“I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea”

As Baltimore begins a review of the city’s Confederate monuments, I’ve been doing some research on the history of these monuments trying to understand the city in which the monuments were originally erected. I was excited to find a “sensible letter” from Charles T. Crane to then Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe, published on March 27, 1880. I was surprised to find that Crane, a Confederate veteran, strongly disavowed the principle behind the recent rebellion and efforts to memorialize the Confederacy, writing: “I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea.”

Who supported the effort to erect this Confederate memorial? What moved Crane to write to the mayor? How can we understand this unusual document today?

"The Ragged Gray Jacket," from a menu published by the Society Of The Army & Navy Of The Confederate States, Carrollton Hotel, Baltimore, January 20, 1896. New York Public Library.
“The Ragged Gray Jacket,” from a menu published by the Society Of The Army & Navy Of The Confederate States, Carrollton Hotel, Baltimore, January 20, 1896. New York Public Library.

On January 19, 1880, at the annual meeting of the Society of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States in Maryland, a group of Confederate veterans passed a series of resolutions organizing a committee to “secure funds for the purpose of erecting a monument in the city of Baltimore to the memory of Marylanders who died in the service of the Confederate States.” The group worked quickly and, on March 24, the first branch of the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution permitting the Society to “erect a monument on Eutaw Place, near Lanvale st.” Three days later, Crane’s letter appeared in The Sun.


In connection with the subject of a proposed Confederate monument in one of the public squares of Baltimore, Mr. Charles T. Crane, a soldier of the late Confederate army, has written the following sensible letter to Mayor Latrobe, which, it will be seen, is in accord with the views of The Sun, as given yesterday:

“Hon. F.C. Latrobe.—My Dear Sir. I do not believe that any one who knows me will question my devotion to the cause of the late Confederate States of America. It is with this belief that I venture to address you in opposition to the proposed Confederate monument in this city. I consider the erection of such a monument in the streets of Baltimore impolitic, inexpedient, and injudicious in the highest degree. Whatever the sentiments and sympathies of the people of Maryland may have been or may be now, there was and there is a very respectable minority of them who did not sympathize with the South during the civil war. Whatever may have been the agencies employed to accomplish such result, the fact remains that Maryland did not leave the Union, and while hundreds of her sons gave up their lives in defense of the South, the State itself was never a member of the Confederacy. I yield to no one in honoring the memories of those noble spirits who devotion to principle led them to abandon friends and home to die for what they conceived to be right.

We have two beautiful monuments erected to their memories in that hallowed city of the dead –Loudon Park. In my humble judgement this and kindred spots are the only fitting places on Maryland soil for the erection of Confederate monuments, because, whatever it may cost us to make the acknowledgement, however painful it may be to realize the fact, the truth is undeniable that the cause for which they fought is dead. The principles of civil liberty, of State’s rights and of local self-government may live, nay, do live and burn in thousands of manly bosoms, but the cause, a separate national existence for the States and people of the South is dead—forever dead.

This being my belief, I, for one, am prepared to accept the situation, and without the least abandonment of principle, without sacrifice of honor, with a heart full of love and reverence for my fallen comrades, I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea, but which will be a standing menace, and a source of bitterness not only to a great number of the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland, but to a great number of the people of the United States. The war is over. For God’s sake let us of the South do nothing to revive its enmities and hates, but rather cultivate a spirit of reconciliation and peace. We are one people, let us be one in spirit as well as in name.

I know that these views are opposed to some of my nearest and dearest friends, some of whom may be disposed to judge harshly my attitude in this matter. For this I am prepared. I believe I am right, and what is thought of me is of small consequence compared to the evils which I believe will follow the erection of the proposed monument.

I am, dear sir, yours very truly,

Chas. T. Crane

Baltimore, March 26, 1880.


Just days after the letter was published, the issue arrived before the Second Branch of the Baltimore City Council. Dr. J. Pembroke Thom, a member of the Council and also a Confederate veteran, opposed the proposed monument and presented into the record a memorial (meaning a letter, a memo) of “residents on Eutaw Square and vicinity and elsewhere, against allowing the erection of a Confederate monument on the square.” The letter from local residents, “expressed respect from the memory of the gallant dead, but opposed the movement as calculated to disturb harmony and good feeling between citizens of all shades of opinion.” In addition, the Council received printed memorials “with several hundred signatures of officers and soldiers who served in the Union army and others, in opposition to allowing the erection of the proposed Confederate monument in Eutaw Square.”

Despite this opposition, on March 31, 1880, the Society of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States in Maryland succeeded in pushing the second branch of the Baltimore City Council to approve the resolution and send it along to Mayor Latrobe.

Gen. Ferdinand C. Latrobe
Gen. Ferdinand C. Latrobe via Captain James

On April 5, 1880, the Mayor returned the resolution to the first branch of the City Council – “without his approval” – writing:

“During the late civil war the people of Baltimore were divided in sentiment and action on the questions which, after a prolonged and embittered struggle, were finally decided by the sword. The ardor, bravery and devotion to principle of the Maryland soldiers, and the honor due to the memory of those who fell upon the battle-field is universally acknowledged. But while the issues involved in the war have been settled by its result, in most cases the convictions of those who as actors or sympathizers took part in the contest continue to exist. Under these circumstances the erection at this time in one of the public squares of a memorial monument commemorative of the acts of those who fought upon either side would not fail to be repugnant to the opinions and sentiments of very many people. The public highways and squares of the city are the common property of all, and we who are temporarily entrusted with their control, whatever our personal opinions may be, are not, in my judgment, justified in dedicating any portion of them to a purpose which would be in direct opposition to the sensibilities and wishes of large numbers of citizens.”

The effort to build a monument on Eutaw Street evidently ended with Mayor Latrobe’s veto but Confederate veteran groups in Baltimore persisted.

Eutaw Place, c. 1903. Library of Congress, 4a10716v
Eutaw Place, c. 1903. Library of Congress, 4a10716v

Seven years later, the city saw the erection of a statue honoring Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney (donated by William Walters) in the north square of Mount Vernon Place. In February 1903, the “Spirit of the Confederacy” was dedicated at Mount Royal Terrace. In 1917, the Confederate Women’s Monument was erected at Charles Street and University Parkway. In 1948, the Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson Monument was dedicated on Wyman Park Drive across from the Baltimore Museum of Art. For over 70 years, this persistent commemorative agenda closely paralleled efforts to segregate, disenfranchise, and discriminate against African-Americans in Baltimore and Maryland.

Mt. Royal Ave. and Confederate Monument, Baltimore, Md. Library of Congress, 4a24916v.
Mt. Royal Ave. and Confederate Monument, 1910. Library of Congress, 4a24916v.

It is striking that even opponents of the 1880 effort — Charles T. Crane, Dr. J. Pembroke Thom, and Ferdinand Latrobe — presented the Civil War as “settled.” They gave little consideration for how the nearly 54,000 African-Americans living in Baltimore at the time may have viewed the memorial. To understand the difficult history and significance of these monuments today, we must continue to expand this story beyond Crane’s letter. We must listen to the voices of the black Baltimoreans who stood witness to the erection of Confederate memorials in 1887, 1903, 1917, and 1948, and have experienced the consequences of these symbols in the city’s landscape up through the present.

“Branch Bank To Be Marked By New Look”

I’ve been driving up and down Harford Road pretty regularly over the past few weeks for our work on the Herring Run Archaeology project. Each time I return back down to Mount Vernon, this midcentury bank building at 2056 Harford Road just called out to me. Knowing nothing about the building, I went looking for some more details.

A quick search turned up a Baltimore Sun account from September 4, 1956 – Branch Bank To Be Marked By New Look – turned up some key details on this former branch location for the Union Trust Bank:

“A long-range program of modernization has resulted in the construction of eight new, modern bank buildings to replace old structures, plus extensive remodeling and enlargement of five additional branch offices in a ten-year period. There are now 25 Union Trust banking offices scattered through the Baltimore area. […] Designed by Smith & Veale, local architects, the new building is to give the conception of a glass box. The steel frame is exposed and treated as part of the architecture of the building. Masonry masses are utilized to conceal the vault and other security facilities of the branch. […] Ample hard-surfaced parking area on the rear of the lot is afforded for walk-in customers. A drive-up window beneath a canopy is available along the side of the building.”

The firm of Smith & Veale was a partnership of local architects Thomas W. Smith and Graham Veale established shortly after the end of World War II. The firm designed scores of modern banks, libraries and schools. Veale, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 91, was a Philadelphia native who came to Baltimore as a teenager. Smith died in 1998 at the age of 89. I recently profiled two other buildings designed by the firm – the KAGRO Building on North Avenue and the North Point Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library – as part of a nascent effort to expand our coverage of modernism in Explore Baltimore Heritage. I’d love to located the eight new Union Trust bank branches mentioned above and add them to our growing collection. If you’re interested in modernist architecture in Baltimore, please join the Baltimore Modernism Project Facebook group to share ideas, research and writing on this theme.

Photograph by Nether via Baltimore Slumlord Watch.
Photograph by Nether via Baltimore Slumlord Watch.

The striking combination of the midcentury sign board and the cantilevered canopy above the bank’s drive-through window was regrettably demolished in the fall of 2013 – not long after the deteriorated condition of the building was highlighted with a public artwork by  Wall Hunters Mural project. The bank building remains vacant.

When Google Streetview last captured Harford Road in October 2014, a “For Rent” advertised the building’s availability and included a phone number t0 call for more information: 443-255-2028.


Featured image: Photograph by Camilo J. Vergara, 2013 January 9. Library of Congress, vrg 00340.

We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. Part one of a draft paper for the VAF Conference in Chicago.

This post is the first half of a paper I am working on for the 2015 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference in Chicago this June. The paper focuses on the history of vacant housing and demolition from the mid 19th to early 20th century. This is a draft so I’d welcome any initial thoughts, questions or suggestions.


We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. A vacant might be a bank-owned brick townhouse from the 1970s; a narrow two-story rowhouse built for working-class whites in the 1910s; or a four-story 1870s mansion half-collapsed into the basement. Baltimore City estimates the city holds around 16,000 vacant properties — mostly attached rowhouses built before WWII.

Visitors to Baltimore won’t find vacant houses in every neighborhood. In the largely white area of Hampden, Remington and Medfield, the vacancy rate is less than 1% — around sixty houses. In the West Baltimore neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, over one-third of residential properties are vacant — totalling more than 2,000 vacant buildings.

It was in Sandtown on April 12 where a group of Baltimore police officers arrested Freddie Gray. A week later, Gray’s death from injuries he suffered in police custody sparked huge protests against police violence. Some residents marched and organized, others attacked local storefronts and burned police cars, prompting the city and state to bring in National Guard troops and impose a citywide curfew. Journalists from across the nation descended on Baltimore to write about the so-called “riots” and to ask the question: what’s the problem with Baltimore? How did the city get to be so poor, so violent and so segregated? Why does Baltimore have so many vacant houses?

Despite the confident explanations offered in newspaper editorials and television reports, over the past few weeks, these are not easy questions to answer. Even when people in Baltimore try to explain our “vacant house problem,” the responses often are incomplete at best and misleading at worst.

A professor at Johns Hopkins University might highlight Bethlehem Steel’s $1.5 billion loss in 1982 — a watershed in the city’s loss of good jobs to neoliberalism and globalization.

A neighborhood activist in Druid Heights might point back to the unrest that rocked the city after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, leaving vacant lots and vacant buildings that have never recovered.

A retiree living in Columbia who grew up shopping at downtown department stories may sadly recall when O’Neil’s Department Store closed the day after Christmas in 1955.

An amateur urban planner on Facebook might talk about how the city’s population peaked around 1 million in 1950 before falling more than a third to 620,961 in 2010.

Limited as they are, each of these stories has the power to shape policy around vacant housing. Do we invest in tearing vacant houses down or fixing them up? Can demolition solve Baltimore’s vacant house problem? Can historic preservation?

A recent Blight as Politics Symposium at the University of Michigan articulated the urgency of questioning narrowly framed, just-so stories of the urban crisis:

“With a few signal exceptions, discussions of ‘blight’ have proceeded in dehistoricized and depoliticized contexts oriented around narrow technical parameters, as if ‘blight’ was an easily defined and objective phenomenon instead of the spatial residue of racism and segregation, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and other fraught dynamics of American urban history.”

Baltimore’s vacant houses — an iconic symbol of the city’s poverty, violence and desolation — first appeared before 1982, before 1968, and before 1950. As early as 1880, the Baltimore City Police Department was trying to monitor and mitigate the problems of vacant houses in the city’s wealthy suburbs. In 1910, observers in Baltimore called vacant houses “a growing evil,” the source of “common alarm.” In 1932, one prominent local architect declared that the rowhouse had no potential for “modern and reasonably attractive” use; Baltimore’s “dying areas” were forced into a “hopeless future competition” with the suburbs.

The foundation of Baltimore’s current debate over what to do about vacant houses in Sandtown-Winchester has been laid down over the course of a century or more. The debate is framed by a long history of salvage and demolition, stories about the places we choose to forget, to tear down, and to salvage instead of save. In this way, we can read the history of vacants — how we describe them and what we do about them — as an alternate history of historic preservation itself.


Concerns over population loss and vacant housing in Baltimore date back nearly two centuries. Writing in 1831, publisher Hezekiah Niles reflected on the city’s population loss during the economic crisis of the early 1820s, recalling how “because of the want of employment in those years, [there was a] consequent removal of the people, to the north, south, east and west.” The city had recovered from the severe depression and Niles could then boast that, “There is hardly a house unoccupied, though a very large number was built the last season.”

Baltimore (1838), George W. Boynton. JScholarship
Baltimore (1838), George W. Boynton. JScholarship

With capital from men like Hezekiah Niles, as well as the labor from thousands of recent immigrants, enslaved and free blacks, Baltimore grew quickly. The city more than doubled in population between 1830 and 1850. Growth came with new patterns of land use around Baltimore’s downtown. Property-owners tore down hundreds of old homes to make way for new warehouses and commercial buildings.

In May 1847, the National Intelligencer on a rare demolition “deemed worthy of notice,” wrote:

“workmen are now engaged tearing down the very oldest house in Baltimore; to erect in its stead an elegant new warehouse. […] Daguerreotype sketches and other drawings were taken of it, to preserve as relics, prior to its demolition.”

In a later example, from January 1891, locals gathered at the scene of the demolition of a former suburban mansion overwhelmed by the city built up around it with a plan to take more than drawings. As the crowd watched the “quaint but pretentious little building of classic architecture” disappear “before the march of modern improvement” they “eagerly gathered “pieces of its mantel-pieces and bits of its woodwork […] for souvenirs.” The home, known as Tusculum, was fondly remembered as the host of a vibrant arts and poetry society in the early 1800s. Despite the building’s neglect, it was still occupied by a “family of colored people” who “made the noted Tusculum their home” but likely had little power to protest their eviction.

Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr.
Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr.
After demolition, the elements of an abandoned building could be turned into mementoes or into the very source of subsistence and survival. The hard times that Hezekiah Niles witnessed in the early 1820s returned again in wake of the Panic of 1893. In February 1895, the Sun reported how:

“The demolition of the Old City College building on North Howard street was eagerly watched all day yesterday by a crowd of persons armed with baskets or bags, and anxious to pick from the ruins some bits of wood to add to their scanty store of fuel at home.”

Perhaps some among the crowd took shelter in the city’s vacant houses. In the 1880s, many impoverished travelers – “tramps” – had been found “sleeping in the brick and limekilns of South and Southwest Baltimore.” A white person with no home could find a place to spend the night at a police station house, but as the Sun observed in 1888:

“A notable fact is the small number of colored tramps who call at the station-houses. This is not because there are no colored tramps, but because they are generally badly treated by their white brethren when lodging together.”

Evidence for the growing availability of vacant houses in the city can be found in an October 1898 account which observed defensively:

“Other cities have endeavored to make capital of reports of the very large number of vacant houses in Baltimore, claiming it as an evidence that this city is falling behind.”

The account continues to highlight a strong resurgence in home building – but, as the next decade illustrated, strong growth could paradoxically increase vacant housing. This combination of growth and inequality shaped a new response to vacant housing from metal thieves and the city police.


Between 1850 and 1880, the city’s population doubled again and new buildings had sprawled over the city limits and into “the Belt” – an area built up with factories and clusters of suburban cottages that surrounded the city to the east, west and north. Throughout this period, inadequate sewers and frequent outbreaks of disease encouraged many well-off residents to leave their homes every summer.

New and Enlarged Map of Baltimore City: Including Waverly, Hampden, All the Parks, and a Miniature Map of the State (1886), John F. Weishampel. JScholarship.
New and Enlarged Map of Baltimore City: Including Waverly, Hampden, All the Parks, and a Miniature Map of the State (1886), John F. Weishampel. JScholarship.

Seasonal vacancy illustrates the challenge of defining what makes a vacant house. Whether a property owner leaves their house unoccupied for a month or a year, when does it become vacant? The persistence and scale of seasonal vacancy between the 1860s and early 1900s, left many homes at risk of an illicit form of salvage and demolition – metal theft – and placed a new burden on Baltimore city and county police officers to protect the Baltimore’s vacant homes on behalf of their absent owners.

An typical example of metal theft at a vacant house appeared in March 1868 describing how thieves in the night “carried off, undetected, two chandeliers and six brackets valued at $125” from a vacant dwelling at 659 West Lombard Street. In 1877, the Sun described how a suburban home in northwest Baltimore standing “vacant for some months” was “entered by vandals and despoiled of nearly all its detachable metal fittings,” adding that “Residents of the belt complain that depredations of this kind are frequent.” In 1887, two men were arrested for taking “copper lining in bath-tubs, gas brackets, globes and lead pipe” from “unoccupied houses in the neighborhood of Lexington street and Fulton avenue.”

The police response to these threats was creative. In 1877, the officer encouraged property-owners cut “peep-holes” in their back fences “at convenient points for observation, through which the officers can have a full view of the rear of the premises without climbing over.”

In August 1881, the police asked local families to report their travel plans to local authorities creating what is likely the city’s earliest formal inventory of vacant buildings, as the Sun reported:

“This summer the exodus from Baltimore has been greater than usual, and there are probably some twelve or thirteen hundred houses vacant, mainly in the north and northwestern sections of the city. The protection of this property is left to the police, and how to preserve it intact has been a matter of careful consideration by the police authorities. Notifications that the families have removed are generally sent to Police Marshal Gray or to the captains of districts with requests that the houses be looked after.”

In 1897, concern over “Vacant House Robberies” led Baltimore police officers to patrol in “citizen dress” to try to catch thieves in the act. Baltimore Police Captain Solomon Freeburger offered a number of creative ideas as a solution including a plan to place younger officers in the neighborhoods with the greatest number of vacant homes, noting:

“In the residential parts of the city where there are great numbers of vacant houses, it would be well to place the young men who are active and alert. Daily inspection of all property left for the summer is practiced at present in this city.”

Freeburger even recommended electric burglar alarms calling them an “almost a perfect guarantee of a thief’s apprehension, or, at least, that he will be frightened off before accomplishing robbery.”

Metal theft is one of the earliest local examples of illicit and criminal activity that concentrated on vacant houses but it is far from the last.  In the 1910s and 1920s, police raided illegal stills and gambling halls in vacant houses. In the 1930s, officers made mass arrests of “vagrants,” people left homeless and unemployed by the Great Depression, who took shelter in the growing number of abandoned homes. In this way, vacant houses became more than just unoccupied buildings – they became seen a threat to public order that required an aggressive response by the police and public policy.


Continue reading part two. Featured photograph by Ben Marcin via Slate.

Before Freddie Gray: “The Police Board… made an order forbidding public parades”

Yesterday, thousands of people assembled in downtown Baltimore to protest the death of Freddie Gray. Despite a largely peaceful assembly, media coverage of the protests has focused on the handful of vehicles and storefronts damaged during the day. This morning, I appreciated activist Deray McKesson’s reflections on troubling issues with the coverage of the protest  and the false equivalency between property damage and violence. While researching the history of police violence in Baltimore, I came across an early example of the police response to a black public assembly that I’d like to juxtapose with yesterday’s events.

John T. Marshal
John T. Gray from “Our police” (1888)

The account of this police response, published in 1883, describes how the Baltimore Police Marshal John T. Gray “took every precaution for the prevention of an outbreak” of violence during a celebratory parade and political rally that followed the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. It continues to share how black men in Baltimore organized “dozens of military companies,” armed with “old army muskets” and drilled on Baltimore’s streets. After the shooting young man by members of one of these regiments, Marshal John T. Gray attacks one of the companies (unclear if it was the same group implicated in the shooting), arrests their officers, and disarms the men.

It is hard to interpret this account from our contemporary perspective. I haven’t been able to fully corroborate this account in the Baltimore Sun, but if we accept this account as accurate it is important to note that the Baltimore police didn’t respond to the shooting by attempting arrest the individuals directly involved. Instead, the Baltimore Police Board “made an order forbidding public parades” and Police Marshal Gray targeted the most prominent company of black troops – the “crack” Lincoln Guard. By disarming and dismantling these organizations, the Baltimore police eliminated an important vehicle for black Baltimoreans to mobilize Republican voters and defend themselves against violence.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that the actions of the Baltimore police in 2015 are equivalent to the actions of the police in 1871. I’m not trying to suggest that the Lincoln Guard are the same as the protestors here today. However, the story contains important elements–elite fear of black public assembly, racist images of black political action, and the role of the police in protecting an ambiguous public interest–that suggest an important continuity between Baltimore in the 1870s and today.

On November 1, 1870, the Baltimore Sun, then strongly opposed to the Republican party and black suffrage, reported on a Democratic political rally where the images of black men armed with bayonets and black elected officials depicted as criminals were prominently displayed:

A grand demonstration of the democratic conservative party, comprising an immense and brilliant procession, with torches, banners and devices, and an overwhelming mass meeting in Monument Square, took place last night upon the call of the democratic executive committee of the city. […]

Thirteenth Ward–James Cosgove, chief marshal.–The display in this ward was good though in point of number not so large. A wagon, drawn by four horses, contained a monument, upon the front of which was a life-size portrait of Washington. […] There was a representation of a company of colored men pointing their bayonets at the place of holding the polls, with the inscription, “What free American has come to under radical rule.” There was also a picture of a man in the act of stealing spoons, with inscription as to type of the radical Congress, &c.

At the same rally, Thomas Swann, the immediate past Governor of Maryland and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, shared his own comments on the threat of organized black voters:

[General Creswell] had come here to [Baltimore] to marshal his negro crowd of voters, and to attempt to overawe the democracy with threats of what the President would do with his soldiers.

Baltimore’s newly enfranchised black citizens, including many veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, could clearly see this procession and assembly as a serious threat to their own hard-won rights. But the police, of course, did not shut down Democratic rallies or parades. And in January 1870 the Democratic party (and the Baltimore Sun) opposed the Enforcement Act of 1871 empowering President Ulysses S. Grant to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in trying to end the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

This history can help us think about what we will fight for and what we won’t. Here is the account for your consideration:


As Marshal of Baltimore Mr. Gray achieved a national reputation by the reforms he instituted and by the skill with which lie handled his force on many critical occasions. The great Emancipation Jubilee of the negroes in 1870 was the first serious occasion upon which Marshal Gray’s skill as a policeman showed itself prominently. This was the celebration by the negroes of their emancipation. In Baltimore, as well as in all the other Southern cities, certain classes of the white population still harbored a bitter feeling against the negroes, intensified by the offensive manner in which many of the latter had conducted themselves since their emancipation. The law abiding citizens, therefore looked with trepidation upon the preparations of the colored folk for this jubilee, and Marshal Gray took every precaution for the prevention of an outbreak. The day came and one of the most enormous civic parades ever witnessed in the United States took place. Fully ninety per cent of all the negroes in Baltimore and the surrounding country took part, either in the parade itself or as applauding spectators. It is estimated that not less than 30,000 negroes were in line. The parade marched past a certain point from before noon till well into the night before the last platoon had gone by.

The Fifteenth Amendment, Library of Congress
The Fifteenth Amendment from the Library of Congress

The populace of both races were apparently willing to fight and a general collision seemed imminent all day, but the police were everywhere, with their eyes on every man who seemed belligerently inclined. The moral influence of the force seemed to subdue the would-be rioters, and though a few unimportant brawls, took place the jubilee passed off without serious trouble anywhere in the city. Marshal Gray received flattering commendations from the newspapers and from citizens for the admirable manner in which the peace of the city was preserved during the critical period.

After the Emancipation Jubilee a military spirit seemed suddenly to seize the negro population of Baltimore. Dozens of military companies were formed, which drilled every evening in the streets much to the annoyance of quiet people. After the war an immense number of old-fashioned muskets were stored in the city by the United States Government. Of the old army muskets alone there were more than 12,000 stand. By some means these arms all fell into the hands of the negroes and they used them for their military companies. These organizations banded into regiments and numbered themselves the First, Second, Third, etc., Maryland Colored Regiments, although they were never admitted to the National Guard, nor recognized by the State military authorities. The South being at that time in a state of reconstruction the negroes were suffered to commit many offenses against the public peace which would never have been attempted or permitted on the part of the whites. Before long the negro regiments began the practice of taking full possession of every street they entered. They would march with fixed bayonets through the principal streets and clear everything before them from curb to curb. Wagons, carriages, and horse cars had to be turned back before them or else they were driven back under bayonet charge.

One evening in May 1871, the colored troops came down Baltimore street with fixed bayonets as usual, turning people and vehicles into side streets, when three young men who were talking together on the curb refused to move on and clear the way for the procession. A charge was made upon them and they were forced to flee around the nearest corner. As they went several of the negroes fired a volley at them and, one of the young men, a son of a well-known German citizen fell dead. He was shot through the heart. It turned out that he was a Republican in politics and had been a great friend of the negroes. They alleged that he threw a stone into the ranks of the procession but this was positively denied by every bystander. The funeral of the young German was the occasion of a large popular demonstration. Public indignation long since aroused by the offensiveness of the colored military organizations found voice in a general demand for their immediate suppression. As the negroes were in a certain sense under Federal protection, this was a difficult matter to accomplish.

The Police Board, however, made an order forbidding public parades through the streets by any military organization not connected with the National Guard or National Government. When this order was read in the meeting places of the colored companies it was received with hoots and jeers of derision. The night that the order was issued, learning that the negroes were about to parade as usual, Marshal Gray sent to the headquarters of the “Lincoln Guard,” the “crack” company of the city, and warned them not to parade. Captain Delanty was laughed at when he delivered the order, and his voice drowned by the howls of the negroes.

He then stood outside of the building with his policemen. The negroes formed in the street but at the first step they took after the captain gave the order to march the police rushed up and arrested a large number of them. The others ran back into the building. The police sent those they had captured to the station house. They then entered the building and after a short struggle captured the arms of the remainder. Their muskets gone and their leaders in jail, the militiamen became disheartened and broke up their company.

On learning the fate of their principal company, a number of other organizations surrendered their arms, and in the course of a few months practically all the muskets formerly used by the negro troops had been captured by the police. The arms were afterward sent to Fort McHenry, as they were the property of the United States.


Source: Folsom, De Francias. Our Police: A History of the Baltimore Force from the First Watchman to the Latest Appointee. J. D. Ehlers & Company, 1888. (113-116)

How the Park Board “went along” as Baltimore turned playgrounds into police stations

On August 14, 1957, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial inspired by the proposal to locate a new Civic Center in Druid Hill Park despite strong objections by the Baltimore Park Board. More broadly, the piece highlights some of the consequential choices that Baltimore made in the 1940s and 1950s when they traded parkland for police stations and highways. This is, in part, the story of how the Western District Police Station replaced a playground at Mount Street and Riggs Avenue.


“Under the city charter the Park Board has “charge and control” of all park property. A guardian for the park system, with the power to say “no,” is needed because proposals to encroach on park property are being made all the time. Sometimes public interest justifies the proposals. Sometimes it does not. The Park Board is there to make such determinations, always with the welfare of the parks in mind.

We offer a few examples, just to show the kind of pressure the park system is under:

The State wanted 21 acres of undeveloped land in Herring Run Park in connection with plans for the Northeast expressway and the approach to the Harbor Tunnel. The Park Board went along with this.

This had the effect of cutting off 50 other acres of Herring Run Park. The city asked for these acres for a site for a new wholesale market. The Park Board went along. Total loss to Herring Run: 71 acres.

In planning an extension of Perring parkway, the city wanted 5 acres of the Mount Pleasant golf course. The Park Board was able to acquire some partially compensating acreage and went along.

The city concluded that a playground at Fulton and Riggs avenues, for which the Park Board planned further development, would be the ideal site for a new police station. The Park Board was finally convinced, and co-operated.

The city also wanted an acre of land, near Hurley and Fonthill avenues, for another police station. This was park of Gwynns Falls Park, but the Park Board, finding it not particularly desirable for park purposes ,went along.

Park land along Mount Royal terrace was plainly needed for the Jones Falls expressway. The board yielded the land after a scheme had been worked out which gives compensating advantages in return for the lost land.

Some time back, to relieve traffic congestion, the city proposed extensions of McCulloh street and Druid Hill avenue to drive through the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park. The Park Board acquiesced in this plea of necessity, after standing up for a minimum of impairment.

At one stage in the civic-center proceedings, a site in Clifton Park was proposed. Northing came of this.

At another stage in the same proceedings, a proposal was made to take over the small park adjacent to the Mount Royal Station. Nothing came of this.

These are merely a few of the more conspicuous episodes in what might be called a continuous war of attrition against the parks. They point up the necessity for a semi-autonomous body with power to pass judgment on all schemes for reducing out precious park acreage.

But now the authority of this body, the Park Board, has been defied. When the Mayor and City Council seized 30 acres of Druid Hill Park land for a civic center site, they did so against the will of the Park Board. If this seizure stands unchallenged, a shadow lies across the board’s supposed powers. The guardian of our park system will have been disarmed.


Source: “Disarmed.” The Sun (1837-1989). August 14, 1957. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Image: Protesters sit outside the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station at the end of a march for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) via WTOP.

Before Freddie Gray: A History of Police Violence in Baltimore

Last week, a man named Freddie Gray died of injuries received after his arrest by officers of the Baltimore City Police Department. Gray’s death and the ongoing protests have focused local and national media on the violence of police brutality in Baltimore City. Reading stories on the recent history of deaths in police custody, the history of “rough rides” in Baltimore police (both from the Baltimore Sun) and a look back on a decade of police brutality complaints (“The Obscene Culture of Police Brutality”) have helped broaden my understanding of this issue. But when Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Police Union, stated protests that call for the arrest of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death “look and sound like a lynch mob” – it is a disturbing reminder that a deeper understanding of American history is essential to reforming an unjust police department. And much of this history is still unwritten.

086477pv
Former Police Department Headquarters, 100 Fallsway. Courtesy Library of Congress.

With all of this in mind, I’ve assembled a selection of accounts reviewing the history of police violence against African Americans in Baltimore from the 1850s through the 1960s. When reading, please remember that this work is both incomplete and in progress. Comments and questions are welcome and I hope to update and expand this post over the next few weeks.

Update: You can now read my draft study on criminal injustice in Baltimore for some broader context on this post.

March 1852: William Smith killed by a Baltimore police officer in Pennsylvania

The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 enlisted local and state police in a renewed and expanded campaign to recapture any people who escaped from slavery in the south to free states in the north. Writing in 1883, William T. Alexander observed an “remarkable” growth in the “activity and universality of slave hunting” under the new law. The examples Alexander highlighted included James Hamlet captured in New York City at the request of a Baltimore slave-holder and the murder of William Smith in Pennsylvania by a Baltimore police officer:

“That Act became a law on the 18th of September and, within ten days thereafter, a colored man named James Hamlet had been seized in the city of New York and very summarily dispatched to a woman in Baltimore, who claimed him as her slave. […]

“The needless brutality with which these seizures were often made tended to intensify the popular repugnance which they occasioned. In repeated instances, the first notice the alleged fugitive had of his peril was given him by a blow on the head, sometimes with a club or stick of wood; and being thus knocked down, he was carried bleeding and insensible, before the facile commissioner, who made short work of identifying him and earning his ten dollars by remanding him into slavery. In Columbia, Penn., March, 1852, a colored person named William Smith was seized as a fugitive by a Baltimore police officer, while working in a lumber yard, and, attempting to escape the officer drew a pistol and shot him dead.”

July 31, 1875: Daniel Brown killed by Baltimore police officer Patrick McDonald

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 31, 1875, Baltimore Police officer Patrick McDonald shot and killed Daniel Brown at his home on Tyson Street. The Baltimore Sun described the shooting in an account published on August 2:

Saturday morning, shortly before two o’clock, Daniel Brown, colored, of No. 41 Tyson street, was shot in the head by police officer Patrick McDonald, of the northwestern district, and in about half an hour died from the effects of the wound. A party or sociable entertainment was going on in Brown’s house, and complaint of the noise having been made to policeman McDonald, he went to the place. Words were exchanged at the door of the house between the officer outside and the people inside. The result was that Brown was “tapped on the head” by the policeman’s club. The policeman went into the house, and there, it is alleged, shot and killed Brown without provocation. Policeman McDonald on the other hand asserts that the shooting was in self-defense. He avers that he felt his life to be in imminent peril! A coroner’s jury, after examining over a dozen witnesses rendered a verdict that “Daniel Brown came to his death by a pistolshot from the hands of policeman  Patrick McDonald,” and on the commitment of Coroner Ogle the accused was sent to jail by Captain Earhart.

The initial argument between McDonald and Brown started with McDonald’s demand to see a permit for the party (commonly known as a “cake-walk”). Mary Parker, a resident of 232 North Charles Street, testified “she was in the front room at Brown’s” continuing:

“Brown said he paid rent for the house . The officer said he “need’nt be so — saucy.” Brown had his head out the door. The officer caught Brown and struck him over the head with his club. He staggered and fell toward a closet in the front room. The police now followed his his pistol in his hand and Mrs. Brown behind him, begging him not to shoot. She said, “He is my husband” and the officer, saying he didn’t care a d–n,” fired. Brown never spoke after he was struck on the head. John Greason begged the officer not to shoot. The officer said the would kill every black —.”

The Baltimore Sun described Brown writing:

“Daniel Brown, the deceased, was a dark mulatto, thirty-seven years of age, and leaves a wife but no children. He was industrious and sober, quite intelligent and strong in urging his own way. In the daytime of late he was employed as a laborer, and occasionally at night worked in Woods, Weeks & Co,’s sugar refinery.”

The Sun continued to provide detailed coverage of McDonald’s trial from mid to late November. On November 24, 1875, the jury returned the verdict: “Not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter.”

July 19, 1884: Police officer F.L. Kruse shoots and kills John Wesley Green

On July 24, 1884, the Baltimore Sun reported:

Police officer F.L. Kruse, of the  Western district, who shot John Wesley Green, colored in the back and fatally injured him last Saturday night, was exonerated by the police board yesterday, and was patrolling his beat last night. […]

Commissioners Milroy and Herbert voted to exonerate the officer, Mr. Colton dissenting. Mr. Colton said: “The officer did not see Green commit any offense and he did not have a warrant of law to arrest him. I consider the taking of human life too serious a matter to justify the officer in using his pistol in this case.”

June 1, 1918: Baltimore police shoot and kill a “colored man on Pennsylvania avenue”

On June 7, 1918, the Afro American reported on a shooting involving multiple Baltimore City police officers that resulted in the death of one man:

The fatal shooting of a colored man on Pennsylvania avenue by the police last Saturday night and the severe wounding of another, has aroused a great deal of comment this week. It appears that some colored men were disorderly and the police grabbed one. While dragging him to the call box some one hit the policeman with a chair. Despite the crowded condition of Pennsylvania avenue at that time, it is said the police began shooting, with the result that one man lay dead and another seriously wounded. The man killed it is averred by some was not the man who hit the policeman.

A ban has been placed on pedestrians, and any who stop to talk this Saturday may be arrested. Some of the police, it is alleged are gloating over the killing of the man. They look forward to making a harvest in arrests this [Saturday] night, it is being claimed.

Pennsylvania avenue has been what some call an “indicted street” since the recent large influx from the South and many have been arrested on Saturday nights and charged with loitering.

A decade ago the police indiscriminately arrested colored men and women who happened to stop even for conversation. They were invariable fined notwithstanding character witnesses appeared the next morning in a number of instances and attested to the good habits on those taken in.

February 1919: Black soldier brutally beaten by Baltimore police officer

On February 16, 1918, the Baltimore Sun praised Judge Stanton for his role in protesting a recent incident of police brutality:

“Judge Stanton has rendered a service in calling the attention of the Police Commissioners to the alleged brutality of a policeman in dealing with a soldier who resisted arrest… In this case, we are sorry to say, the soldier behaved like a rowdy. But, for all that, the policeman who undertook to arrest him was not justified in treating him brutally. He could have managed him, we imagine, without resorting to methods which excited indignation in the minds of spectators. The patrolman was in civilian clothes at the time and the soldier naturally did not recognize his authority.

Discretion is a virtue that is as important as valor or as muscle on the part of a police officer. We think the Commissioners should look into this incident carefully.”

May 31, 1926: Police officer James O. Jones beats Henry Boyer

On June 12, 1926, the Afro-American reported on an efforts by Baptist ministers in Baltimore to protest the actions of Baltimore police officer James O. Jones in “beating up” Henry Boyer, writing:

What they termed the most brutal abuse of police authority and wanton disregard for the rights of citizens was brought out in the Monday Baptist Ministers’ meeting when the Rev J.C. Sweeney described the act of Officer James O. Jones beating up Henry Boyer on Winchester street May 31.

According to a version of the affair, as stated by the Rev. Mr. Sweeney and the boy in question, Officer Jones of the Northwestern district used his espantoon on young boyer when he “sassed” him when told to move on from the corner of Stricker and Winchester streets.

Boyer stated that when he did not move fast enough the officer seized him and he asked that before he was arrested he be allowed to send word to his mother. He was then beaten up until he was “bloody” he declared. At the station house the officer said Boyer “sassed” him and resisted arrest…

When the case was brought up in the Criminal Court Wednesday Judge O’Dunne told the officer that “sassing” an officer would not be considered a disturbance of the public peace in his court. “It might be a disturbance of the peace of the officer, but did not constitute a breach of the law against the public,” he stated. He held the boy’s case under advisement.

The practice of beating up citizens and then preferring charges of resisting arrest against them was also discussed by the ministers. It was pointed out that efficient officers were always able to arrest even criminals without the use of their sticks, and that even an amateur officer ought to be able to take a lad to the station house without having to “subdue” him by battering his head up.

Another practice which is said to be common among some officers is to mete punishment themselves for things said to them by those they arrest. This punishment is against the law, it is said, and those so treated should take their cases always to the Criminal Court, it was advised.

March 17, 1930: Baltimore police officer Herman Trautner kills Roosevelt Yates

On March 22, 1930, the Afro reported on the death of Roosevelt Yates after he was shot and killed by Herman Trautnet in his home at 905 Bennett Place:

Police here chalked up another victim when Officer Herman Trautner shot and fatally wounded Roosevelt Yates during arrest of the latter at his home, 905 Bennett Place, Monday. [Trautner] shot Roosevelt in the chest after the latter had grabbed the officer’s espantoon before it landed in a blow on his head, it was said. In his report, officer Trautner declared that he shot in self defense when Yates started towards him with the night stick after wresting it from his hand in a struggle.

On March 29, 1930, the Afro reflect on the killing as a pattern of brutality by the Baltimore police:

Baltimore police killed their eight victim in six years last week when Officer Herman Trautner, white, killed Roosevelt Yates, an unarmed man he was seeking to arrest. Five others had been killed by policemen in fifteen years previously. As a result of these thirteen shootings, only one policeman has been punished. […]

The trouble is police brutality in Baltimore has gone as far as some people are going to stand. Men and women are usually willing to be arrested but not clubbed by police. This is especially true as to those persons who are engaged in a mere wordy brawl.

Of the eight men killed, five have been murdered by police of the Northwestern district, administered by Captain Charles Lastner. As the AFRO has repeatedly pointed out, the difference between the conduct of Baltimore police in the Northwestern district and the Southeastern district is the difference between right and wrong. If police can be gentlemen in southeast Baltimore, they can be gentlemen in the northwestern part of the city.

Every unnecessary drop of blood shed by murderous police we place at the doors of, first, Captain Lastner who is responsible for directions given his own men, and secondly, Police Commissioner Gaither who permits Captain Lastner to continue his policy of “shoot first, investigate and explain later.”

September 1, 1930: William Johnson dies after assault by police officer Harry Holley

On September 6, 1930, the Afro-American reported on the NAACP protesting to the governor after an assault on William Johnson by police officer Harry Holley left Johnson unconscious for two weeks before dying at the University Hospital:

At an inquest at the Western police station Thursday night, Officer Harry Holly was exonerated in the killing of William Johnson who died after being struck with a blackjack by the officer. Fourteen witnesses testified that the officer brutally assaulted Johnson without provocation. One white man and the officer testified for the defense.

The death of William Johnson, 137 W. Camden Street, on September 1 at University Hospital after being hit with a blackjack by Policeman Harry Holley, white, of the Western district, aroused the city this week.

February 21, 1942: Police officer Edward R. Bender kills Thomas Broadus

On February 7, 1942, the Afro reported on the death of Thomas Broadus after he was shot and killed by Edward R. Bender:

 In the presence of scores of persons who were passing along Baltimore’s busy Pennsylvania Avenue late Saturday night, Patrolman Edward Bender, Northwestern district officer, shot and killed Private Thomas Broadus, 26, Pittsburgh, a member of the 1322nd Service Unit at Fort George G. Meade.

Witnesses said that Patrolman Bender (who is the same policeman that killed Charles Parker, 24, of 217 Colvin Street, February 14, 1940) then keep the crowd at bay by brandishing his revolver until other policeman arrived in several radio cars. The unconscious form of the soldier, drafted nine months ago, was placed in a patrol wagon, witnesses said, and taken to Provident Hospital, where it was pronounced dead five minutes after being admitted.

By late April of 1942, protests over the shooting sparked Baltimore Civil Rights advocates to organize the March on Annapolis with around 1,800 African Americans traveling to the state capital to protest police brutality and racial discrimination. The march forced the Baltimore police to appoint the city’s first uniformed black police officers and led Governor Herbert R. O’Conor to appoint a statewide Commission on Problems Affecting the Negro Population.

On September 25, 1942, the Afro reported that the commission released a report urging the Bender case to be reopened:

Charging that there is prima facie evidence that the killing by Patrolman Edward R. Bender, of the Northwestern district, of a Negro soldier last February “was unlawful,” a subcommittee of the State Commission to Study Colored Problems yesterday recommended the case be resubmitted to the grand jury.

In a report highly critical of the administration of Robert F. Stanton as Police Commissioner, the subcommittee also characterized as “unsatifsactory” the handling of the case by J. Bernard Wells, State’s Attorney.

May 16, 1946: Wilbur Bundley shot and killed by patrolman Walter J. Weber

On June 10, 1946, the Baltimore Sun reported on the organized protests in response to the shooting of Wilbur Bundley by patrolman Walter J. Weber:

Calling for a more militant attitude by the Negroes of Baltimore in the maintenance of their constitutional rights and privileges, speakers at a meeting held in Leadenhall Baptist Church yesterday afternoon charged the city’s police with brutality toward both white and Negro citizens.

The speakers who included Leo V. Miller, a white member of the board of Crownsville State Hospital for Negroes, based their charge largely on the death of Wilbur Bundley, Negro, shot fatally on May 19 by Patrolman Walter J. Weber of the Southern district police. […]

Addison S. Pinkney, executive secretary of the Baltimore branch of the N.A.A.C.P., which, with the Citizens League of South Baltimore, sponsored yesterday’s meeting, said “We believe this case will stop police brutality in Baltimore both against whites and Negroes.”

“We serve notice on the authorities that we now are acting as a group and not as individuals” […] “This is the first case in the city where the force of the Negro population can be shown,” he added. “This is the best case we ever had.”

June 22, 1964: Louis C. Petty dies after beating by police officers Glen Russell and Joseph Mulling

On June 23, 1964, the Baltimore Sun reported on the death of Louis C. Petty from injuries following a beating by two Baltimore City police officers:

A 44-year-old man, injured in a scuffle with a policeman Saturday, died last night, bringing demands from a city councilman for an investigation into charges of police brutality and protests from neighbors who witnessed the fray.

The patrolman, Glen Russell, of the Southwestern district, was temporarily suspended by Chief Inspector George J. Murphy.

Delegate Clarence M. Mitchell 3d (D., Fourth), said he had testimony from about fifteen eyewitnesses swearing that Patrolman Russell and Patrolman Joseph Mulling had beaten Louis C. Petty, 44, a Negro, of the 500 block Edgewood street, after they had arrested and handcuffed him. […]

Petty died of head injuries yesterday afternoon in Franklin Square Hospital.

July 11, 1964: Vernon Leopold shot and killed by William Ray

On July 11, 1964, Vernon Leopold was shot and killed by Baltimore police officer William Ray, as the Baltimore Sun reported on July 18:

Vernon Leopold, 28, was the Negro shot July 11 by Patrolman William Ray, 31, a veteran of 10 years on the Baltimore force. Police said Ray was attacked by Leopold. The NAACP said Ray provoked Leopold.

On July 31, the Baltimore Sun reported on the testimony at a preliminary hearing on a charge of homicide against William Ray:

Defense and prosecution witnesses differed sharply yesterday on the question as to whether Patrolman William Ray was drunk July 11 when he shot and killed 28-year-old Vernon Leopold.

A day-long stream of witnesses poured into an unusual hearing in Central Municipal Court that was partially designed to meet the mounting criticism against secret grand jury hearings of cases involving the use of police force against private citizens during arrests.

Witnesses and police officials who testified notably disagreed on whether William Ray was drunk at the time of shooting and on his role in provoking the  conflict. Charges against William Ray were dismissed on July 31. The Maryland Conference of the NAACP responded by calling for a federal investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department, passing a resolution summarized by the Baltimore Sun on August 2:

Statements made on the character of Negro witnesses during the extraordinary twenty-hour preliminary hearing on homicide charges against Patrolman William Ray were criticized in yesterday’s resolution as: “…a deliberate effort to discredit the entire Negro community by creating the false impression that its leaders are without principle.”

The patrolman’s attorney, Paul Berman, in his summation of his case, called the State’s witnesses “murderers, cutthroats, thieves… and now, deliberate, inspired, manufactured perjurers.”

Notes on research and sources

In early 2014, started work on a historic context on Civil Rights and Baltimore’s African American community organized around themes including equitable education, voting rights, and public accommodation. I put together an extensive bibliography of secondary sources but I had difficulty finding any scholarship on the theme of criminal injustice in Baltimore. By February, reflecting on the protests following the grand jury decision in the case of Eric Garner’s death in New York, I decided to pursue additional primary research on this topic. This post is an initial effort to summarizing an ongoing research project. I decided to publish it now because I felt the topic was too urgent to wait until I was able to deliver a more complete or comprehensive take.

This post is largely based on accounts published in the Baltimore Sun and Afro-American newspapers accessed through the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database. I’ve published this work independently of my work at Baltimore Heritage but encourage anyone interested to learn more about our Civil Rights historic context project on our website.

“Each vacant house is a standing menace to the rest.”

Over the past year, I’ve helped to start the Preservation Rightsizing Network to bring greater attention to the intersecting issues of historic preservation and “rightsizing” in cities like Baltimore. My participation in this project has sparked my interested in digging into the history of how vacant properties have been discussed and managed in Baltimore throughout our city’s history.

Photograph by Ben Marcin via Slate.
Photograph by Ben Marcin via Slate.

Initial research turned up a report from 1994 highlighting an initiative (“never tried before on a citywide scale in Baltimore”) by Mayor Kurt Schmoke to restore or raze vacant rowhouses. Digging back a bit earlier, I found discussion under Mayor Theodore McKeldin who sought and received a new local ordinance allowing the city to demolish houses after they had been “boarded” for ninety days or more. McKeldin tied vacant houses to public health and safety, remarking in 1964:

“Vacant houses not only have a blighting effect on the areas around them but they are also an open invitation to vandals and a potential hazard for children who attempt to play within such buildings.”

I was unsurprised to find these connections back to post-WWII urban renewal efforts but I am even more intrigued by the intense debate around vacancy that took place over fifty years before in the summer of 1910.

On August 21, 1910, the Baltimore Police Board Published a “complete census” to count all of the city’s vacant and occupied dwellings. A member of the  prominent local real estate firm William Martien & Company had suggested the survey to the Secretary of the board, reportedly, “As a result of the agitation over the number of vacant houses.” The census found that the Northwestern district led the city with over 1,300 vacant dwellings. Realtor James Cary Martien pointed to the city’s rapid suburban growth and the aging core as the cause, remarking:

“The number of vacant houses in the city is due both to the many dwellings being built in the suburbs and the dilapidated condition of many in Baltimore”

In the weeks that followed the publication of the report, a series of letters to the Sun expanded on Martien’s summary and tied the issue to the fights over “negro invasion” and the aggressive efforts by some white elected officials and property-owners to enforce racial segregation in residential neighborhoods.

When some residents argued that high taxes brought on vacant and abandoned houses, one northwest Baltimore resident wrote back under the name “Pure White” in a letter published on August 27 —

“Taxes may, and I presume do, have something to do with it; for our taxes are inordinately and unnecessarily high, but the possibility, and indeed the probability, of the negro neighbor is the main reason…

When a man works and saves and buys a home thinking it will be his shelter in his old age, and wakes up some morning to find he has a negro neighbor, he feels hurt and aggrieved that he has to give up his home, but he moves… I know of three families who want to buy a home this fall and they prefer the city to the suburbs, but they are hesitating because of this disagreeable possibility. We of the northwestern section have enough to bear in our close proximity to their noisy and disagreeable alleys, and we don’t want them next door to us. The real estate men—a few of them, not all—are to blame for the vacant houses and with them, lies the remedy.”

On September 2, 1910, another local echoed this sentiment and signed their letter “Justice” in a call for the city to protect him from the possibility of black neighbors —

“The writer has been living for nearly half a century in a neighborhood now threatened with negro invasion. There are several vacant houses in the block, and this fear may be the potent cause of non-rental or sale. Each vacant house is a standing menace to the rest. We live in daily dread that we may be driven out and forced to sell at a depreciated price if we can sell at all.”

On September 15, 1910, another letter recognized the alarming “negro invasion” but still gave priority to the threat of high taxes —

“The vacant house problem in the city should be one of grave concern at this time to our municipal administrators, to our real estate agents and to those having the welfare of the city at heart.

It is not a temporary but a growing evil that is confronting and threatening every owner of property. The number of vacant houses has grown and grown until at last there is common alarm in the matter, and justly so. What then are the causes producing this condition? There are many, but the fundamental one is purely economic—high taxes.

There are other contributing causes, but high taxes are essentially at the root of this ever dangerously increasing trouble. Negro invasion into heretofore white residential neighborhoods is undoubtedly aggravating the situation, and the alarm at such invasion is becoming more and more evidenced by the strained and tense feeling of the people residing in such invaded neighborhoods.”

I’m hoping to put a bit more time into this research over the next month and give these letters the context they deserve. Check out Garrett Power’s excellent 1983 history of the city’s residential racial segregation ordinances in the early 1910s for some excellent background.

Sources: All of the letters are from the Baltimore Sun through the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database – I’ll come back and add full citations sometime this week.