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Baltimore’s Black History

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A Brief Overview of Baltimore’s African American History

Baltimore dates back to 1729, when it was founded on the banks of the Patapsco River. Through most of the colonial period, Baltimore was little more than a village. Annapolis, to the south, was the center of politics and culture. Agriculture was dominant in the region, primarily growing wheat and tobacco. Tobacco requires a significant amount of labor to grow, and enslaved Africans were brought to Maryland to work in the fields.  

After the Revolutionary War, Baltimore’s economy and population grew, capitalizing on industries along the mill valleys and the deep-water port at Fell’s Point. The slave trade flourished in Baltimore’s port; the 1790 census listed twice as many slaves as free persons of color.

The shipbuilders of Fell’s Point depended on African American labor—both enslaved and free men. Black men worked in the maritime trades as joiners, caulkers, painters, carvers, glaziers, plumbers, sailmakers, and common laborers.

In 1812, the young United States declared war on Great Britain. A private navy was instrumental in the U.S. efforts to disrupt British trade ships and naval vessels. Known as privateers, these privately-owned ships were authorized by the government to attack and capture enemy ships. Free men of color accounted for approximately 25 percent of the privateer crews.

Just 14 years after the successful defense of Baltimore in September 1814, construction began on the nation’s first railroad. Chartered by a group of Baltimore business leaders, work on the structural foundations of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began in 1828. Enslaved and free men endured the monumental task of leveling roads across mountains, streams, and rivers.

Baltimore’s population during the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s was quite diverse with an array of residents: free blacks, slaves, native-born whites, and German and Irish immigrants. As the nation moved toward Civil War in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Baltimore—where various groups lived in close proximity to one another and mingled regularly—stood out as an exception among large American cities.

While slavery was legal throughout Maryland until 1864, most African Americans in Baltimore were free and often worked alongside white laborers. It was the largest free black community of any American city at that time. Free black residents organized more than 20 churches, founded more than 30 benevolent societies, and established schools. Free blacks were also active in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves from Maryland’s Eastern Shore gain safe passage to the north.

Despite this, large numbers of Baltimoreans were pro-slavery and rioted when Union troops marched through the city on April 19, 1861, causing the Civil War’s first bloodshed. President Abraham Lincoln took no chances and ordered Federal troops to occupy the city for the conflict’s duration.

The Civil War—and slavery—ended in 1865. While the Union was restored, the struggle over race relations continued to test and divide Baltimoreans and the nation. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, and social indignities were instituted and challenged. New civic institutions were established to promote Baltimore’s African Americans. Shortly after the Civil War, Morgan State University (originally a private African American school named the Centenary Biblical Institute) opened its doors. Approximately 30 years later, Coppin State began offering courses on education for African American schoolteachers.

Baltimoreans have long been at the forefront of the fight for equality and civil rights. Prominent Baltimore church leaders, including Reverend Dr. Gamett Russell Waller of Trinity Baptist Church and Dr. Harvey Johnson of Union Baptist Church, were active in the Niagara Movement, an organization founded in 1905 to promote racial equality. Members of this group helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP’s Baltimore Branch was founded in 1912.

With a large African American population, it is not surprising that the city has been at the center of black culture. Pennsylvania Avenue was known for its jazz and theater and was a stop along the famed “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Baltimore nurtured some of America’s most important musicians, including pianist Eubie Blake, drummer Chick Webb, opera singer Anne Brown, bandleader Cab Calloway, and the incomparable Billie Holiday. Celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston, author of His Eyes Were Watching God, graduated from Morgan State’s high school in 1918.

Baltimore’s African American leaders also played key roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Baltimoreans redefined freedom to include access to economic and educational opportunities; the city’s black residents—with white supporters—overturned local Jim Crow laws, dismantled the segregation system in city schools and public facilities, and promoted civil rights for African Americans throughout the nation. Thurgood Marshall, born and educated in Baltimore, achieved national recognition for his contributions. Others, such as Lillie Carroll Jackson, president of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP from 1935 to 1969, worked diligently but without the same degree of acclaim.  

Romare Bearden, a classically trained artist and writer, served as the weekly political cartoonist for The Afro-American Newspapers from 1935 to 1937. His themes and illustrations aligned with the pro-civil rights agenda that publisher Carl Murphy envisioned for the paper. Bearden was an exceptional storyteller and artist. His 14-by-46-foot Venetian glass mosaic, Baltimore Uproar, is a highlight of the Upton Station of Baltimore’s subway system. Unveiled in 1983, the mosaic depicts Billie Holiday with a jazz group and boldly reflects Bearden’s interests in music, literature, and the performing arts.

Baltimore is proud of its contributions to the history and heritage of the African American experience. The city continues to foster and nurture new generations of leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs, adding to the foundation laid by black hands nearly 300 years ago.

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