ABOVE PHOTO: Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
By Renée S. Gordon
“That hereafter, in this state, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: and all persons held to service or labor as slaves are hereby declared free.”
–Article 24 of the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution of 1864
In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, bearing 200 colonists, landed in St. Mary’s City. They were the first permanent European settlers in what would become the state of Maryland and among them was Mathias De Sousa, a black indentured servant. A mere five years later legislation was passed making black servants slaves for life, the one exemption being if they were Christians.
In 1644 even that possibility was removed and laws were added making a white woman wed to a black man a slave until the death of her husband. Though slavery generally flourished in the colonies In Maryland indenture white servitude outpaced black slavery until the end of the 1600s but by the onset of the American Revolution 33 percent of the state’s population was of African descent with 9 of every 10 being born in this country. To begin to understand the state’s African American history it is necessary to visit more than one area because black life, both enslaved and free, was different depending upon the region in which you lived. www.visitmaryland.org
Hampton National Historic Site is an excellent place to begin a journey into the depths of Maryland’s black history because Hampton provides an opportunity to understand the enslaved, indentured workers and free laborers as well as what life was like for the owners and the people of the era. The slave population numbered as high as 500, one of the largest plantations in the state, and employed the enslaved in all capacities. Ironically, the second owner, Gov. Charles Carnan Ridgely, freed as many of his 350 slaves as he could upon his death in 1829, one of the largest such events in Maryland’s history. Slavery however continued until 1864 at Hampton because his son purchased more slaves.
In 1790, when the Georgian mansion was completed, it was the largest private home in the United States and was built as a summer home. It became a National Park site in 1948 based on its architectural significance. There are 16 bedrooms and both Monticello and Mt. Vernon could fit inside the mansion with 4,000-ft. remaining. The home contains 97 percent of the original furnishings and each room interprets the years of a particular owner of one of the seven generations that lived there.
Tours of the mansion and the grounds include the gardens, smokehouse, overseer’s house and two original stone slave quarters. Highlights of the mansion tour are a portrait by African American artist Joshua Johnson*, a rare slave Xmas list, and any of the 45,000 objects in the collection.
Hampton NHS offers several themed tours. I strongly suggest you arrange to take any one of the history tours led by Ranger Angela Roberts-Burton in the persona of Nancy Davis, a house slave and then a post-war servant. This is one of the best historic sites in the state. www.nps.gov/hamp
Many people are unaware that the vast majority of the estimated 11 million African survivors of the Middle Passage were sold into the Caribbean and South America, approximately 650,000 were brought to the colonies prior to the 1807 US ban on the African slave trade. After the trade was declared illegal it continued and Baltimore’s shipbuilders gained infamy as they continued to partially construct ships for the trade that were then completed in a covert location.
More than 10 slave “jails” or pens were located near the harbor in the city. From these sites as many as 30,000 slaves were sold and coffles passed along Pratt Street on their way to ships that would take them further south. Callum’s, one of the most notorious, was situated at Pratt and Howard Streets. US Colored Troops Col. William Birney was among those who freed 33 men, women and babies from a slave pen in July of 1864 and recorded the incident.
Baltimore is so filled with significant sites that an organized, guided tour is a good idea. Renaissance Productions and Tours has created a series of themed tours that are designed to be both comprehensive, informative and entertaining. The guides are historians and tours are supplemented with actors interpreting historical figures at authentic locations. www.renaissanceproductions.biz
The Charm City Circulator, a free trolley that runs throughout the downtown area and along the Inner Harbor is also available. www.charmcitycirculator.com
Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture both sets the tone for an African American history tour and provides an incisive overview into Maryland black history. The museum opened in 2005 and is the 2nd largest African American museum in the world. There are two floors of exhibits with 3 permanent sections and a special exhibition gallery.
The museum relates the stories of both the ordinary black person as well as those of Douglass, Banneker, Tubman, Myers, Henson, etc. A highlight of the tour is the story of Philip Reed, an enslaved foundry worker who supervised the casting, transport and installation of the 5-ton, 19.5-ft, Statue of Freedom that stands atop the US Capitol dome. On March 10 and continuing until June 16, 2013 the museum will feature the “Harriet Tubman Arts Wall Exhibition,” artworks based on her life and influence on subsequent generations. www.rflewismuseum.org
Frederick Douglass presence permeates the city of Baltimore and by some accounts this is where his story truly begins. He was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in 1818 in Easton, Maryland and was soon separated from his mother. He saw her only once thereafter, as a small child, when she visited in the night. In March of 1826 the 8-year old was sent aboard the Sally Lloyd to be a house servant to the Auld’s of Baltimore where he learned to read and write. He was returned to a plantation on the Eastern Shore around 1833 where he labored as a field hand.
PHOTO: Hampton Plantation.
His physical fight with a slave breaker, Edward Covey, and escape attempt resulted in his return to Baltimore at the age of 18 to work as a ship caulker at Fell’s Point. In 1838 he successfully escaped with the help of his future wife Anne Murray in the guise of a free black merchant marine. A Frederick Douglass “Path to Freedom” Walking Tour can be scheduled by appointment for four or more people. The tour is part of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom Program. www.bbhtours.com
During the years of the slave trade Fell’s Point was often used as a dock by slave ships because they wanted to avoid confrontation with the free blacks and anti-slavery forces they might encounter in the Inner Harbor. It was also the area in which Douglass labored and lived alongside numerous other blacks. To commemorate its impact on African American history it was selected in 2012 as the first port in the nation to honor the lives of the millions of Africans who suffered and died during the voyage to this hemisphere by the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project Inc.
Fourteen days after the abolition of slavery in Maryland. Douglass visited Baltimore. He returned to celebrate emancipation with his friends at his former church, Bethel AME. During this trip he tried to visit Sophia Auld, the former owner who taught him to read, but was denied entrance to her Anne Street home by her son.
Twenty-seven years later on a visit Douglass purchased the abandoned 1773 Dallas Street Station Methodist Episcopal Church, razed it and constructed five, 2-story, townhouses on the site as housing for the poor. The Strawberry Alley houses, 516-24, still stand and are indicated by a marble plaque at 520 reading, “Douglass Place.”
The $12-million Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, completed in 2006, is situated on the Fells Point waterfront and interprets the stories of Frederick Douglass, Isaac Myers, the founding of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company and the African American community in Baltimore. The campus consists of a marine railway, shipbuilding facility and 3-story learning center. The center is situated in the former London Coffee House, the oldest extant wharf building in Fells Point. A great photo op on the exterior is a huge bronze head of Douglass. Highlights of the interior tour are a walk-thru gallery filled with dioramas of Douglass life and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to attempt some of the skills needed on the wharf. www.douglassmyers.com
Orchard Street Church dates its founding to 1825 when a West Indian former slave, Truman Le Pratt, instituted prayer meetings in his home on Orchard Street. In 1837 the congregation, both enslaved and freemen, began construction of the church on donated land. They worked at night by torchlight. Additions were made in 1853, 1865 and 1882. The church, a blending of Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles has been restored and is the home of the Greater Baltimore Urban League. The church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and tours include a visit to the subbasement where a cistern and a portion of a tunnel that took you 150-ft. away from the church are visible. The building is the oldest constructed by blacks in the city
One of my favorite Baltimore stops will always be the USS Constellation, built as the US Navy’s last all-sail ship and launched in 1854. The ship served as the flagship of the African Squadron from 1859 to 1861 and was assigned to patrol the Congo River region and intercept ships engaging in the illegal slave trade. The Constellation was responsible for capturing 14 ships and liberating 705 men, women and children. This is the only Civil War era ship still afloat and tours are offered. www.constellation.org
The Baltimore Civil War Museum at President Street Station is one of the most under-rated historic treasures in the city. Baltimore was a major rail hub and over its rails passed freedom seekers including Douglas, Henry “Box” Brown, and William and Ellen Craft as well as the body of John Brown.
The museum is small but filled with displays and exhibits based on antebellum and Civil War events. Visitors can climb into a replica of the box Henry Brown shipped himself to Philadelphia inside.
On April 19, 1861 the 6th Massachusetts, on their way to guard Washington, DC, was forced to walk across Baltimore to this station to change trains. Secessionists attacked them, a riot ensued, and 4 soldiers and 12 citizens were killed. A mural inside depicts the scene of the riot. www.mdhs.org
Dr. Elmer and Joanne Martin established Great Blacks in Wax Museum in 1983 as the sole black wax museum in the country. Today they have expanded to a 10,000-sq.-ft facility displaying more than 100 historic figures in dioramas interpreting the black experience from Africa to the present. This is Baltimore’s premier African American historic site and it is not to be missed. Tours begin in the lobby with Hannibal astride an elephant and continue to the interior galleries. The signature exhibits are a replica of the hold of a slave ship and a life-sized sculpture of President Obama. The main galleries are on two floors and there is a special lynching exhibit on the lower level not for the faint of heart. www.greatblacksinwax.org
In May of 2007 the Maryland Legislature signed Senate Joint Resolution 6 and House Resolution 4. The legislation acknowledged the state’s “regret for the role Maryland played in instituting and maintaining slavery.”
Maryland does a wonderful job of interpreting African American history and all the planning tools needed to organize a visit are available online. We began in Baltimore and next week we will continue to “look back in wonder” at the complex history and historic locations connected with the black presence.
I wish you smooth travels!
*Between 1765 and 1832, Joshua Johnson was the first noted African American portrait artist in the country.
The annual Lewes Polar Beach Plunge, to benefit Delaware Special Olympics, will take place on Sunday, February 3, 2013. Last year 3,685 participants raised more than $650,000 by cavorting in the frigid Atlantic Ocean. If you opt to do more than view you can register and plan your plunge online. www.plungede.com
The B&O Railroad Museum will open an exhibit on African Americans in the railroad industry for the entire month of February. www.borail.org
From February 1, 2013–March 1, 2014 Geppi’s Entertainment Museum will showcase “Milestones: African Americans in Comics, Pop Culture and Beyond.” www.geppismuseum.com