‘I feel that this is my country and that I shall never go out of it alive.’

I just stumbled across an amazing piece printed in very first issue of the Maryland Colonization Journal in 1841. The piece – titled “An Important Subject Noted” – excerpts in full another article published in the Emancipator and Free American – an abolitionist paper published in New York and Boston.

In the piece, I was excited to find a reflection on the interracial makeup of the forces at the 1814 Battle of North Point and the the naval forces more broadly during the War of 1812. The example is used to illustrate the nation’s retreat from an integrated military (the U.S. Army formally prohibited enlistment for “Negroes and Mullatoes” in 1820) and urge free blacks to maintain an ‘organized neutrality in the case of a military conflict involving the U.S. writing:

“Shall we a third time kiss the foot that crushes us? If so, we deserve our chains. No! let us maintain an organized neutrality, until the laws of the Union and of all the states have made us free and equal citizens.”

The full piece is pretty fascinating but I pulled the quote on the Battle of North Point and the War of 1812 for its particular local interest.

An Important Subject Noted

The ‘Emancipator and Free American,’ the leading abolition paper of the north, has the following article which we copy entire that our Maryland readers may know something of what is going on out o’doors… we consider its character the most seditious and mischievous of any thing we have lately seen

The Duty of Coloured Americans 

A large proportion of the seamen by whom our principal victories were gained in that war, were men of colour, who were then enlisted without restriction, but now we have a standing general order of the navy, that not more than five in a hundred seamen enlisted, shall be coloured — and this is officially explained to be for the purpose of confining coloured men to menial services on board our vessels of war! Said a brave man in Baltimore, who fought in the defence of North Point and afterwards served against Algiers in the Guerriere,

‘there we stood intermingled, white and coloured, manning the same gun, and shot down indiscriminately; the officers exhorted us to fight bravely in the defence of our country; and then after the war was over they tried to get us to go to Africa, and told us that was our country; but I will not go. I feel that this is my country and that I shall never go out of it alive.’

The Maryland Colonization Journal was published by the Maryland State Colonization Society an organization dedicated to promoting the transportation of manumitted enslaved people and free blacks to the west coast of Africa from 1827 to 1863. Records and correspondence from the  history of the Maryland State Colonization Society are housed at the Maryland Historical Society (MS 571) and a substantial portion of the microfilm from that collection has been digitized by the Maryland State Archives.

“CASH FOR NEGROES” – Hope A. Slatter, 1838

CASH FOR NEGROES – The subscriber has built a large and extensive establishment and private jail for the keeping of SLAVES in PRATT st., one door from Howard st. opposite the Circus or Repository.

The building having been erected under his own inspection, without regard to price; planned and arranged upon the most approved principle, with an eye to comfort and convenience, not surpassed by any establishment of the kind in the United States, is now ready to receive SLAVES. The male and female apartments are completely separate – the rooms for both are large light and airy, and all above ground, with a fine large yard for exercise, with pure delightful water within doors. In erecting and planning this edifice the subscriber had an eye to the health and cleanliness of the slaves, as well as the many other necessary conveniences. Having a wish to accommodate my Southern friends and others in the trade, I am determined to keep them on the lowest possible terms, at twenty-five cents per head a day, and furnish them with plenty of good and wholesome provisions. Such security and confidence I have in my building that I hold myself bound to make good all jail breaking, or escapes from my establishment. I also will receive, ship or forward to any place at the request of the owner, and give it my personal attention.

N B – Cash and the highest prices will at all times be given for likely slaves of both sexes, with good and sufficient titles. Persons having such property to dispose of, would do well to see me before they sell, as I am always purchasing for the New Orleans market – I, or my agent can at all times be found at my office, in the basement story of my new building.

Hope H. Slatter

Classified Ad 40 — No Title, The Sun (1837-1987); Jul 11, 1838; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Baltimore Sun, The (1837-1987) pg. 3

Where H.L. Mencken Learned to Ride a Bicycle

H.L. Mencken learned to ride a bicycle in the lot behind a bicycle shop owned by Joseph Wiesenfeld at the southwest corner of West Baltimore and Paca Streets. He recalled the story in a piece from Mencken on Mencken, a collection of autobiographical writing originally published in the New Yorker and Esquire during the 1940s:

…in an ancient two-story house which still stands, was Joe Wiesenfeld’s bicycle shop, and at the rear of it was a large yard, floored like a room. On that floor, coached by one of Little Joe’s salesmen, I learned to ride a bicycle. It all seems remote and archaic today, like mastering the subtleties of medieval equitation. But bicycling was a great and urgent matter in 1889, when the pneumatic tire came in.

Wiesenfeld, known as “little joe” thanks to short stature, was a successful Jewish business owner who opened the bicycle shop in 1892. A Baltimore native born in 1864, Wiesenfeld gained local fame at age 15 racing a high-wheel bicycle around Druid Hill Lake and remained an active member and supporter of Baltimore cycling clubs for years. His business soon expanded into a sporting goods store (specializing in saddles and tack) that still stands at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Howard Streets.

Howard and Baltimore Street, southeast corner, August 17, 1914, John Dubas. Courtesy Arthur U. Hooper Memorial Collection/Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Maryland Historical Society, MC9120 B. via mdhsphotographs

In 1957, Clarence R. Mahrer, a former bicycle salesman at Howard French’s competing shop at 304 West Baltimore, recalled the tremendous popularity of bicycles in the 1900s when Baltimore boasted 80 to 90 bike stores and dozens of bike clubs – the Myrtle Wheelmen, Lafayette Wheelmen, Yale Wheelmen, Peacock Wheelmen and others.

During the 1960s, the University of Maryland urban renewal project led by the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Commission tore down the old bicycle shop, along with over eight acres of buildings on the west side of downtown Baltimore, to make way for parks, parking lots and new construction for the university and hospital. The block where H.L. Mencken learned to ride a bike is now occupied by University Square Park.

Thanks to Patrick McMahon for turning up the inspiring quote from Mencken on Mencken. I’m hoping there may be a H.L. Mencken bike tour in my future.


Mahrer, Clarence R. “The Days Of The Bicycle Clubs.” The Sun (1837-1986). Baltimore, Md., United States, June 23, 1957. Link to ProQuest.
Mencken, Henry Louis, and S. T. Joshi. Mencken on Mencken: A New Collection of Autobiographical Writings. LSU Press, 2010.
Wiesenfeld, Henry M. “I Remember … …little joe’s Gudgeon Contests.” The Sun (1837-1986). Baltimore, Md., United States, April 28, 1957. Link to ProQuest.

“Bike Ride Through Historic Baltimore” – 1971

While researching the history of the Shot Tower Industrial Park this morning, I stumbled across a unexpected and delightful account of a historic bike tour from May 16, 1971. In “Bike Ride Through Historic Baltimore,” writer Jack Dawson, who also worked as the sports director and evening news sports anchor for WMAR-TV, describes his morning bike ride with the Coleman family, across Downtown, Fell’s Point, and South Baltimore to Fort McHenry. The group set off at set off at 8:15 am with Dawson riding a borrowed three-speed Schwinn, a bit unsteadily at first, explaining that he “hadn’t ridden a bicycle for any distance for at least 15 years.” Jill Coleman had mapped out the route for a “bike hike” organized by the Maryland Commission on Physical Fitness for the following Sunday. The full piece can be found in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database through the Pratt Library website but I’ve pulled a few excerpts:

Randall Coleman was riding his Raleigh in a circle on the parking lot without using his hands. His stepdaughters Caroline, 11, and 10-year-old Weezie (short for Louise), practiced tricks on theirs Schwinns. Mrs. Jill Coleman stood beside her station wagon, warning one of the girls to be careful.

Merchants were opening their shops when we turned onto Broadway at 8:30. The neighborhood winos were already congregating on street corners. The driver of a foreign car stopped to let us pedal-pushers pass and flashed a wide smile and a peace sign.

It was obvious Mrs. Coleman had mapped out a good route for the Maryland Commission on Physical Fitness bike hike from 9 a.m. to noon next Sunday, “If we can just get a good day and a turnout, then we’ll be in clover,” she said. “I’ve made the tour four times now and each time I’ve discovered new things. The more you explore, the more you find there is to explore.”

Fortunately, the piece includes a map tracing the route. Many of the landmarks from the ride – the Peale Museum, Old Otterbein Church, the B & O Railroad Museum – remain much the same as in the early 1970s, while other places – notably the Inner Harbor- have been transformed beyond recognition. Now all I need to do is pick up a vintage Raleigh to give this a try myself.

Notes on Urban Renewal in Baltimore – No. 1

From a “Development plan for the Maryland State governmental center in Baltimore, Maryland,” 1969.

Over the last few years working as preservationist in Baltimore City, I’ve been confronted with the enduring presence of built history of post-WWII urban renewal. Even beyond such clear landmarks as 1950s Charles Center or the 1970s “Highway to Nowhere,” much of the area in and around downtown Baltimore is indelibly marked by parks, parking lots, apartment towers and vacant houses that can be directly linked the broader mess of politics and policies that we remember as urban renewal. Over the next couple of months, I’m hoping to push beyond my still somewhat muddled understanding of this issue to write up a more comprehensive narrative of post-WWII urban renewal efforts in Baltimore.

My excuse for this new effort is a recent idea to organize a bike tour of urban renewal sites in downtown and west Baltimore mapped out here. Accordingly, this project may have a second life for Baltimore Heritage but, for the time being, I’m undertaking this as a personal and independent research effort. The topic feels even more urgent considering the proposal to demolish Baltimore’s Mechanic Theater – a Brutalist 1967 theater built as part of the Charles Center complex. Despite the challenges posed by the Mechanic (and other buildings like it) to sustainability and urban design, I still hold what I might call a Fuck Yeah Brutalism attitude — the belief that the buildings and landscapes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s (and the stories of behind them) make up an important legacy in the social and built history of our region that should be recognized and interpreted, not ignored and demolished.

So this is No. 1 in a new series on urban renewal histories in Baltimore. I’m hoping to make this a weekly endeavor so look out for more soon.

Reading historical fiction and histories in 2011

With the help of a new Kindle last winter, I’ve finished more books in 2011 than I have in years and I thought I might share a few recommendations and highlights. I’ve been especially excited to discover my own love of historical fiction. In the past year I read the first three novels in the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, the three Baroque Cycle novels by Neal Stephenson, and both The Anubis Gates and Declare by Tim Powers. Although Neal Stephenson and Tim Powers freely mix historical with fantastical details and characters, I was thrilled by how both authors managed to pull me into a version of the past and create a rich sense of place through their writing.

While fiction peaked my interest in European history over the summer, I found my way back to U.S. history with The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore, followed by 1491 and 1493 by Charles Mann. All three are accessible histories without abandoning any rigor or credibility — the footnotes are excellent — and offer inspiring departures from the structural constraints of more traditional narrative histories. Jill Lepore’s work does this particularly well as she weaves together the threads of contemporary Tea Party politics, the public memorialization of the Revolutionary War during the 1970s, and unique insights into the lives of Revolutionary period men and women from Thomas Paine to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom (a topic the author highlighted in a New York Times opinion piece Poor Jane’s Almanac). The concluding passage from the book’s prologue (available for download as a PDF) took my breath away with its evocative and visceral expression of the connections between the past and the present:

Standing on the Beaver watching sea-weedy waves slap the ship’s hull, I thought about how sailors on ocean-faring vessels once measured depth. They would drop a rope weighted with lead into the water and let it plummet till it reached bottom. I like to sink lines, too, to get to the bottom of things. This book is an argument against historical fundamentalism. It makes that argument by measuring the distance between the past and the present. It measures that distance by taking soundings in the ocean of time. Here, now, we float on a surface of yesterdays. Below swirls the blue-green of childhood. Deeper still is the obscurity of long ago. But the eighteenth century, oh, the eighteenth century lies fathoms down.

Charles Mann, unlike Jill Lepore, is not an academic historian but does a tremendous job allowing the work of dozens of scholars to lead the way in 1491 as he tells stories about the presence of American Indians in the Americas before (and after) contact with Europe. These stories of agricultural practices, disease epidemics, and more of the past are placed in a context of debates and discussion between archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, activists and others over the last 50 years or more. In his introduction he suggested a partial inspiration for the book came in response to the woeful failure of school textbooks to capture any of these recent debates and discoveries:

The 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a standard high school textbook by three well-known historians, summed up Indian history thusly: “For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and itsworks.” The story of Europeans in the NewWorld, the book informed students, “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”

Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researchers have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. (“We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one,” scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, “the myth of the humanized landscape.”) But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.

Not convinced you must read 1491 yet? Check out this March 2002 piece in The Atlantic for a tight introduction to the book’s themes. While a bit less revelatory for me, 1493 is still packed with fascinating details on quilombos, better known in the U.S. as maroon communities, like Palmares, the appalling conditions for Chinese workers guano mining in Peru, the fiscal implications of the Spanish galleon trade in Europe and Asia and much more. NPR offers a good excerpt of the book to get you started.

I’m currently reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson so I hope to share another review of sorts in the next few weeks. For a bit of inspiration closer to home, check out READTHATCITY for a few local history recommendation and a new community of neighbors (The Greatest Book Club in America) who’ll be reading along with you in 2012.

Reading the Middle Branch Case Studies

A few months back, I stumbled across a whole series of posts from 2008-2009 that Baltimore designer and educator Fred Scharmen wrote for a project he called the Middle Branch Case Studies. For folks outside of Baltimore, the Middle Branch is a shallow estuary of the Patapsco near the Baltimore City line. Fred’s mix of informal ethnographic reflection and thoughtful research make great reading for anyone interested in a few of Baltimore’s more marginal landscapes.


Righthand Rule: South Baltimore No-Go Zones Part 1: Swann Park

After walking through the open gate of a closed park, along a path through a broken fence, to the edge of a crumbling bridge that leads to a shuttered power plant, you realize there’s always another layer. The No-Go zones are nested like Russian dolls, but there’s no deterrent quite as powerful as the feeling that you’re being watched. I’ll come back when there’re no boats.

Middle Branch Case Files: Reed Bird Island Park

Now Reed Bird Island is technically a city park, but only, as my collaborator Eric and I found out, because of a suggestion made by the Olmsted brothers (sons of Frederick Law) in 1904. They pointed out that erosion from development upstream at the Patapsco River was leading to the accumulation of mud flats here at the river’s mouth. These were being occupied and used for dumping.

The Olmsteds, as part of their 1904 report on potential park spaces in Baltimore, suggested that the city get ahold of these islands, (their status was in doubt because they were basically new, free land) and cap them to form parks. They also pointed out that rerouting the new bridge to cross these things would increase their visibility and connection to the city. So after a few years, that’s what happened.

Soft Sites: Masonville Cove

The Claw is conspicuous, jumping out of the gmaps aerial photo like a mutant appendage. Between the double pressures of development and industry, this much feral openspace on the waterfront is an anomaly, even for the spottily derelict Middle Branch. It is heavily vegetated, but walking the site, feeling the mossy bricks, ceramic powerline insulators and huge concrete blocks underfoot, one sees that this is really just a big pile, a ground made of stuff.

Port Covington: The Ghost of the Masterplan in Tinkerer’s Paradise

Then, as now, the spaces on the ground between these lines of connection and transfer were largely forgotten and undeveloped. In the 19th century, this area was the backyard and back door to the city of Baltimore, and like any backyard, this was a place for recreation and storage, comingled with trash and half-completed projects. The map above, part of a citywide topographic survey from 1895, shows rowing piers and resorts among the marshes, along with a dog pound, a guano pier, and a “night soil dump”.


Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting

This past October, I had the privilege of participating in a panel organized by Dr. Nicole King at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Baltimore, along with Ms. Linda Shopes, Dr. Denise Meringolo and Dr. Ed Orser. The theme of the panel — Baltimore City as Laboratory: Transformations of Urban Neighborhoods through Public History Programming — helped frame a discussion on how our work  used “public history programming to address complex issues of identity and social justice in urban space” led by  Linda Shopes, an editor of the influential 1991 The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History. I wrote the following short piece highlighting our work with the Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods project where I had the chance to work closely with both Linda and Ed on the development of tour programs and a website (still in development).

Over the past two years with Baltimore Heritage, I’ve worked on a handful of projects connecting historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization in the historic neighborhoods of West Baltimore. West Baltimore is not a likely place for this particular approach. I often encounter questions from both residents — and, perhaps even more often, people who live outside these neighborhoods — asking why bother with preserving or interpreting the history of neighborhoods and communities, whose struggles with abandonment, addiction, disinvestment and violence seem to overwhelm any other concerns? I can’t put this question aside quickly or easily so I’ll continue with this issue unresolved– how can our shared heritage be used to build better neighborhoods and better lives for West Baltimore residents?

Baltimore Heritage is a nonprofit historic preservation advocacy organization established in 1960. We’re a small group, two and a half staff supported by membership and programs, with a history of energetic preservation advocacy. My own position began in fall of 2009 with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to focus on African American heritage city-wide, matched by grants from the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative which required us to focus these outreach efforts in support transit-oriented community development in an area of West Baltimore neighborhoods proposed for the development of a new light rail route known as the Red Line.

Although West Baltimore is not exceptional within the city, or certainly when compared to neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, the east side of Cleveland, or the South Bronx, in some West Baltimore neighborhoods the scale of vacancy and abandonment is incredible, shocking to visitors and a tragedy for residents who live next door to collapsing rowhouses, burnt-out factories and brownfields. Neighborhoods like Harlem Park, Upton, and Midtown Edmondson can be characterized by concentrated poverty and limited access to fresh food.  Despite these challenges, however, you can find unique historic architecture on almost every block, from pre-Civil War rowhouses to midcentury modern civic and educational buildings. Historic green spaces, like Lafayette Square or Franklin Square, are still well loved and well used by many neighborhood residents.

Any explanation of this confusing landscape must draw on intersecting histories of racial segregation, housing discrimination, community development and urban renewal. Following these threads can help us connect the beginning of these neighborhoods–developed as affluent, European suburbs in the late 19th century to the emergence of Old West Baltimore as one of a handful of segregated black communities in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. We can continue through the rapid racial transition that transformed whole swaths of West Baltimore from white to black during the 1950s and 1960s (deftly chronicled by Dr. Ed Orser in Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story) and the terrible mix of industrial job loss and urban renewal that gutted the heart of West Baltimore neighborhoods in the 1970s and 80s.

Dr. Ed Orser at Lauretta Avenue, Greater Rosemont Walking Tour

Our work in West Baltimore been a bit experimental, testing our hypothesis—heritage is an asset for West Baltimore’s community development—by exploring new ways to organize residents and reshape the perception of the historic built environment from a liability into an asset. Our experience so far has led us to a few ideas about what is important and what might work–

  • We are dedicated to a usable past that seeks out histories of development, struggle, and organizing that offer tools to better understand contemporary concerns.
  • We embrace difficult stories, recognizing the importance of stories around enslavement, civil rights, racism and urban renewal to shaping the history of these neighborhoods and continuing to engage residents and visitors at a visceral level.
  • We don’t work alone. Our research and interpretation seeks to engage residents and other stakeholders in the interpretation of local history and the development of tours.

Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods was one of our first large scale projects to address these themes of segregation and community development. With support from the Maryland Humanities Council and Free Fall Baltimore, we organized a series of four collaborative programs—a lecture on the local history of public housing and three walking tours in historically African American neighborhoods–Upton, Greater Rosemont, and Sharp Leadenhall–led by scholars from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, UMBC and Towson University working in collaboration with resident-led neighborhood organizations. Together these programs aimed to stimulate an informed discussion about the historical experiences of residents and institutions in Baltimore’s historically segregated African American communities in relation to contemporary debates on historic preservation and community development.

Tour group at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, Etting Street These three tours visited a diverse set of historic places, while considering issues from highway fights and anti-gentrification neighborhood organizing in South Baltimore through the flourishing of civil rights activism in churches and businesses in the neighborhoods of Old West Baltimore. We visited Thurgood Marshall’s elementary school. We walked by the only Baltimore dollar house where a black resident displaced by eminent domain during the highway fight successfully returned to his home. In church basements, we discussed topics from the feasibility of rowhouse rehabs to the potential of transit-oriented development in the broader Baltimore region. In a single month, we engaged nearly 250 people, an audience that was notably more diverse in age and race than many of our more conventionally presented tour programs. This project affirmed our confidence in our new strategies for collaboration and interpretation, strategies that we continue to use in the development of new tours and publications focused on themes including the Civil War history of West Baltimore.

The results of these explorations remain inconclusive. We’re still testing against the enduring challenges of decades of disinvestment along with our own limited capacity as a small nonprofit. I’m encouraged though by the idea that we’re not along. As we’ve searched for new ideas to apply to our own work, we’ve gotten to know a few of the organizations and individuals wrestling with these same concerns, testing their own approaches in local laboratories across the country. I’ll give you three examples–

  • Andrew Hurley’s work in St. Louis, documented in his recent book Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, offered historical and archeological research and interpretation to North St. Louis residents and organizations with the goal of supporting grassroots revitalization. Hurley observed, “Inner-city preservationists embarking on such a path can anticipate a  host of difficult decisions as they wrestle with the inevitable tension between community-building and economic-development goals.” – p.31
  • Cliveden, a 1760s mansion built for Revolutionary-era elite Benjamin Chew, had been a stodgy house museum through the early 2000s when they dedicated themselves to finding new relevance to their diverse, low-income neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia. In charting this new course, they decided to abandon the visitor, redefining their mission to serve as “a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”
  • The Los Angeles Conservancy, supported by the same National Trust grant program as our work at Baltimore Heritage, hired a new organizer to greatly expand their outreach and advocacy in the segregated Latino communities of East LA, undertaking projects such as “Save Wyvernwood,” where they supported the efforts of a resident community in the 1939 Wyvernwood Garden Apartments to resist displacement and the demolition of their homes.

These examples are distinct, I know. At the same time, we’re all together wrestling with that same question I posed a few minutes ago. We’re not finding any easy answers but I do think we’re gaining confidence that public history and preservation scholars and professionals are right to ask this question.

Ned Kaufman, a long time director of historic preservation for the Municipal Art Society of New York, offered an answer of sorts in Place, Race, and Story: essays on the past and future of historic preservation, writing–

“History offers a way to establish a presence within the public space of political and cultural discourse–and without presence one can hardly hope for leverage. History can’t provide adequate housing, end discrimination or prevent redevelopment, but it can contribute to the debate that is necessary to achieving these goals.” – p.401