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The percentage of Negroes in Baltimore who reach the age of sixty-five

years and thus become eligible for old-age assistance is

only one-half that of the whites reaching the same age



The Negro in Maryland

By WPA Workers


The Negroes form the largest group in Maryland not British in origin.  Though their history is interwoven with that of the whites from the first days of settlement, it remains separate.  Among the hardy voyagers who disembarked at St. Clement’s Island in 1634 were John Price, a Negro, and Mathias Tousa, a mulatto, who had been taken aboard in the Barbados when the English vessels stopped for supplies.  

By the beginning of the eighteenth century Negro slaves were numerous in the colony and by the time of the Revolution nearly a third of the population of the State was Negro, for the most part laborers of the plantations.  Though the high wages of the World War period brought numerous Negroes to Baltimore from the Deep South and also from the Maryland counties, Negroes now form only 16 per cent of the total population of Maryland.

Maryland early took official cognizance of the evils of slavery and of the danger of swelling its population with members of another race.  In 1783 the slave trade was prohibited by State law and in 1787 Luther Martin of Maryland endeavored to have a clause limiting or banning the trade placed in the National Constitution.  It was a matter of economics, however, that had reduced the slaves to 12 per cent of the population by 1860; Maryland tobacco plantations had become increasingly unproductive (see Agriculture) and the care of slave families from infancy to old age was becoming a serious burden.  Long before the Civil War many families had begun to free their slaves, and by 1860 freed slaves formed 13 per cent of the population.

‘Free’ Negroes, however, were not entirely free.  At times they were restrained by law from working at certain occupations, of from selling tobacco and other commodities without a certificate from a justice of the peace.  Again they were prohibited from keeping dogs, carrying firearms, attending religious services (unless conducted by a licensed or ordained white minister), belonging to secret orders, or selling spirituous liquors.  If convicted of any of these offenses, Negroes could be banished from the county or State.

Perhaps the leading abolitionist working in Maryland was William Lloyd Garrison, who, during the winter of 1829–30 published in Baltimore The Genius of Universal Emancipation.  In a series of vitriolic articles he lashed out at slave-owners, owners of ship carrying slaves, slave dealers, and Northern sympathizers with slavery.  In the reaction that followed the brief appearance of the paper, Maryland, fearing the growing abolition sentiment, passed increasingly severe laws governing slavery, restricting manumission, and rigidly limiting the movements of slaves.

Among the leading figures in American Negro history were several Marylanders, including Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), the astronomer, Frederick Douglass (1817­–95); Harriet Tubman (1815–1913); and Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911).

Banneker, a free Negro and first of his race to receive a presidential appointment, was named to assist Major Andrew Ellicott in a survey of the boundaries of the ‘Federal Territory.’  In 1761 Banneker whittled from wood the first clock made in Maryland and in 1792 published an almanac for which he constructed his own tables.  

The early years of Frederick Douglass (see Literature) were marked by insecurity, harsh treatment, and constant change of ownership.  In 1838 he made his escape to New England where he became one of the Anti-Slavery Society’s most eloquent propagandists.  The fact that he was himself an escaped slave made his position perilous, and he was sent abroad to lecture, chiefly in Great Britain where he received much attention and where he remained until 1847 when he was ‘ransomed’ by two Englishwomen.  Returning to America with funds subscribed by British admirers, he for many years published the abolitionist paper, The North Star.  In 1871 he was appointed a member of the territorial government of the District of Columbia; later he was made a United States marshal and still later recorder of deeds in the District.  He also served as minister to Haiti.

Harriet Tubman, variously called the ‘heroine of the Underground Railroad’ and ‘Moses of her people,’ escaped from her Eastern Shore master into Pennsylvania when she was about twenty-five.  She first returned to assist members of her own family to freedom, and later so extended her activities that between three and four hundred liberations are credited to her.  She so infuriated the slave-owners that a price of $40,000 was set on her head.

Frances Ellen Watkins was born of free parents in Baltimore.  By about 1853 in Little York, Pennsylvania, she had become interested in the Underground Railroad and she later lectured against slavery in Philadelphia, New Bedford, and Boston.  On September 28, 1854 she was engaged as a permanent lecturer by the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine.  In 1860 in Cincinnati she married Fenton Harper.  After the Civil War she continued to lecturer on various subjects and spent much time in the South as a representative of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Josiah Henson, whose life story provided material for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and whose descendant, Matthew Henson, accompanied Peary to the North Pole, was also born in Maryland.

The problem that had confronted Negroes freed during the first half of the century faced all Negroes in Maryland after the Civil War—that of earning a living.  Personal services, common labor, and farming were the three fields with which the Negro was most familiar, and those easiest for him to penetrate.  A few, particularly in the country, were blacksmiths and carpenters.  Brickmaking and oyster shucking constituted seasonal occupations.  There were also Negro stevedores, and at one period following the war, Negroes practically monopolized the ship caulking trade and hod carrying.

Today the occupational distribution of Maryland Negroes has not changed radically.  It is true that a number of business and professional men have overcome their economic and social handicaps, but in 1930 Maryland had only one Negro lawyer to every 8,375 Negroes and one Negro doctor to every 2,800 Negroes.  In the field of public service are relatively few Negroes and the majority of these are teachers.  In the municipal government of Baltimore, where Negroes comprise more than a fifth of the population, they have little share of jury service and the possibility of election to the City Council is remote, although there have been infrequent instances of such occurrences.  No Negro has ever been elected to the Maryland State Legislature and until 1938, when one woman and three men was appointed to the Baltimore force, there were no Negro police.

As elsewhere, discrimination against Negroes in official position exists both on a numerical basis and, at least among teachers, in regard to salaries.  A ‘jim-crow’ law segregating whites and Negroes on public carriers applies on steamships carrying passengers with the State and on electric cars running 20 miles beyond the limits of a city, but the law specifies that accommodations be of equal quality.  Segregation is practiced in both public and private educational institutions, and in most cases the facilities for Negroes are not as good as those for whites.  Though attempts to enforce housing segregation by law have been unsuccessful, practical segregation has forced the Negro to pay high rentals in deteriorated districts.  Custom decrees that the color line be observed in theaters, restaurants, and, to some extent, in stores.

The Maryland Negro finds many industrial and commercial fields barred to him, in part because of the widespread theory that it is unwise or impossible to mix Negroes and whites at work.  In refuting this, Negro leaders point out that the State’s first union of brick-masons was formed by whites and Negroes; that one-third of the members of the first brickyard workers’ organization were Negroes; and that both whites and Negroes are included today in such organizations as the Longshoremen’s Association.

In 1869 the first Negro state labor convention in the United States met in Baltimore and recommended a nation-wide organization of Negro labor.  Five months later a national assembly met ‘to consolidate colored workingmen of the several States, to act in co-operation with our white workingmen in every State and in every territory of the Union who are opposed to distinction in the apprenticeship laws on account of color, and to act cooperatively until the necessity for separate organization shall be deemed unnecessary, and to petition Congress for the exclusion of coolie labor.’  There is, however, no further record of this early movement after the national convention.

When prospects of jobs with high wages brought an influx of Negroes during and after the World War period, they increased the Negro population of Baltimore by more than a third and had definite economic and social effects on the life of the city.  Overloading that part of the labor market open to Negroes, the immigration lowered the wage level of all unskilled labor and in later years swelled the ranks of the unemployed.  With their farm backgrounds and with standards of living set in small, rural communities, many of the newcomers had difficulty in adjusting themselves to city life.

In Maryland as elsewhere social and economic handicaps have helped to make dependency, delinquency, and disease important factors in the Negro ‘problem.’  In 1934 Negroes, who constituted approximately one-sixteenth of the total population, formed more than 40 per cent of the persons on relief.  More than 75 per cent of the illegitimate births reported to the city health department are Negro and 40 per cent of the children taken to juvenile court are of this race.

The percentage of Negroes in Baltimore who reach the age of sixty-five years and thus become eligible for old-age assistance is only one-half that of the whites reaching the same age—some indication of the poor health conditions among members of the race.  Recent reports showed that the city’s death rate from tuberculosis was the highest in large American cities.  Baltimore’s health commissioner, laying the blame for this situation largely on bad housing conditions for Negroes, pointed out that the Negro death rate from tuberculosis in Baltimore was 245.2 per 100,000 in 1937 as against a white death rate of 63.6.

Although the social and economic bases of these conditions have not been touched, several groups are at work attempting to better the conditions of Maryland Negroes.  Among such organizations is the Urban League, the Baltimore branch of which was founded in 1924; its objective is to improve relations between the races.  The Baltimore body has made an effort to interpret this rather broad program in relation to local problems.

Maryland is the only State with a permanent interracial commission, consisting of ten white and nine Negro members, to consider questions concerning the welfare of Maryland Negroes, and to recommend legislation and sponsor movements toward the improvement of relations between the races.  The members of the commission, which was inaugurated in 1927, serve for six years without pay and are appointed by the governor with the consent of the State senate.

The Federation of Maryland Organizations is still another group attempting to secure social justice for the Negro, and the Afro-American, published twice weekly, carries on a militant campaign for Negro rights.

Religion is always a vital factor in Negro life.  In the Colonial period Negroes and whites of Maryland worshiped in the same buildings, but gradually Negroes organized themselves into separate congregations, chiefly Baptist and Methodist, which at first were served by white pastors.  In addition to the Protestant congregations, there are now four Negro Roman Catholic parishes with a membership of about 12,000.

Among Negro religious schools is one maintained by the Oblate Sisters of Providence (see Religion).  Its Baltimore school, founded in 1828, is now attended by the daughters of well to do Negroes of Baltimore, and other cities.

Religious cults have had increasing influence among Negroes in the post-depression period.  More than three score ‘churches’ with congregations of about a dozen each are housed in small dwellings or in abandoned stores.  This movement has been stimulated by the success of a former Baltimorean, Father Divine, who was born in Georgia.  A generation ago George Baker was mowing lawns in Baltimore’s suburbs.  About 1907 he experienced a ‘recombustion’ and announced himself as the ‘Messenger.’  He moved his sphere of activity to New York City, where he became the guiding spirit of a communal experiment that offered his followers the advantages of church, boarding house, and employment agency—all under one roof.  Father Divine’s organization today claims a membership of 2,000,000, both Negro and white, with more than 150 ‘kingdoms’ scattered over twenty-three States, the District of Columbia, and four foreign countries.

Another local cult leader is a mulatto, C. M. Grace, known as ‘Bishop,’ ‘Father,’ or more often simply ‘Daddy.’  He heads forty or more missions in various parts of the country.  Contrary to usage in the Divine cult, finances are stressed in the Daddy Grace movement.  Collections are ‘lifted’ at all services, and should the offering be meager, commodities under the proprietary name of Daddy Grace are offered for sale.

Northwest Baltimore, where approximately 125,000 Negroes live, is Baltimore’s ‘Harlem.’  Within a comparatively small area are two hospitals, numerous churches, schools, theaters, markets, stores, confectionaries, hotels, restaurants, and night clubs, all, with few exceptions, conducted for and by Negroes.  Cultural entertainment available to the Negroes of Baltimore includes concerts by a Negro municipal band, a Negro symphony orchestra, a Negro chorus of some 300 voices, and drama by a little theater.

In the counties of Maryland, particularly on the Eastern Shore and in southern Maryland, the Negro lives under much the same conditions his ancestor knew.  Oyster shucking, crab-picking, truck farming, work in canneries—these are his chief means of earning a meager livelihood.  Dependent largely upon the generosity of a white employer or landowner, he is generally described in the phrase, ‘Sure, I love niggers, the old-fashioned kind, that know their place.’  Of the sixteen recorded lynchings in Maryland since 1885, eleven have occurred in southern Maryland or on the Eastern Shore.

Inextricably involved in the general social and economic affairs of the State, Maryland Negroes believe that solution for their troubles is expressed in the statement of editorial policy by the Afro-American: ‘. . . when colored citizens get their share of jobs in industry, in municipal, State and Federal departments, they will have, ipso facto, solved most of their other problems.’

Source: WPA Workers in Maryland. Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State. NY: Oxford U. Press, 1940

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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