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The Baltimore Experience > 400 Years of History > A City of Immigrants

For almost 200 years Baltimore served as a major port of entry for people who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new beginning. Many were simply passing through on their way to somewhere else—but many others put down roots here, making the city a tapestry of cultures.

Even as Baltimore prospered from their labor and entrepreneurial skill, new ethnic groups often had to fight for acceptance. But the convergence of such a diverse mix of people also gave rise to the cross-cultural cooperation and creativity that have been among the city’s greatest strengths. As early as the War of 1812, after the British set fire to Washington, D.C., Baltimoreans rallied to defend their city and the nation’s independence. Native-born and immigrant, white and black—all quickly worked together to construct a mile-long line of earthworks to repel a British land attack.

The foreign-born population grew dramatically in the mid-19th century. The Irish arrived to work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, settling in the rowhouse neighborhood near the B&O Railroad’s Mount Clare Station. Baltimore’s strong trade relations with the German port of Bremen brought vast numbers of German immigrants, who settled throughout the city and followed a variety of economic pursuits. The German influence reached into every area of city life: politics, business, culture, and recreation. By the 1870s, some 25 percent of Baltimoreans were either German-born or had German parents, and the city opened German-English public schools.

The connection between Baltimore and Bremen grew even stronger in 1868 when the B&O and the North German Lloyd steamship company entered into a partnership that allowed travelers to land in Baltimore and immediately board a B&O train for points west. The city’s immigration center at Locust Point became one of the nation’s busiest: from the 1870s to 1920s, more than one million immigrants entered the United States through its terminals.

Baltimore’s booming economy enticed many newcomers to stay here rather than board the train. By the 1880s, most of the immigrants who embarked at Bremen actually had started their journey in Eastern Europe, and so Baltimore received an influx of Poles, Lithuanians, Bohemians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Russian Jews. They filled the ranks of the city’s canneries, garment factories, steel mills, and shipyards. Italians and Greeks also found their way to Baltimore during this period. As before, the new immigrants reshaped Baltimore’s social, physical, and cultural environment. They established ethnic neighborhoods defined by the foods, language, religion, and customs of their native lands. As they adapted to their new home, they made their own distinctive impact on the Baltimore scene.

Immigrants did not always find the city a place of tolerance. Anti-Catholic riots erupted when large numbers of German and Irish Catholics settled here in the 1830s and 1840s. A century later, Italian and Jewish homebuyers found themselves locked out of many city neighborhoods. But over time Baltimore’s ethnic groups became absorbed into the mainstream. Baltimoreans learned not just to coexist, but to appreciate the contributions diverse groups made to city life—not to mention the world beyond. Baltimore’s ethnic communities have given us Berger cookies and Old Bay seasoning, H.L. Mencken and Babe Ruth, Gertrude Stein and Frank Zappa, the Linotype machine, and the song “Jailhouse Rock,” to name just a few notable contributions.

Today’s immigrants don’t usually come by sea, but they still come. Baltimore in recent decades has seen an influx of newcomers from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. They are adding their own cultural vitality to the rich tapestry that is Baltimore. 

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