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.

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.


After the demolition of Tusculum in 1891 “bits of its woodwork were eagerly gathered up for souvenirs”

Tusculum, 1891
Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr

I spent a good part of the winter holidays researching the history of vacancy, demolition and salvage in Baltimore. When local builders tore down many of the city’s earliest homes in the decades after the Civil War, it is likely that laborers salvaged bricks and metal for reuse or resale. The January 1891 demolition of Tusculum, however, stood out as an early example of salvage for sentiment rather than simple material utility:

“‘Gwynn’s Folly,’ the quaint but pretentious little building of classic architecture which stood for years in Bank lane, between St. Paul and Calvert streets, has disappeared before the march of modern improvement, and nothing now marks the spot where it stood but a pile of rubbish and the five stately elms that for nearly a century had guarded it… The ancient edifice had a warm place in the hearts of many a white-haired Baltimoreans, and pieces of its mantel-pieces and bits of its woodwork were eagerly gathered up for souvenirs… About 1830 the improvements of the neighborhood shut in and hid the ‘Tusculum’ and converted Bank lane into an alley… For a number of years past a family of colored people have made the noted Tusculum their home.”

William Gwynn, newspaper owner and editor, commissioned architect Robert Carey Long to design and build Tusculum around 1820. Gwynn hosted meetings of a group that became known as the Delphian Club up through the 1830s. Carleton Jones described a typical scene in a 1991 article:

“On the right night, visitors to Tusculum’s part of town (just northwest of Calvert and Baltimore streets) can hear sounds of revelry within the mansion. Inside, you are likely to find an all-male gang of revelers that makes up the closest Baltimore ever came to having a literary club in the style of new and old England. Gwynn brings them together around the tobacco canisters and the punch bowls and they are hoisting toasts merrily here and there. For a time, they even run their own literary journal.

In the crowd occasionally is Harvard College luminary Jared Sparks, who had come to Baltimore to be ordained at the famous Unitarian service where William Ellery Channing would define Unitarian faith. Also among Tusculum habitues are two men destined to write the verses to two of the most immortal clinkers of 19th century sentimental song: Sam Woodworth (“The Old Oaken Bucket”) and John Howard Payne (“Home, Sweet Home”).

Gwynn’s perennial guests dubbed themselves the Delphian Club, and luminaries of the day flocked to get in the act — legal giant William Wirt, who trained eminent men; attorney William Pinckney, whose practice dominated many Supreme Court cases of the day; John Pendleton Kennedy, author of the novel “Swallow Barn,” and often characterized as the James Fenimore Cooper of Maryland; and John Neal, who created the nation’s first nationally important sporting magazine.”

Sources: “A Noted Old Dwelling Torn Down,” The Sun (1837-1988), January 27, 1891; “Remembering A Literary Lane,” Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1991, Carleton Jones.

Super Pride

super pride / Yashica Mat 124G / Fujicolor Pro 160S. Photograph by Patrick Joust, April 2010 via Flickr.

I’ve been spending some time worrying over issues of transparency and participation in public humanities projects like historic designations and other writing about neighborhood history. Instead of hiding my work until I complete the “finished product” – whether that is a National Register nomination or a walking tour program – I’m interested in making more of my work public, visible and subject to feedback and criticism throughout the process. This idea is inspired in part by the concept of “open notebook science” and I’m curious to see how it works for me as a scholar and practitioner.

At the moment, I’m working on a National Register Historic District Nomination for the neighborhood of Midtown Edmondson. I met last night with a group of neighborhood residents who are volunteering to support the project and provide feedback on the draft nomination. One neighbor recalled the Super Pride location at W.Lafayette Avenue and N. Payson Street and asked that a history of the store be included. Here is my first draft of a short summary – I’ll likely update the post if I have any corrections or additions:

Super Pride was established by Charles Thurgood Burns (1915-1991) in 1970 when he took over the bankrupt “Super Jet Market” located on East Chase Street. Renaming the business Super Pride, he restored the business to profitability within three years despite the challenge of some food companies that refused to work with a black-owned store. Burns had started in the grocery business around 1921 delivering groceries for the small store his grandfather owned on Dolphin Street. He sold vegetables, produce and fish out of the back of a cart during high school and college then later became the co-owner of Hilton Court Chain of Ethical Pharmacies – a business that according to Burns’ obituary, “catered to the needs of black consumers at a time when white-owned businesses ignored them.”

Between 1970 and 1990, Super Pride grew to seven locations, employing more than 400 people, and making over $43 million in annual sales. Under Burns’ leadership, Super Pride sponsored Black History Month activities and supported the Arena Players. By the late 1990s, however, the business struggled to compete against national chains and the city’s shrinking population. In the fall of 2000, Super Pride closed all eight of its locations and, in November, held an auction to liquidate the stores and their remaining equipment to satisfy creditors.

Sources: Charles T. Burns dies founder of Super Pride, April 10, 1991, Lynda Robinson, The Baltimore Sun. Super Pride reaches the end: Fixtures, equipment of failed chain being auctioned Monday, November 8, 2000, Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun.


“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.

‘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.

“If you want to go back the Home, kid, just keep riding those bicycles.”

Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth ride a bike, 1942.

This whole thing should be considered a working draft. It is back-dated to the last major revision in December 2013. Some of the different accounts of Babe Ruth in Fayetteville are contradictory and confusing – more work is really needed to parse through the variations on the stories involving the bicycle. Another version of this post that includes the footnotes can be found in this Google Doc.

Babe Ruth never owned a bicycle growing up in Baltimore. Born at his grandfather’s modest rowhouse on Emory Street in 1895, George Herman Ruth spent his first several years moving here and there in southwest Baltimore. At age seven, he entered St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys – a reformatory and orphanage on Wilkens Avenue established in 1866. At St. Mary’s, George learned to play baseball and at in early 1914 signed a contract with Jack Dunn, the owner and manager of the Baltimore Orioles.

By March, George and his teammates had arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina where he started his life-long love of bicycles. On a Wednesday evening, March 18, 1914 – a little over a week since his first game in professional baseball – George hurried out after dinner to meet a new acquaintance – one of a handful of local boys who biked out to the field to watch the Orioles train. That afternoon, the boy had offered George a chance to borrow his bike after dinner and George lept at the opportunity.

While biking through town and gaining a bit of confidence, Babe Ruth decided to show off. He rode past the hotel where the Orioles had been staying, riding on the wrong side of the road and waving to a group of teammates out front. His teammates saw what George did not — a large truck bearing down on the novice cyclist.

Another account from Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert W. Creame descibes a similar incident:

“One day, barreling around a corner, he missed running head-on into Dunn and Egan only by braking violently and twisting the bike to one side. He smacked into the back of a wagon and ended up on the ground, the bike draped around him, grinning at Dunn with cheerful embarrassment. Dunn looked at him sourly and said, “If you want to go back to the Home, kid, just keep riding those bicycles.”

In a minor variation on this theme, Allan Wood quotes Dunn as shouting, “You wanna go back to that school? You’re a ballplayer, not a goddman circus act!”

After another bicycle accident soon followed, Orioles scout Sam Steinman remarked to sportswriter Roger Pippen, “If Dunn doesn’t shackle that new babe of his, he won’t be a Rube Waddell in the rough, he’ll be a babe Ruth in the cemetery.” Pippen’s next article for the Baltimore American, published March 19, 1914, described a “young fledgling” ball player with the name “Babe Ruth” – the first time the nickname appeared in print.

When the regular season began in late April, the Orioles returned to Baltimore. Like all the players, Ruth received food and lodging during the spring training but did not get paid until the regular season began. When Ruth received his first paycheck, the first purchase he made was a bicycle. According to his recollections from The Babe Ruth Story, told to Bob Considine, Babe later shared:

“I went out and celebrated, just as soon as I got my first paycheck – $100. I bought a bicycle, something that I had wanted and often prayed for through most of my young life. Most of the Orioles, of course, had cars, but none of them was as proud as I was, riding the first possession of my life through the old streets of Baltimore.”

In his book, Robert Creamer contradicted Ruth’s recollections reporting the envelop had only $50 but still “more money than Ruth had ever seen” but reflected on the new bicycle writing: “Tooling around Baltimore on it, [Ruth] felt richer than God.”

Photo is unsourced and unconfirmed that it is even Babe Ruth but is included in this forum thread as Babe Ruth on a bicycle in Baltimore in 1914.

Ruth’s history of collisions continued even after he bought the new bike (he bought a motorcycle and a car soon after). Newark pitcher Al Schacht was run down by bicycle ridden by a “gangling, moon-face kid” with a handful of hotdogs. Schacht yelled, “Why the hell don’t you watch where you’re going, Rube?” The “kid” replied “Sorry, mister, I almost dropped a hotdog and my hand slipped.” Schacht was even more surprised a short time later when he spotted the kid on the field wearing the Orioles uniform.

A few years later, just days after Babe Ruth and the Red Sox won the World Series in Boston, Ruth picked up his share of the winnings and spent the evening as the official “starter” for bike and motorcycle races at the Revere Beach track.

Ironically, Ruth’s success and the growing popularity of baseball eclipsed the long-standing interest in bicycle racing that made professional cyclists some of the highest paid athletes in the United States in the early 20th century. The circumstances had been quite the opposite a few decades earlier when, after the invention of the safety bicycle in 1885, cycling experienced a boom in popularity that rivaled baseball and even threatened attendance at the games:

“The owners also tried to capitalize on the bicycle craze of the ‘nineties, but without financial success. According to Al Reach, thousands of dollars were lost in laying out tracks for bike races in many of the baseball parks.”

One final note – I pulled this quote from some memoir but now I can’t find the source. Frustrating!

When we got outside, Babe looked around frantically for a taxi but there wasn’t one on the street. Suddenly, two kids on bikes came pedaling around the corner. Babe jumped in front of them, and they hit their brakes so they wouldn’t crash into him.

“Hey, kids, how much for the bicycles?” asked Babe.

“Huh?” the kids said.

“Here,” Babe said, pulling a $20 bill out of his pocket….

“Y’know how to ride a bicycle?” Babe asked me.

“Well, sure…”

“Then let’s go!”

Back when I visited him in 1932, Babe Ruth drove me to Wrigley Field in Chicago. I almost died. Well, he rode a bicycle the same way– like a maniac. He took off and started pedaling furiously, weaving around street vendors, potholes and garbage cans. Little old ladies were diving out of his way. Cars were honking at him, and I wasn’t sure if it was…