeake Dry Dock company, which is a black cooperative of ship builders and caulkers based in Baltimore.
A guy named Isaac Meyers was a visionary about building black economic power, and when the white folks at the docks excluded the black folks from building ships, they built their own company to build their own ships.
Many people also don’t know – again, not chronological order – that W.E.B DuBois lived in Baltimore for 20 years, and he actually did a study, a historical study, of black cooperative economic ventures in Baltimore. I want to read a quote, that’s not too long, but it does go in depth to actually give you some actual historical analysis of just how strong these black cooperative economic entities were.
There is probably no city in the land where there are as many societies among the colored people as in Baltimore, and several of the large societies which have spread far and wide, north and south, had their origin here.
Nearly all of the societies are beneficial, but they may be divided in general into two classes, those beneficial merely and those with secret features. In order to help one another in sickness and provide for decent burial, through a system of small but regular payments, beneficial societies were formed among little groups of acquaintances or fellow laborers. In Baltimore they date back to 1820, and were afterwards specially exempted from the state laws forbidding
meetings of colored people. Twenty-five, at least, had been formed before the
War; from 1865 to 1870, seventeen or more were formed ; since 1870, twenty or
more have been added, several as late as 1884 and 1885. The number of members
vary from a dozen to over 100.
In 1884 was held a meeting of many connected with these societies to arouse a more general interest in the work, and very interesting reports were presented. Forty of them gave an aggregate membership of over 2,100. Nearly 1,400 members had been buried, over $45,000 having been given in funeral expenses ; $125,000 had been given as sick dues ; $27,000 had been paid [to] widows by some thirty of the societies; over $10,700 had been given towards house rent; and over $11,300 had been paid for incidental expenses. Yet there had been paid back to the members of many of the societies, from unexpended balances,
as dividends, a total of over $40,000; and there remained in the banks, to the
credit of the societies, over $21,400, and in the treasurers hands a cash balance
amounting to some $1,400. Five had small sums invested besides, and one the
goodly sum of $5,642. The total amount of money handled by all had been
These societies vary somewhat in details. The usual fees from members are
50 cents a month;the usual benefits are $4 a week for a number of weeks, and
then reduced sums, in sickness, and $4,000 for death benefit. Some pay as long
as sickness lasts. Some give widow s dues according to need. One, for exam
ple, the Friendly Beneficial Society, organized chiefly by the members of a
Baptist church, some fifteen years ago, with the usual fees and benefits, carries
a standing fund of about $1,000, and the yearly fees of the members have paid
the current expenses of from $300 to $500, and has usually allowed an annual
dividend of $5 to each.
The Colored Barbers Society, over fifty years old, gives $80 at the death of a member. Three
societies, originally very large, have been gotten up in the last twenty years, by one colored woman, whose name one of them bears.
A few of these beneficial societies have disbanded;a few have changed to secret societies. Very few of them have been badly managed, although unincorporated and without any public oversight, and everybody seems to speak well of them and of their work.
So, again, I am thinking about what we said about Egyptology. How everyone looked to Egypt and tried to explain it when they didn’t even know what they weren’t seeing. When people look at Baltimore, again, they seem to think that black folks have always been this so-called down-bad state, but our historical analysis shows that that’s just not the truth.
Let’s go forward in history – let’s take a quick tour of some of these black institutions built in the early 20th century, in the early 1900s.
We have a black educator named Fanny Jackson Coppin who was so proficient at teaching black children that in the early 1900s she was flown to South Africa to teach them. We have an artistic history in Baltimore where folks like Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway grew up on the city’s west side. We have one of the largest black businesses in the whole country, called Park Sausages, based in Baltimore.
Many people don’t know Baltimore is the birthplace, original and home, of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People. Again, DuBois lived here for 20 years, and part of what he was doing is working and building the NAACP.
But these institutions did not operate in a vacuum. Baltimore, again, shifted away from slavery, but did not shift away from white supremacy. Baltimore was a Democratic party stronghold, the old Democratic party, the southern Democrats. Part of what they actually did was actually allow the state to take control of the police force here.
That was a time where the Republicans, Lincoln’s party, had some sway in Baltimore city, but the Democrats basically ran the rest of the state. There was concern, some of it potentially relevant from what I’ve read, that the Republican affiliated police force was suppressing votes for the Democrats, so the state legislature, in Maryland that’s in a city called Annapolis, took control away from local control of the local Baltimore police department and put it in the hands of the state.
At least technically.
That’s just one small example of things that happened during the 20th century. Baltimore is one of the legal birthplaces of legalized housing segregation, but it’s more insidious in terms of how it interacted with these independent black institutions. Chesapeake Dry Dock Company folded up, in part because they couldn’t get access to collateral, they couldn’t get access to loans from white lending establishments. Other analysis of black institutions has led to similar conclusions, that they were frozen out of capital markets here in Baltimore.
W.E.B DuBois talked about the black middle class in Baltimore being one of the strongest in the country. There are certain parts of the city where there are these big, beautiful houses that have been occupied by black people ever since the early 1900s. But part of what happens to the wealth built up in those middle-class neighborhoods is a process called “blockbusting” that makes it harder for those neighborhoods to appreciate the value.
What happens is that real estate agents know that they can scare white folks into moving to the county, and thus they create panics to make them move out, then resell the houses of white people to black people at much higher rates because there are only a few places where black folks can live because of restricted housing covenants that are now informal.
One of the most nefarious tactics that some real estate agents would use is they would pay a black woman to walk down a white street with a baby carriage with a baby inside. The message to the white families was clear: “There goes the neighborhood.”
With black folks not only here, but reproducing, in my neighborhood the message was white folks was that their property value was going to decline and it was time to move out.
Because of a deal that got struck in the 1800s, Baltimore’s what’s called an independent city, and that’s really important because it’s entirely politically independent of its county. Which means that when white folks leave, all their money leaves and it legally can’t flow back. So we have the beginnings of compounding racial inequality happening in Baltimore, especially beginning in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Baltimore swells to 900,000 people, it’s one of the largest cities in the country, but this is a boom based on it partially being a port town. It becomes both a northern migration town, and a slave town at the same time. Again, these two contrasting worlds matching into each other.
Starting in the ‘50s, some of the jobs begin to leave, the wartime boom begins to decline. Remember, you have an established black bourgeois in Baltimore, but because it’s a northern migration town, you have southern blacks moving up to Baltimore creating schisms within the black community.
Remember, this is the home town of the NAACP, and there’s this vision, this dream, that if we were just respectable enough, that if we just washed our marble steps enough, black folks could rise up and overcome. I would say this is another dream of rebirth and utopia in Baltimore and there are examples of that rebirth and dream being shattered.
One of them is the story of Thomas Broadus, who was a Navy shore man on shore leave in the ‘40s who tried to hail an illegal taxi cab. When confronted by a police officer he said he can spend his money however he wished and was promptly beaten to death.
And while this created some activism and fervor – again, home of the NAACP – I see it as an emblematic example of how that vision of – a NAACP, if you will – vision of black civility in Baltimore was doomed to fail. All this is happening leading up to April 1968.
What is it about Baltimore in April? Things just seem to happen. So, all of this tension, the city’s already declining in population, there’s already schisms in the black community, there’s already increasing unemployment that’s about double the national rate in Baltimore at ’68, and Martin Luther King Jr. gets assassinated.
At first nothing seems to happen. There are a few disruptions, but there’s actually a Time news story called “Why Baltimore Didn’t Burn,” basically saying that Baltimore was exempted from some of the strife and struggles that happened in other cities.
It was on a Saturday, April 6th, in Baltimore that something changed.
There were peaceful rallies planned for that day, but because of what had happened in other cities and because of the way of thinking by the powers that were running Baltimore, national guardsmen and other police forces were deployed heavily throughout the town.
There is an extensive collection of oral history gathered 40 years after the fact by the University of Baltimore, many of which talk about it being the interactions between these pre-emptively deployed police forces and sad and angry citizens that happened on that day which precipitated the 1968 riot, the second riot in today’s episode.
Peace everybody, my name is Lady Brion I’m the cultural curator here at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and I came to this organization because I really wanted to have an impact on Baltimore, specifically black Baltimore. And, as an artist and curator, I recognize that the lofty ideas of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle is often missed by your average day folks that don’t speak that really highly intellectual, scholarly language. So I use my art and my advocacy to reach those people.
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Now, along with extensive oral history, there’s a pretty comprehensive timeline that the University of Baltimore was able to compile. While I’m not able to go down the entire timeline, I do want to give you a feel for some of the things that were happening at that time, and maybe walk you through some of the places that were impacted to show you the similarities between the 1861 riot and this riot.
Again, we seem to be stuck in this pattern of history repeating itself, and if we don’t study it and see it, we can’t avoid it.
So, on Saturday, April 6th, at 4 p.m., there’s a commemorative interdenominational service. It’s been relatively peaceful, but people begin to interact with the national guard who’s on standby the whole day. There seems to be a feeling among the populous of “Okay, you’re going to treat us like animals, fine. We’ll act like animals.”
It’s at 5 p.m. that the first reports of windows being smashed begin. This is 400 North Gate Street. Remember, Baltimore’s a square, with a tiny triangle jutting out along the water. So, 400 North Gate Street’s basically downtown, a little bit on the east side.
5:30 p.m., violence breaks out in the Gate Street ghetto area. This is a concentration of black folks just north of the city’s downtown.
6 p.m., first reports of looting at a dry cleaner, Gay and Monument, same neighborhood. If we listen to the voices of prominent black folks at the time, we can see that the historical context that would happen in 1968 was the product of a long history of building tensions in Baltimore.
So, part of the UB library is a quote from a man called Marion Bascom, who was a prominent figure in Baltimore’s history. Former pastor of Douglas Memorial Church, former marcher with Martin Luther King, and he gives some historical context for what began to happen at that time.
And then I came to Baltimore, [and] I became rather active in what was going on here. There were some groups, the NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People here, headed by Miss Lilly Jackson, there was the Baltimore Urban League, which was headed by Vernon Templeton. Of course, there were splinter groups. Students were becoming…at a point of unrest. I guess that before the disturbances you might also say that.. .when I came to Baltimore, of course, it was in 1949…there were no facilities…eating facilities.. .for blacks outside of the black community. In 1954, when I became a member of the the Grand Jury of Baltimore, although I was a member of the Grand Jury,
and we met downtown every morning during the week for a three month period, there was no where downtown where blacks.. .Negroes. ..colored people could go and buy food.
Of course, I suspect I told you as much about it as possible. Other than to say that, as I was
saying there was so much hope in the community and it was shattered by the untimely death of Martin Luther King, and the town went crazy. Not only Baltimore, but almost every city in the country experienced the same thing, it was almost as if blacks in every community had suddenly been inoculated with an hypodermic needle and caught the disease of disturbance. And so they began to set fires, and it was just horrible. You could smell smoke anywhere in Baltimore City.
An aside, which isn’t of historical significance, but the story goes that an old lady was seen carrying a small television during the disturbances, and word goes that she said “The Lord blessed me with this television.”, even though she had broken out a window in one of the local stores and gotten the television, at the expense of the store. ..well, that’s sort of a funny aside.
So, you can see the similarities of the two riots – that they represent two conflicting visions of the world.
The first riot was about the fear, about the loss of superiority, that dream of the land of pleasant living. The second was frustration over the loss of basic humanity. It’s important to remember that King was losing popularity amongst whites, and credibility amongst blacks at this time.
His non-violent direct-action approach didn’t seem to fit with the rising desire for self-determination and black power, what some people would call militancy. But he still had deep respect in the black community.
If his vision of non-violent direct-action could be snuffed out, then I think you’re once again seeing this potential vision of how the world can be better being crushed in Baltimore, and that’s when the riot begins to go into higher gear, on the night of April 7th.
10 p.m., dozens of stores on Green Mount Avenue begin to catch fire, and it crosses over to North Avenue. These are streets – Green Mount is a street on the east side of Baltimore, going straight up to John Hopkins University, it’s a redline in the city between affluent folks associated with Hopkins and poor blacks who aren’t. North avenue is a critical east-west corridor, about halfway up in terms of the box that is Baltimore, so right in the middle of the city.
10:10 p.m., governor Spiro Agnew commits the national guard.
10:30 p.m., violence on Gate Street is declared out of control, as merchants, armed with rifles, board up their stores.
11 p.m., by this time the riot has crossed over to the west side, looting begins on a street called Pennsylvania Avenue. Pennsylvania Avenue is a diagonal street going through the city’s west side.
11:15 p.m., national guard troops move in from the 5th regiment armory on trucks. Things begin to quiet down.
Let’s go on to Sunday, the 7th. And let’s raise a question of what’s happening here. There’s a question of what you could call planning and intentionality, and Lee Baylin, a reporter from the Evening Baltimore Sun, talked about how he didn’t see it as hostile or targeting or gangs, but it was more about youth saying, “Let’s get into trouble.”
And this is what happens on Sunday the 7th, a lot of trouble is gotten into by noon, as the first fire of the day [breaks out]. There’s a jail in the middle of Baltimore city, and by this time the inmates begin to refuse lunch in their cells.
By 1:30 p.m., the state’s attorney general was quoted saying that the looting in the eastern half of the city has reached terrible proportions. Large crowds gather at Baltimore street. The block area. They break up only at 3:30 as canine units begin to move in.
At 2 o’clock, there’s a 4 p.m. curfew which is announced, gasoline sales are banned.
4 o’clock, the curfew hits, and the rioting accelerates on the west side of Baltimore. Police try to move in to protect a burning liquor store and they’re getting rocks thrown at them, and bottles.
6:14 p.m., President Johnson orders 2,000 army troops into Baltimore, and by 7:30 we have the peak of the riots, a broad conflagration on the east side and the west side.
So, we need to look at some of what happens here from a direct perspective. Jewel Chambers, a reporter for the local Afro American, gives us one of the few peeks we have into a first-person account of what was happening in the riots from a black perspective.
“One of the most interesting vignettes though— this one has stuck with me forever—was I was up on Thomas Avenue just below North [Avenue] but between North [Avenue] and Baker [Street], the black section—middle, lower-middle class. And on one corner there is a corner bar and they had already trashed it. So I’m in there and there’s this guy… black guy telling people what’s here and what you can take but there’s nothing here unless you want variation on…name a real…Thunderbird. The good stuff is gone.
And then he’s sitting there and he’s saying, “And don’t be lighting…don’t be lighting no matches, don’t be lighting no matches ‘cause I live upstairs. So take whatever is here, only thing here is cheap…but don’t be lighting.” And I remember the words, “Don’t be lighting no matches ‘cause I live upstairs.” And he probably saved it…they didn’t light any matches.
Then I went across the street and that was a corner store; it was a mom and pop store. It
had been…well, they had done a job: there were corn flakes and flour all over the floor,you know, stuff all over the floor. But what got me, these…these…this is the thing that sticks with me—there was this older woman and she was doing her shopping. And she was very careful in what she wanted and what got me was that she got…you could buy butter if you…in the mom and pop stores to this day. You do not have to buy a pound of butter, you know, you can buy a stick. And she fished around and somewhere found two sticks of margarine—two sticks,not a whole pound. But she was doing her shopping and was taking exactly what she would have
shopped for. It was weird. At one point I [said], “Don’t you want a big box of cereal?” [And thewoman responded,] “Oh no, dear.” She didn’t want a big box of cereal. And then Iwent
along…oh yeah. ‘Cause I was told, “Observe, but don’t get too close when you’re going to get yourself hurt.” And these guys had broken into the back of a larger store on Fulton Avenue. I’m
all…I’m still in West Baltimore. I stayed out of East Baltimore because East Baltimore had kind
of subsided, but that’s where they had beaten up some people. The key is nobody got killed.
And…they had gone in the back and they had gone in the meat locker and the guy had a.
This isn’t the vision of looters that we normally get. She goes on to talk about mob mentality, and how she felt that folks got out of hand, but the precision she seems to note amongst the so-called looters, first of all as is an old woman and she is meticulously doing her shopping, but also amongst a conversation and dialogue between the looters and the so-called loot-ees.
This isn’t people burning down their own neighborhood, this is something a little bit different that she’s describing. One thing she talks about is some of the stores got burnt because they were using what was called books, which is informal credit, and if you burned the book then you could eliminate what you owed to the store. You could imagine many of the folks in the community may have felt that these folks were figuratively cooking the books – charging them for things more than they had racked up in credit.
So, burning the store isn’t an irrational act of people who don’t know what’s good for them. It’s, in its own way, a protest against inequitable economic conditions. Some of you out there might get the analogy of fight club, where they knock down the towers to erase the credit records for everybody, and in their own way some folks in Baltimore felt that that’s what they were doing in 1968.
Let’s go on to Monday.
Six sniper incidents are reported just by midday.
By 9 p.m., more reports on the west side than the east side, so you can imagine two loci of red on two different sides of the city.
By the morning, there was a whirlwind tour of officials trying to assess the damage, and by early afternoon tear gas was used on 300 youth smashing into a grocery store on North Avenue.
This is where some of the conversation around propaganda and misinformation comes in. The gangs are rumored to be using walkie-talkies to coordinate how to avoid the police officers, which seems to contradict the report we got from Ms. Chambers.
The looters didn’t seem to be that coordinated, or that focused on pure destruction, but we also have some of this sensationalism coming thorough.
“Negro Slums East and West of Downtown”, “Unruly Gangs of White and Blacks Confront Each Other on the Streets”.
These are the conversations that are happening on Monday.
By Tuesday things begin to calm down. There’s an incident on a street called Gilmore Street – remember that name – where 6 drunken men disturb a peaceful food distribution center.
By this time, there is a mixture of things happening: there’s a crackdown to control the riots, but also the assertion of what you could call black civil society to get things back under control.
Non-violent civil rights groups are sent in, with sound trucks, to urge residents to stay in their homes. A list of merchants is compiled, and the damage is beginning to be assessed as black community members patrol trouble spots in their plain clothes.
There’s actually a story of groups of people chanting “That’s enough, baby, that’s enough,” chanting to their community that perhaps their message had been sent, and it was time to end the conflagration.
So, most tales of the riots end on that Tuesday, and you can see the damage. $8-10 million– that would be $70 million in today’s currency – 288 liquor establishments burned or looted, 190 food stores vandalized, 6 people dead.
This is not necessarily the most prominent riot of the 60s, but it seems to do a number on Baltimore’s image around the country. That’s what’s more interesting to me than the violence and the blood.
What is it about Baltimore that seems so inexorably attracted to when it comes to this vision of Armageddon and destruction?
There’s a song about Baltimore that came out in the 70s, and I’m not much of a singer, so I’ll say as a poem the lyrics. I think it’s perfectly demonstrative of what I’m trying to get across.
The song is called “Oh, Baltimore” and it goes like this.\
I don’t think that there’s a better vision of Baltimore, within the frame that I’m using, this thing called eschatology, the ending, the apocalypse, the destruction, never coming back here, moving away.
Many of you hear these lyrics and the voice you might be hearing is none other than Nina Simone, who is most associated with this song. But it’s not written by Nina Simone, it’s written by – and I had to double check it to make sure it was true – it’s written by Randy Newman and Nina Simone covers it.
In fact, the way she tells it, she was just fulfilling obligations to her record label, and they basically gave her songs and forced her to sing.
I think this is perfect.
We have this vision that “Look, Baltimore is crap, Nina Simone told me so,” and it’s interesting because even other black cities don’t seem to get it the way Baltimore gets it. You’ve got Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland (pre-gentrification).
Detroit has a terrible riot in 1967, not 1968, with far more damage, but it’s still Motor City, it’s still Rock City.
New Orleans, obviously, has jazz, and Oakland has the left coast culture, even a protest culture that’s celebrated but not Baltimore.
We know Baltimore’s crazy, Nina Simone told us so. It’s this vortex between the north and the south and Baltimore seems to just fall off the map. The amount of research that I saw, there has never been a comprehensive historical study of the Baltimore police department.
There is actually division between northern police scholars and southern police scholars. Two different theories of policing for slave states and non-slave states, and Baltimore falls right in the middle, and neither side seems to get it so it just hasn’t been done.
I think this idea of Nina Simone verifying what we all think we know about Baltimore, that Baltimore is somehow broken, but she’s just singing the words of Randy Newman. What did Randy Newman say when someone asked him about this song?
He said, “I don’t know where it came from, it just came to me.”
Again, I think this is just perfect to illustrate what I’m talking about here, that Baltimore didn’t die. If anything, it was murdered. We get the illusion that somehow black Baltimore just let itself down, that it was just broken and couldn’t be saved. Nina Simone told us so, and if you believe what you’re getting from these visions of Baltimore, again the eschatology the Armageddon, all Baltimore needs now is a savior.
And surely enough that’s exactly what they thought they got.