The Free City of Baltimore

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

When Frederick Douglass arrived in Baltimore in 1827, he was a slave who had known only the brutality of plantation life in antebellum Maryland. What he found was a free city paradoxically surrounded by slavery, where emancipated African Americans had formed a vibrant community that had increased in size by over 3,000 percent in the previous decades. By the middle of the century, over 25,000 free blacks lived in the city, making up 15 percent of the population. Indeed, while slavery grew in the rest of the South, it actually declined in Baltimore, dropping from nearly 5,000 in 1810 to around 3,000 in 1850. In other words, in the days leading up to the Civil War, only a tenth of the African Americans in Baltimore were actually enslaved. Moreover, urban slaves enjoyed a level of autonomy unheard of on the plantation. Douglass writes in his autobiography that "a city slave is almost a freeman" who had the opportunity to learn a trade and earn a living.

The city of Baltimore—the subject of our latest Community Spotlight, edited by Prudence Cumberbatch—continues to represent both the enduring promise and the long struggle of black America. Not surprisingly, the setting inspired Douglass to begin his career as a writer, to gain skills as a tradesman, and to finally escape to freedom. Indeed, as several of our new primary sources show, the city was the perfect place for a getaway, providing opportunities to flee by land or sea. But, perhaps more importantly, the city provided the most vivid proof that African Americans—long before the abolition movement gained momentum—were capable of building a civil society that produced not only Douglass, but many other leaders who helped to change the country.

Following the Civil War, the community continued to grow in the face of increasingly stringent segregationist policies. It was this context that produced another great American leader, attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who made a career out of fighting the Jim Crow system in his native state. Whereas Douglass was inspired by the black community in Baltimore a century earlier, Marshall was a product of it, the living embodiment of it. As Larry Gibson points out in his recent book Young Thurgood, Marshall's family was deeply rooted in the city, and his working class parents hoped he would become a dentist like his brother. He set his sights on law school instead, but was unable to attend the University of Maryland due to segregation. Marshall thus went to Howard University in Washington, and returned home to fulfill the promise he showed as a student.

Despite Marshall's many successes, and the official end of Jim Crow in the South, the city faced a new challenge in the late 20th century, when so-called "white flight" created a de facto system of segregation that continues into the present day, and is so vividly portrayed in the popular television show The Wire. This exodus accelerated after the 1968 race riot that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King. It is a great tragedy that the city, for some, has become synonymous with crime and urban decay. Even worse, its example has been used to bolster the idea that black communities are doomed to failure, as if the rapid departure of an entire segment of the population had nothing to do with the city's decline. But as our newest articles show, the city has endured through this crucible, and continues to produce black leaders in multiple fields. Moreover, it serves as a reminder of the work that remains in the 21st century. The recent economic and political crises have forced many people to finally pay attention to the hidden America in which much of Baltimore exists. Here, the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, and the ideals of the American Dream, have to become one and the same if our experiment in democracy is to succeed.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
February 2014

New Biographies

Downs, Karl Everett
McGuinn, Warner T.
Cummings, Harry Sythe
Howard, Joseph Clemens, Sr.
Calloway (Callaway), Marse
Moore, William

New Subject Articles

Guest Editorial
Baltimore Club Music
Baltimore Core/Target City Project
City-Wide Young People's Forum
Civic Interest Group (CIG)
Gwynn Oak Amusement Park Protest Movement
March on Annapolis
Pennsylvania Avenue
The Corner
The Wire

New Primary Source Documents

A Complete List of the Number of Christian Men, Women and Children, and also of Negro Slaves (1712)
A Plea for Racial Equality in the Maryland Gazette (1783)
Advertisement for Slaves in Annapolis, Maryland (1767)
An Act Concerning Negroes and Other Slaves (1664)
An Exact Account of Negroes Imported into Her Majesties Province of Maryland from Midsummer, 1698, to Xtmas, 1707
Analysis of the Speech by Governor Agnew Following the Baltimore Riots (1968)
Article on Matthew Henson and the North Pole Expedition (1909)
Article on the Trial of William Wheeler and Mark Caesar (1845)
Correspondence Between Donald G. Murray and the University of Maryland School of Law (1934–1935)
Interview with Witnesses of the Baltimore Riot of 1968 (2007)
Letter from John Henry Dorsey to John Slattery (1903)
Letter from the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Baltimore (1835)
Order to Vacate Judgment in Bell v. Maryland (1965)
The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery (1847)
Wanted Poster for Fugitive Slave Jack Alexander (1810)

Archived Material

Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland, Slavery In
Fell's Point (Baltimore)
Baltimore Afro-American
Saint Michaels, Maryland
Easton, Maryland, and Frederick Douglass
Maryland: State Population by Race, 1790 to 1990
Morgan State University
Excerpts from the Maryland Black Codes