Since Baltimore first began, the city’s African American residents have fought to secure, protect, and expand their individual and collective rights and opportunities in America. This struggle has involved many forms of organized and informal resistance to violence, segregation, discrimination, white supremacy, and racial inequality. Across the country, the struggle for freedom before and after the Civil War was the work of a long civil rights movement that continues to this day. While popular public memory of the civil rights movement often narrowly focuses on the southern direct action campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, Baltimore’s experience helps illustrate the tremendous variation of black and interracial rights movements well before the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and long after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.1 In an effort to document the breadth of the local movement, this study covers over 140 years of regional history beginning in 1831 and ending in 1976.

As documented in the first section of this study, Baltimore was the second largest city in the country in 1830—with a population of more than 28,500 free and enslaved people of color.2 In a Chesapeake region dominated by white slaveholders, Baltimore was a unique place. In the early nineteenth century, Baltimore’s docks, alleys, churches, and rowhouses became places where black people were able to organize to seek freedom from slavery for themselves and their families. In the wake of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, white slaveholders imposed new restrictions on black life in Maryland.3 But, when colonization threatened the forced deportation of black Americans, free black people fought to claim an identity of that historian Martha S. Jones described as "unassailable belonging… grounded in birthright citizenship."4 In Baltimore, independent black churches established by free black Baltimoreans were part of the foundation for this resistance.

In the 1860s, national conflict over slavery led to the Civil War. Despite the secessionist sympathies of white slaveholders in Maryland, the state remained part of the Union and over 8,000 black Marylanders enlisted in the US Colored Troops. The war transformed the movement for freedom and equal rights as the country adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865, abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867, giving all Americans right to equal protection under the law; and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, giving black men the right to vote. Even as these new rights were contested in courts and state legislatures, the changes empowered an emerging community of black activists, religious leaders, educators, and labor organizers—including among them many Union army veterans who settled in Baltimore after the end of the war. The promise of equality and power, however, was threatened both locally and nationally by new forms of white supremacy and segregation.

In the 1880s and 1890s, a period covered in the second section of this study, white Americans pushed aggressively to establish Jim Crow segregation in cities across the country. Baltimore was no exception and grew more racially segregated as it developed the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. White households followed electric streetcar lines out to new suburban developments but sought to restrict the choices to black households to just a few segregated black neighborhoods.5 Racial segregation and black suffrage were two driving concerns for local electoral politics. Democrats made repeated attempts to disenfranchise black voters in the early 1900s and impose housing segregation in the 1910s. While black Baltimoreans held on to their right to vote, pervasive segregation narrowly determined where Baltimore’s black residents could live and how they used public parks and streets. Widespread discrimination by employers determined the job opportunities, salaries, hours, and conditions offered to black workers. Most black students attended class in aging school buildings converted from prior use by white students. Increasingly after World War I, black Baltimoreans pushed back against these conditions with renewed commitment and militancy.

The third section of the study begins with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The national economic crisis led to renewed support for the local NAACP and new investments in progressive interracial coalitions with the local and national labor movement. Young people played a key role in fostering a commitment to change that, ultimately, helped sustain the national movement through the federal legislative victories in the 1960s. Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston’s legal victory in winning the admission of Donald Murray to the University of Maryland in 1935 demonstrated the promise of the NAACP’s emerging legal strategy.6

After the end of World War II, an interracial student movement waged a disruptive and highly visible campaign to overturn decades of segregationist policies. In the 1940s and 1950s, black activists, and some white liberal allies, worked to dismantle countless Jim Crow policies at parks, pools, recreational facilities, and consumer spaces, such as lunch counters, restaurants, and department stores. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education created additional opportunities for black Baltimoreans to challenge Jim Crow policies in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland.

As discussed in the fourth section, from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, the civil rights movement in Baltimore saw major changes in leadership and methods. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations, black households still experienced deep economic and social inequality. The unrest following Martin Luther King’s assassination and the varied response of activists, elected officials, and residents in the Baltimore region highlighted both the persistence of racial inequality and intransigence of white opponents to equality. Public policies around housing, transportation, and land use in the 1960s and 1970s continued to favor racial segregation and regional sprawl.

In summary, countless African Americans in Baltimore organized, advocated, and protested for over 150 years to seek equal rights and better conditions for themselves and their neighbors. The individual activists profiled in this study show a broad variation in background, experience, approach and motivation. They include teachers, doctors, lawyers, and laborers; native Baltimoreans and migrants from around the region and country; religious leaders and student protestors. Over time, these individuals living and working in Baltimore established and supported similarly varied organizations that fought to effect change for black people in Baltimore, Maryland, and around the country. Their strategies and tactics changed in response to their own ideas about the world and to the efforts of reactionary opponents who sought to preserve slavery and white supremacy in the United States. The legacy of the Baltimore’s civil rights movement includes not only transformation of politics and society but also the many buildings and landscapes touched by the movement in the past and present day.

Organization

The organization of this study is adapted from the framework described in the 2002 National Historic Landmark (NHL) program study Civil Rights in America. Each section includes a general overview of local civil rights activism, the political and social context of the period, and a closer look at key themes. Following the model of the NHL framework these key themes include voting rights, housing segregation and discrimination, educational inequality, public accommodations, employment discrimination, and criminal injustice.

One consequence of this study’s broad chronological scope is that many perspectives and related issues are inevitably excluded. Topics that are missing or only briefly referenced in this study include the logistics and financing of movement organizing; the relationship of local politics to international events (such as the US occupation of Haiti in 1915 or the influence of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s); and how racism and inequality intersected with other forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation or disability.

The study seeks to relate the details of notable civil rights activism and related public policy to the development and use of local buildings and landscapes. Moreover, this study is based on the idea that buildings help illuminate role that place and space has played in promoting or undermining racial inequality and segregation throughout Baltimore’s history. All of the events in this context took place in and around spaces—houses, churches, schools, business establishments, parks, monuments, and neighborhoods—that structured both the daily lives and the political agendas of local activists. Jim Crow segregation, and the system of slavery before it, substantially influenced the design and development of nearly all of Baltimore’s architecture and landscapes.

Unfortunately, many of the most significant places associated with this history have already been lost. Based on his experience documenting the architecture of racial segregation in South Carolina, historian Robert Weyeneth observed: “Desegregation represented a campaign for spatial reform as much as for social, legal, economic, and political redress.”7 The civil rights movement often targeted the physical manifestations of segregation alongside unjust laws. Following the significant success of campaigns against discrimination by commercial establishments, in Maryland and around the country, segregated black spaces also lost their economic rationale as white-owned businesses freely sought black customers at the expense of black-owned business districts. Combined with federal policies that supported the large-scale demolition of thousands of buildings associated with black Baltimoreans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, places associated with local civil rights activism should be an important priority for preservation moving forward.

Race and Language

The language used by Baltimore residents to discuss race, freedom, and civil rights has changed continuously through the period of this study. These changes not only reflect the changing identities of Baltimoreans but also shape how historians are able to gather and interpret about Baltimore's past. For example, the US Census has used a wide range of terminology between 1790 and 1980 when categorizing Americans by race. At different times, census-takers have recorded black Baltimoreans as “colored,” “Negro,” and “African American.” Before 1960, census-takers assigned individuals to a racial category rather than allowing individuals to select which category matched their identity.8

In discussing the city's history before the Civil War and the end of slavery in Maryland, this study follows the recommendations of the National Park Service Network to Freedom by using the terms “enslaved person” and “slaveholder” and avoiding any use of the terms “slave” and “slave owner.” In addition, the term free “people of color” is used interchangeably with free black Baltimoreans. While some black Baltimoreans identified as "mulatto" (of mixed-race ancestry) in the nineteenth century, it is important to note that this group as "mulatto" never became a distinct, "elite economic group”— in contrast to mulatto free people of color living Charleston and other Southern cities. Moreover, historian Christopher Phillips has argued that white Baltimoreans before the Civil War made few or no distinctions between people they identified as "mulattoes” or “Negroes.”9

The debate over how to write and talk about race, identity, and rights has always been a serious concern for black Baltimoreans. At the 1894 meeting of the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth, held at Madison Street Presbyterian Church, E. A. Johnson observed:

No one can speak for the negro like himself. I am not afraid of the word negro. I am not in sympathy with the apologetic attempts to have our race called Afro-Americans or freedmen. I am not ashamed of the negro blood in my veins.10

The address sparked a strong response from then 50-year-old Rev. Harvey Johnson who opposed using the word “negro,” explaining that an “odium is attached to the name and there is no authority for its use to designate people of African descent in America."11 As the educators debated, the term "colored" steadily declined in popularity—peaking in frequency of use in the Sun during the 1890s.

In February 1932, the Afro-American invited readers to vote and help "settle this business once and for all as to the best race designation." After a week of voting, "Negro" beat out "Colored" with 344 votes to 259. Much smaller numbers of voters stated their preference for terms including American, Afro-American, Asiatic, Ethio-African, and Moorish American.12 The use of the word “Negro” in the pages of the Afro-American appears to peak between the early 1930s and the early 1940s. The Sun newspaper’s use of the term “Negro” declined sharply after 1969 and nearly disappears after 1972. The Sun began using the term “black” in the mid-1960s with the most significant growth after 1968. The term “African American” doesn't come into regular use until 1989.13 In this document, the terms “black” and “African American” are used interchangeably without bias, as they reflect the terminology in common use today.

This study uses the term civil rights movement broadly to refer to the varied social movements associated with the black freedom struggle and black mutual support from the nineteenth century through the present. However, both the Sun and the Afro-American newspapers only begin using the term regularly after 1963. Prior to the 1960s, advocates were more likely to call for recognition of “equal rights” for black people—or focus more narrowly, as when advocates fighting disenfranchisement talked about defending black voters’ “political rights.” Historians have taken varied approaches to labeling the movement. Historian Jeanne Theoharis has used the term "black freedom struggle" to capture the "movement's ideological, regional, and temporal expansiveness.”14 In his study of Depression-era Baltimore, Andor Skotnes looks at the “black freedom movement” and the role of an “internal freedom movement” within the regional industrial workers’ movement.15


  1. For more on the concept of a long civil rights movement see Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” The Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (2005): 1233–63, https://doi.org/10.2307/3660172. For more on the use and misuse of the history of the civil rights movement see, Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). 

  2. Totals of enslaved and free black residents from US Census count of residents in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. 

  3. Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790–1860 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997); T. Stephen Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775–1865 (Baltimore, MD: The Maryland Historical Society, 2006); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015). 

  4. Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 1. 

  5. For more on the history of Baltimore’s architecture and physical development, see Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001); Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). 

  6. Sally Seawright, “Desgregation at Maryland: The NAACP and the Murray Case,” The Maryland Historian 1 (Spring 1970): 59–73; Larry S. Gibson, Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012). 

  7. Robert R. Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27, no. 4 (November 2005): 11–44, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2005.27.4.11

  8. Pew Research Center, “How Census Race Categories Have Changed Over Time,” http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/interactives/multiracial-timeline/ 

  9. Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790–1860 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 156. 

  10. “Use of the Word ‘Negro’: A Discussion at the Session of the Colored Educators,” The Sun, July 27, 1894; Minutes of the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth, Session of 1894, Held at Baltimore, Maryland, July 24, 25, 26, 27, 1894. (Baltimore, MD: The Association, 1895), https://www.loc.gov/item/90898290/

  11. Ibid. 

  12. “Voters Choosing Word ‘Negro’ in Lead in First Week’s Balloting: Here is How the Vote Stands,” Afro-American, February 27, 1932. 

  13. The frequency and evident changes in the use of racial terminology by the Sun and Afro-American newspapers are based on a review of searches in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database for variations on relevant terms, e.g. "Colored woman," "Negro man," "Caucasian," or "mulatto." 

  14. Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018), xxii. 

  15. Andor Skotnes, A New Deal for All?: Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 3–4.