Prudence Cumberbatch

Prudence D. Cumberbatch is an Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies Department at Brooklyn College (CUNY). In 2014, Professor Cumberbatch served as a guest editor for a series of new online-only articles dealing with Baltimore. Here, she discusses the city's unique place in African American history.

Baltimore: From Frederick Douglass to The Wire

The word "middle" has often been used by historians to describe Maryland in both geographic and political terms.1 Among other labels, historians assess Maryland's pre-civil rights political atmosphere as neither as oppressive for African Americans as states in the Deep South, nor as "free" as the states of the North. Located in what was formerly known as the upper south, now called the mid-Atlantic, Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, is best known in contemporary society as the site of the HBO television drama The Wire, as well as the home of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Historical amnesia and regional marginality have in effect erased the story of African American struggles in a city and state which was the birthplace of civil rights legends, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, NAACP lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., and Representative Parren J. Mitchell, one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Friends recall Marshall referring to his hometown as "way up South." Indeed, both black and white Baltimoreans have struggled to reconcile their memories of the Jim Crow practices that restricted opportunities for blacks in all areas of their lives, from housing to education to entertainment.

We remember antebellum Baltimore as a city Frederick Douglass passed through on his journey from slavery to national leadership. Douglass pays little attention to the city's black community in his first autobiography. Yet that community, which contained the largest group of free blacks in the South and a significant number of skilled slave artisans, created a society that nurtured Douglass' inherent talents. While most Southern states sought to suppress black institutions, formal and informal ones thrived in Baltimore. Douglass found churches, schools, and other institutions that welcomed him. Just as in the "free" North, blacks in Baltimore laid the foundations for mutual cooperation, institutionalization of interests, and an educated leadership before the Civil War.

While Baltimore did not experience the radical political transformation that occurred in other southern cities in the wake of Reconstruction, changing attitudes with regard to de facto policies that stemmed from individual prejudices became more common in the early 1890s. The movement to codify racial segregation in Maryland evolved not only in schools and public spaces but also in residential neighborhoods. One example of the former occurred in 1892, when Charles Douglass—son of the famed abolitionist—and his wife were barred from a restaurant in a resort near Annapolis, the state's capital. Motivated by this event, he purchased land and founded Highland Beach, an area known as an enclave for African American elites.2 Laws supporting residential segregation appeared in 1910 in Baltimore, limiting the housing options for blacks, be they buyers, sellers or renters.3

One key factor that distinguished Maryland's postbellum segregationist legislation from its Southern counterparts was that blacks maintained the right to vote. Indeed, African American political participation became one of the pillars of organizing around issues of racial justice and led to the 1890 election of Harry S. Cummings to the Baltimore City Council. Throughout the state, Maryland's racial hierarchy was nonetheless increasingly buttressed through the evolution of Jim Crow laws and by de facto policies that physically separated African Americans from whites. On the one hand, segregated transportation, one of the major signifiers of Jim Crow, was never put into effect in Baltimore. On the other hand, whites sought to reclaim institutions by forcing blacks to the margins, or by removing them entirely. In 1890, a petition initiated by white students resulted in blacks being barred from the University of Maryland Law School, despite or perhaps because Cummings and his African American classmate Charles W. Johnson had already graduated, and W. Ashbie Hawkins and James L. Dozier were enrolled. Black bodies, once accepted marginally, were now an affront to white-dominated spaces. Hawkins, who was working as a public school principal in Baltimore County at the time, claimed that this policy "practically shuts [him] out of all possibility of entering the legal profession."4 He would, however, go on to get his law degree from Howard University, an all-black institution, and to become a prominent local leader in the fight for racial equality. Similarly, the Maryland Institute of Art adopted an exclusionary policy in the 1890s.5

In the first decade of the 20th century, state lawmakers successfully passed legislation that mandated segregation on intra-state railroads and in restrooms and sleeping accommodations on steamships.6 Integrated public events in the 19th century, be they Republican party functions, lectures, or concerts, became segregated in the early 20th century.7 Among the general populace, white support for physical segregation became much more common; blacks were no longer welcome as equals in public spaces. These politicized practices extended even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1944 was forced to deliver a speech to the Baltimore NAACP at a church because the two major theaters refused to open their doors to an event for a predominantly African American audience.

As in many other southern states, the rise of legal segregation in Maryland was paralleled by an increase in extralegal mob violence. While Maryland did not experience as many lynchings as other southern states, more than 35 men were lynched between 1865 and 1933. Similarly to Maryland's counterparts in the south, the 1880s and 1890s were a particularly violent period, with more than 24 lynchings during that time; over 90% of the victims were African American. The conventional reasons accounting for lynchings—the political, economic, and social competition between blacks and whites—did not play as great a role in postbellum Maryland because the state had not experienced the process of Radical Reconstruction. Nevertheless, racially-motivated violence provided daily reminders of second-class citizenship , and affected not only the members of the black community immediately involved in the violence but also the psyche of all black Marylanders.

In Baltimore, African American claims to equal citizenship increased with the rise of a small but determined middle class. At every turn, this group saw their options for housing, professional development, and entertainment shrinking in the postbellum era. While blacks chafed at the increasing impact of segregation on their lives, they employed a number of strategies to secure redress—lawsuits were filed, boycotts were organized, and petitions were presented to elected officials. Black political leaders, activists, and ministers tried to rally their constituents, but white-dominated political structures resisted. Although Baltimore did not experience a lynching, it was not exempt from the racial terror that reverberated from these episodes of violence. Consequently, black Baltimoreans took the lead in the local movement and participated vigorously in the national anti-lynching movement calling on the state and the federal governments to protect the rights of African Americans. Forced to respond to African American activists, nominally moderate whites developed a platform promoting "modernity" through moderation that continued into the 1940s. Often white politicians who seemed sympathetic made only the most modest overtures to their black constituents, gestures that were designed to appear to be responsive to African American needs while never challenging the supremacy of whiteness. Elected white officials in Baltimore and Maryland took comfort in the fact that their state seemed more progressive than their Southern counterparts. Major outbreaks of racial violence did not overshadow its image of progress, the political system appeared more Northern than Southern, and the relationship between the races was peaceful and positive, at least on the surface.

In their fight against the legal and customary aspects of Jim Crow, African Americans in Baltimore used the courts and their votes to force the city and state to uphold the principles of equality as laid out by the United States Constitution. African Americans also developed organizations to amplify their voices, including a Maryland Chapter of the Niagara Movement, a Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and the Baltimore Urban League, founded in 1924. The ultimate success of this decades-long campaign for equality lay in the continued persistence of individuals, organizations, and coalitions that refused to give up the struggle until the last vestiges of segregation were permanently removed.

Founded in 1912, the Baltimore branch of the NAACP was among the first urban chapters of the organization. The city appeared to be fertile ground for the NAACP and other similar movements, possessing an established activist core of ministers such as Garnett R. Waller and Harvey Johnson. Waller, who had been ordained by Johnson, also served as president of the Maryland chapter of the Niagara Movement in 1908. The membership of this group represented the male leadership of the black elite and also included W. Ashbie Hawkins and Douglass High School principal Mason A. Hawkins.8 Politically engaged elite African American women, some of whom were married to men involved in the Niagara Movement, came together in 1906 to create the Du Bois Circle, a companion organization.9

The early struggles of the Baltimore NAACP to secure members and leadership caused much frustration among the national officers and local residents. In the end, it would be a "brainy and energetic woman," also labeled the "crusading dynamo," Lillie Mae Jackson, who would energize the branch and the movement during her 34 years of leadership.10 Jackson was indefatigable in her commitment to racial justice, giving of her time and money to support this struggle. In partnership with family members, like her daughter Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who was the first African American woman to practice law in the state, and high school classmate Carl Murphy, president and editor of the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, Jackson rallied the people to a popular movement. Under her auspices the organization pursued both legal and electoral means, as well as public protests, to end racial segregation. Local leaders and ordinary citizens participated in ways large and small, including donations, knocking on doors to solicit support, walking picket lines, and refusing to shop in stores that practiced discrimination.

The Baltimore chapter of the NAACP was at the forefront of many challenges to racial injustice in the areas of housing, education, employment, and the use of public spaces. The branch's activities were part of a larger movement, working in coalition with other activists and organizations in a wide variety of campaigns that included, among other things, challenges to segregation in city golf courses and at the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. The Baltimore branch supported the coalition of Morgan State College students, organized in their own NAACP chapter, and CORE activists whose sit-in at Read's Drug Store in 1955 occurred years before the famed Greensboro, NC campaign to integrate lunch counters. The Baltimore branch also worked in partnership with other groups to organize a march on Annapolis in 1942; to integrate the Baltimore Police Department; and to desegregate downtown department stores, in conjunction with members of the Baltimore Urban League.

Through lawsuits, picket lines, and petitions, African Americans and their white supporters slowly chipped away at legal segregation. Still, the recalcitrance of segregationists, through individual prejudices or institutionalized racism, was deeply embedded in the culture. The story of James Crockett, one of the first generation of Baltimore's black firefighters, illustrates the difficulty that remained when "progress" occurred. The firehouse facilities were so segregated that Crockett was even forced to bring his own utensils to work. The University of Maryland, whose law school was ordered to integrate by a 1935 court ruling, refused to desegregate completely, forcing Thurgood Marshall to file individual suits against several of its other professional schools.

The decades-long struggle eventually produced victories in education, where Baltimore was one of the first cities to integrate after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, as well as in opening new employment and entertainment venues such as Gwynn Oak Park. Voter registration campaigns, which were central to Baltimore's civil rights agenda, led to new representation in the state's legislature and produced the aforementioned Parren J. Mitchell, the state's first black congressional representative, elected in 1970. His older brother Clarence was nicknamed the "101st Senator" for his work to secure the passage of national civil rights legislation beginning in the 1950s. This new generation of politicians also included Harry A. Cole, the first African American to serve in the State Senate; Baltimore's first African American state's attorney, Milton B. Allen; its first black female State Senator, Verda Welcome; and Kwesi Mfume, who would serve seven terms in Congress.

Both the civil rights and electoral victories that marked an end to African Americans' institutionalized second-class status occurred alongside deindustrialization and white flight in Baltimore, the latter beginning in the 1960s. The subsequent outmigration of whites and blacks to the suburbs, coupled with the retrenchment of well-paying unionized jobs and the relocation or shuttering of downtown department stores, resulted in a smaller city with a shrinking tax base. In ways similar to much of urban America, Baltimore became a site for increased crime, drugs, abandoned homes, and an underemployed black populace. The northwest Baltimore neighborhood that gave rise to black elected officials dating back to Harry S. Cummings and civil rights leaders such as Marshall, Jackson, and Mitchell underwent a slow but steady decline in residents and economic resources. African American churches, the largest of which were mainstays in the civil rights struggle, were forced to contend with diminishing populations, while inner city schools became increasingly re-segregated despite the victory in Brown v. Board. The black communities in East Baltimore, where portions of The Wire were filmed, fared no better. By the 1980s, the varied institutions that had sustained the black community's progress for more than a century, and which produced much of the organizing and the victories, were substantially weaker. Baltimore's first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, inherited a city in decline upon taking office in 1988.

In many respects, the paradoxes of late twentieth century Baltimore were accurately reflected in The Wire. The popular series represented much of what was wrong with urban America: crime, drugs, corruption, and institutional decay. Yet, the series also took for granted all that the black community of Baltimore had accomplished since the end of Reconstruction. Although poverty still existed, African Americans continued to play key roles in the city's institutions. In politics, in education, in the port activities, and in the police, blacks struggled against and alongside whites to find a course for themselves in a declining and a seemingly corrupt society. The degree of integration achieved in the 1980s would have surprised the great grandparents of contemporary black and white residents of Baltimore. The familiarity of the images of poverty and crime and the readiness with which it was accepted, as represented in The Wire, are at best problematic. Although both the characters in the series and their narratives were compelling, in contemporary Baltimore, side by side with black drug entrepreneurs was a group of black leaders who were deeply engaged in the politics and economics of the city. Hidden behind the larger storylines lay a multi-faceted African American community with a rich tradition of institutions and leadership that continues.


1Robert J. Brugger, Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634–1980 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Barbara J. Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

2 See also Brugger, 366.

3Margaret Law Callcott, The Negro in Maryland Politics, 1870–1912 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969) 137. See also Garrett Power, "Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910–1913," Maryland Law Review Vol. 42, 1983, 289–328; Carl H. Nightingale, "The Transnational Contexts of Early Twentieth-Century American Urban Segregation," Journal of Social History Vol. 39, No. 3, Spring 2006 667–702; Gretchen Boger, "The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore's Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910–1913," Journal of Urban History Vol. 35, No. 2 (2009) 236–258; "Opinion," The Crisis July 1913 V.6 N.3. 127–128 (New York: Arno Press, 1969(Vols. 5–6).

4"Colored Students Ruled Out," New York Times September 15, 1890; David S. Bogen, "The Forgotten Era," Maryland Bar Journal May 1986 V.19 N. 4, 10–13.

5"The Color Line in Baltimore," New York Times September 14, 1891; "Refuse to Admit a Negro," New York Times June 19, 1896; "Negro's Right in School," New York Times December 11, 1897.

6David S. Bogen, "Precursors of Rosa Parks: Maryland Transportation Cases Between the Civil War and the Beginning of World War I," Maryland Law Review Vol. 63 (2004) 721–751; Callcott, 135–136.

7Callcott, 136–137.

8Program from the Third Annual Meeting of the State Branch of the Niagara Movement.

9Nina Mjagkij ed. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations (New York: Garland Press, 2001.) 76-77.

10Rev. George F. Bragg to Robert W. Bagnall, 1 November 1932, Box G 85, NAACP Papers, Library of Congress; Karl E. Downs, Meet the Negro (Pasadena, CA: The Login Press, 1943) 158–159. 

Further Reading

Baum, Howell S. "Brown" in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

Bogen, David S. "Precursors to Rosa Parks: Maryland Transportation Cases Between the Civil War and the Beginning of World War I," Maryland Law Review Vol. 63 (2004).

Boger, Gretchen. "The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore's Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910–1913," Journal of Urban History Vol. 35, No. 2 (2009) 236-258.

Brugger, Robert J. Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634–1980 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Callcott, Margaret Law. The Negro in Maryland Politics, 1870–1912 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969).

Downs, Karl E. Meet the Negro (Pasadena, CA: The Login Press, 1943).

Fields, Barbara J. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)

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

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

Mitchell, Juanita Jackson. Interviewed by Charles Wagandt (1974) McKeldin-Jackson Project, 1969–1977. Maryland Historical Society OH 8095.

Nightingale, Carl H. "The Transnational Contexts of Early Twentieth-Century American Urban Segregation," Journal of Social History Vol. 39, No. 3, Spring 2006 667–702.

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

Power, Garrett. "Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910–1913," Maryland Law Review Vol. 42, 1983, 289-328.

Sartain, Lee. Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914–1970 (University of Mississippi Press, 2013)

Sktones, Andor. A New Deal for All?: Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

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