A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920

A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920

by Dennis Patrick Halpin


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In A Brotherhood of Liberty, Dennis Patrick Halpin shifts the focus of the black freedom struggle from the Deep South to argue that Baltimore is key to understanding the trajectory of civil rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1870s and early 1880s, a dynamic group of black political leaders migrated to Baltimore from rural Virginia and Maryland. These activists, mostly former slaves who subsequently trained in the ministry, pushed Baltimore to fulfill Reconstruction's promise of racial equality. In doing so, they were part of a larger effort among African Americans to create new forms of black politics by founding churches, starting businesses, establishing community centers, and creating newspapers. Black Baltimoreans successfully challenged Jim Crow regulations on public transit, in the courts, in the voting booth, and on the streets of residential neighborhoods. They formed some of the nation's earliest civil rights organizations, including the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty, to define their own freedom in the period after the Civil War.

Halpin shows how black Baltimoreans' successes prompted segregationists to reformulate their tactics. He examines how segregationists countered activists' victories by using Progressive Era concerns over urban order and corruption to criminalize and disenfranchise African Americans. Indeed, he argues the Progressive Era was crucial in establishing the racialized carceral state of the twentieth-century United States. Tracing the civil rights victories scored by black Baltimoreans that inspired activists throughout the nation and subsequent generations, A Brotherhood of Liberty highlights the strategies that can continue to be useful today, as well as the challenges that may be faced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812251395
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 07/12/2019
Series: America in the Nineteenth Century
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 805,978
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dennis Patrick Halpin teaches history at Virginia Tech.

Read an Excerpt


In 1870 most Baltimoreans did not need reminders of how much their city had changed. Over the course of the previous decade, residents had experienced the end of slavery and witnessed the Confederacy's final days. Nonetheless, on 19 May African Americans powerfully demonstrated just how different life was going to be following Emancipation. On "one of the brightest day[s] of the season," black Baltimoreans organized an "imposing procession" to celebrate the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. The demonstrators marched through the heart of downtown along Baltimore Street, laying symbolic claim to the city their labor helped construct. All along the parade route, observers and participants filled city streets while women and children crowded into doors and windows to view the spectacle. In total, an estimated twenty thousand participated in and witnessed the procession. The parade included laborers, bands, community leaders, and beneficial associations. Many hoisted banners, some with blunt political messages reflecting the dawning of a new era. One marcher carried a portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, the face of Radical Republicanism, with a caption that read, "No government can be free that does not allow all its citizens to participate in the formation and the execution of her laws." A wagon transported a printing press that reproduced handbills of the Fifteenth Amendment, advertised the Freedman's Savings Bank, and promised that black Baltimoreans would cast their first ballots "for the radical ticket."

Frederick Douglass, Maryland's native son, abolitionist, and a hero to many black Americans, capped the day's festivities. Douglass delivered a speech in Monument Square, in the shadow of the "Lady Baltimore" statue, which commemorated those who died defending the city in the War of 1812. He began by acknowledging the tremendous changes that had transpired during his lifetime. "When we remember how slavery was interlinked with all our institutions," Douglass remarked, "it is amazing that to-day we witness this demonstration. When toiling on the plantation we slaves desired to talk of emancipation," he recalled, "but there stood the overseer and a word would ensure a flogging. To talk about emancipation without being discovered we invented a vocabulary," he continued, "and when the overseer thought we were talking of the most simple thing we were really speaking of emancipation but in a way that was Greek to him." Now Douglass stood in the city of his youth, flanked by thousands of African Americans, some proudly brandishing firearms and openly discussing ways to shape the future that freedom promised. Subterfuge was no longer necessary; times had changed indeed.

That afternoon, Douglass promised that African Americans would continue to strive for full equality. Blending history and prognostication, he told the crowd that African Americans first received the "cartridge box" shortly followed by the "ballot box." "Next we want the jury box," Douglass exclaimed, "While the negro hating element sits in the jury box the colored man's welfare is insecure and we demand that he be represented in the halls of justice." Douglass challenged African Americans to ensure that future generations prospered. "Educate your sons and daughters," he advised his audience, "Send them to school and show that besides the cartridge box, the ballot box and the jury box you have also the knowledge box." Douglass proved to be prescient. For the next fifty years, African Americans in Baltimore and throughout the country would battle to obtain equal access to Douglass's boxes.

A Brotherhood of Liberty documents a crucial chapter in the history of the long black freedom struggle: African American activism in Baltimore in the half century following Douglass's impassioned speech at Monument Square. With the end of the Civil War, Baltimore became the epicenter of civil rights activism in the United States as black Baltimoreans built on the work of antebellum-era activists to forge the contours of their freedom. Throughout the Reconstruction era, black Baltimoreans initiated lawsuits to battle segregation, fought for labor rights, and pressured politicians to live up to the country's founding ideals. Activists pushed the city and state to offer equal access to public education, and when they refused, black Baltimoreans built their own network of schools. Barred from participating in state and local politics until the early 1870s, black Baltimoreans also built connections with African Americans outside of the state, forming some of the earliest civil rights groups in the nation.

During the 1880s, black Baltimoreans refused to allow the country to retreat from Reconstruction's promises of racial equality. Led by Rev. Harvey Johnson, a dynamic, uncompromising leader, a new group of activists sustained the fight for civil rights. This time, however, they did so with greater sophistication and organization. Johnson formed the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty, the first civil rights organization in Baltimore and one of the first in the country, to direct an unceasing battle against racial inequality. The organization used the courts and coordinated community protests to challenge Supreme Court decisions that hastened the advent of Jim Crow, expanded educational opportunities to black children, opened the bar to black attorneys, and defended laborers re-enslaved on a Caribbean island by a US-based company.

Although short-lived, the Brotherhood of Liberty placed Baltimore's activists at the forefront of the fight for racial equality and left behind important legacies. Locally, the men and women who participated in its campaigns blunted the impact of Baltimore's and Maryland's most egregious forms of racial discrimination. Throughout these years, hundreds, if not thousands, of black Baltimoreans supported and participated in the Brotherhood's rallies and protests. The Brotherhood, despite its name, welcomed women as participants and supporters. It engaged in coordinated acts of civil disobedience and articulated an expansive program that included labor and education rights as central components of its vision for racial equality.

Unfortunately, extant records present an incomplete picture of the Brotherhood's rank and file as well as its motivations. Although black Baltimoreans published many newspapers in the 1880s, none has survived the passage of time. White-owned newspapers reported on black activism but often did not provide names or attempt to explain how African Americans understood events in the city. The white press also filtered their perceptions of black activism through their own racism and prejudices. The surviving sources, therefore, present a limited but rich history. Newspaper articles (including coverage from the emerging black press) published tracts and books, and court transcripts demonstrate the ways that the Brotherhood pushed civil rights activism in new directions. These sources provide insights into the Brotherhood's goals, but they often only hint at the rank and file's motivations and the extent of the group's planning.

Better records exist for the Brotherhood's leadership. In addition to Harvey Johnson, the other leaders of the group became well known in activist circles. The Brotherhood trained some of the city's most important activists. Rev. William M. Alexander, one of the group's founding members, led local campaigns that defeated disfranchisement efforts in Maryland on three separate occasions in the early twentieth century. Others had an impact locally and nationally. Joseph S. Davis, one of the group's lawyers, fought for education rights and defended re-enslaved laborers on Navassa. He also used his experience with the Brotherhood to push T. Thomas Fortune's Afro-American League, one of the earliest national civil rights organizations, to pursue a legal path to combat inequality. W. Ashbie Hawkins managed numerous legal efforts to secure greater civil rights. Although largely forgotten today, he served as one of the Niagara Movement's attorneys and became one of the first to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Black Baltimoreans' triumphs stopped the advance of Jim Crow at Maryland's border and demonstrated to the nation the efficacy of legal challenges to racial inequality.

The accomplishments of Baltimore's activist community are even more impressive when considering the obstacles they faced. The tensions that collided in Baltimore, the largest city in the Border States, reflected the strains felt by the country following the Civil War. Located on the precipice between North and South, Baltimore existed as an urban borderland that offered African Americans both promise and peril. Baltimore emerged from the Civil War as an industrial city with a diverse economy, a government dominated by a Democratic machine, and a rapidly expanding population. Between 1860 and 1880 the total number of Baltimore's residents grew from 212,418 to 332,313. Fueling these changes in demography were the many African Americans who migrated to the city. In 1860 Baltimore's black population stood at 27,898, but by 1880 it had nearly doubled to 53,715, making the city home to the second-largest black population in the country, trailing only New Orleans.

While Baltimore seemed northern in some respects, it also exhibited marked southern traits. Baltimore was a place that had exploited slave labor until Emancipation. The city's slave population was small by the 1860s, accounting for approximately 1 percent of its total population, but the institution's legal status exerted a disproportionate influence. For Alfred J. Pairpoint, a Londoner who visited the United States in the mid-1850s, arriving in Baltimore from Boston made him feel as if he had been "transported to some unknown land." "In fact," Pairpoint remarked, "there is a very great contrast between this city and New York, Boston, and other towns in the Northern States, where the heavy labour is chiefly performed by the Irish." Not surprisingly, many residents and government officials held strong sympathies with the Confederacy, which continued to influence politics well after the Civil War ended.

The collision of these circumstances in the borderland pushes us to reconsider the stories that focus on Reconstruction's rise and fall in the Deep South. It is tempting to envision the Border States as the moderate middle ground between the Union and the Confederacy. The reality, however, was that many of the divisions and political conflicts tearing apart the United States existed in concentrated form in the Border States. Because the Border States had not seceded, the federal government did not oversee Reconstruction in Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware as it did in the former Confederacy.

Without the presence of federal troops, African Americans were even more vulnerable to the depredation of southern redeemers intent on limiting the prospects of racial equality. This discrepancy of circumstance was not lost on contemporaries who felt that conditions in the Border States were worse than in the former Confederacy. A reporter for the Christian Recorder, an African American newspaper published in Philadelphia, observed in 1866 that "it is now, as it was during the war—the Border States are a hindrance. . . . South Carolina is, today, ahead of Maryland, as she has repealed her black laws; but Maryland has not yet done so." These tensions persisted in the Border States throughout the Reconstruction era. On the eve of the Fifteenth Amendment's ratification in 1870, the New York Times reported that "in no part of the Union has society been more convulsed, or has it taken longer for the turbulent elements to become tranquil. As they were the main campaigning grounds in war," the Times continued, "so in peace the political cauldron has in them seethed with greatest fury."

In Maryland, Reconstruction faltered years before the federal government abandoned it. The lack of federal oversight allowed Confederate sympathizers in Maryland to effectively end any attempts at Reconstruction less than two years after the Confederacy's defeat. The state's white political leaders engaged in a protracted struggle that culminated in 1866 when Democrats seized power through a bloodless coup. With little opposition remaining, Democrats essentially returned Maryland to its prewar status quo, with the notable exception that all African Americans were free. Unlike states farther south, Maryland did not experience an extended period of Republican rule, nor did black Marylanders obtain political office immediately following the Civil War. Hugh Lennox Bond, a judge and Radical Republican from Baltimore, lamented at the time that "in Maryland [African Americans'] only safeguard is the sense of justice and of religious obligation of the people." This proved to be an insufficient defense. Maryland's political leaders refused to enfranchise black men and did not ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Princeton historian William Starr Myers contended that Maryland "Self-Reconstructed." For Myers, Maryland's immediate post-Civil War years were a triumphant story of southern redemption that arrived years before other areas of the South violently overthrew Reconstruction. His account largely excluded African Americans, who only appeared as problems that white Marylanders needed to solve. His erasure of African Americans, while typical of histories written in the period, still lingers in our collective amnesia of black Baltimoreans' struggle for equality.

In many respects, the lack of federal oversight limited the possibilities open to black Baltimoreans. Without the benefit of federal protection, black Baltimoreans forged their own future in a politically turbulent state as hostile to civil rights as those in the Deep South. Nevertheless, African Americans fought prolonged battles with the state to fashion a black self-reconstruction of Maryland that sought to obtain the boxes Douglass outlined in his speech celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment. Their efforts shaped Maryland's post-Civil War society in profound ways. Black Baltimoreans chipped away at the state's remaining black laws and fought segregation. They organized themselves, created strategies, and implemented them piece by piece. In many cases, this occurred at the same historical moment when national leaders, including T. Thomas Fortune, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. DuBois, were formulating their own strategies to fight racial inequality. This was not the much-discussed "nadir" or "Age of Accommodation" for African Americans in Baltimore. Instead, it was a period of intense and protracted activism. The work that black Baltimoreans accomplished inspired national African American civil rights organizations including the Afro-American League, the Niagara Movement, and the NAACP, which were founded on the heels and the blueprints of black Baltimoreans' successes.

Chapter 1 examines how black Baltimoreans created their own "self-reconstruction" of Maryland in the face of racial oppression. Black Baltimoreans were determined to protect themselves and secure their newly promised rights. With the political process still closed to them, they built on the protest tradition of African Americans in the antebellum era but refashioned these tactics to fit Maryland's post-Emancipation reality. Black Baltimoreans used changes in federal law to challenge the state's black codes in courts, expanded the network of community schools established during the antebellum era, and organized labor unions. Others built community-based businesses, such as the Chesapeake Marine, Railway and Dry Dock Company, a black-owned shipyard that ensured African Americans could obtain employment in a racially stratified market. African American activists also looked beyond state lines to shape their freedom. They helped organize groups such as the Border States Convention, one of the first post-Emancipation black political meetings, which drew together representatives from various states to appeal to the federal government for support.

Activists left a legacy that subsequent generations used as a foundation to continue the push for racial equality. Chapters 2 and 3 analyze the intense debates conducted by black Baltimoreans over the direction of civil rights initiatives in the 1880s and early 1890s. This period is crucial in the history of African American reform movements as communities across the United States clashed over the scope, direction, and strategies for addressing racial inequalities following Reconstruction's formal demise in 1877. In Baltimore, these heated debates precipitated a leadership shift that had profound repercussions in the city for the next forty years. By 1885, a younger generation wrested control from community leaders who had come to prominence at the end of the Civil War. This ascendant group of activists was the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty. A forerunner to the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, the Brotherhood pursued equality through the courts, broadened the city's activist community, and included women in the fight against racial injustice and inequality.

While activists scored impressive victories over racial injustice, the early successes of the black freedom struggle in Baltimore hit substantial roadblocks by the mid-1890s. Scholars have documented how formal Jim Crow restrictions fit comfortably into progressive ideas that viewed interracial contact as dangerous. They have paid comparatively less attention to how Progressive Era concerns with public order and political corruption changed understandings of race in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Baltimore, efforts to instill public order and end political corruption, touted as progressive reforms, paved the way for institutionalizing racism in policing, government, and real estate.

The advent of the racialized carceral state became the lynchpin of Progressive Era segregation that restructured race relations both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line long into the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, segregationists across the United States connected concerns over crime, political corruption, and public order with race to criminalize African Americans. Citizens, politicians, justices, and the press called for the systematic surveillance and arrest of African Americans. As a result, African Americans congregating on the streets, in leisure spaces, and on public transportation came under intensive scrutiny. Interacting with whites (especially white women) posed an increased possibility of police harassment, arrest, and imprisonment. The rhetorical linkage of race and criminality became so widely disseminated by the 1910s that segregationists no longer had to explicitly draw these connections.

The triumph of these ideas in the public's imagination changed the trajectory of the black freedom struggle in Baltimore. The book's fourth chapter analyzes the public debates between African Americans and segregationists over the issue of crime, a turning point in the history of race relations in the city. Beginning in the mid-1890s, police, citizens, politicians, magistrates, and the press blamed African Americans for rising crime rates in the city. By connecting race and crime, segregationists discredited African Americans as citizens, restricted their mobility, left them vulnerable to police harassment, and subjected them to longer prison sentences. Politicians across the state used the fear of "negro disorder" and "rowdyism" to change the course of politics in the state. In 1899 Democrats cited the alleged increase in black criminality in their campaign to reclaim power in Maryland during the waning years of the nineteenth century. Their campaign to make Baltimore a "white man's city" traded in stock images of African American criminals who threatened public order and benefited from political favors. This strategy paid dividends as Democrats connected race, crime, and political corruption to regain power across the state. Once in office, they wasted little time inaugurating the Jim Crow era in the Old Line State. African American activists fought these characterizations throughout the period. Although they had ample evidence to contradict these specious claims, black Baltimoreans could not match the exposure that the city's white press and politicians provided segregationists.

The book's final chapters analyze two of the immediate fallouts of Baltimore's Democratic redemption and the widespread public acceptance of connections between race and crime. Chapter 5 examines African Americans' fight to defeat multiple disfranchisement efforts in the early twentieth century, which Democrats sold as a corrective to rising crime rates and political malfeasance. Using a combination of political agitation, educational initiatives, boycotts, and voter registration drives, black Baltimoreans led a statewide effort to retain the franchise. In doing so, African Americans across the state became part of a coalition, including immigrants, Republicans, and disaffected Democrats, who defeated racially based voting restrictions in 1904, 1909, and 1911.

The book's concluding chapter analyzes African Americans' struggle against Baltimore's segregation ordinances, the first attempt to legalize residential segregation in the United States. The chapter focuses on the streets of Baltimore's racial frontiers and the black-led courtroom challenges to the law. The movement to impose residential segregation was both promulgated and opposed at the grass roots. An examination of street-level battles in Baltimore illuminates the violence and racism that were central to the push for legalized segregation. It also reveals a fuller picture of black resistance in the period. Black Baltimoreans contested segregation by continuously defying the law and moving into blocks that the city categorized as "white." Others built on the legacy of black reformers in the 1880s and 1890s. Activists, led by W. Ashbie Hawkins, successfully challenged the legislation on multiple occasions in the nation's courts, before the Supreme Court ultimately ruled residential segregation unconstitutional.

While this book focuses on African American activism, it also reveals important insights into the resilience of white supremacy and segregation, as well as its connection to reform initiatives. As recent scholars have illustrated, Jim Crow was in constant flux due to African American activism and resistance. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, segregationists constantly shifted strategies to counter black claims of equality. Maryland segregationists repeatedly resorted to undemocratic measures to curtail African Americans' ability to vote and challenge laws in the courts. Segregationists used Progressive Era concerns with crime and order to connect African Americans with political corruption. Politicians passed laws that limited black Baltimoreans' ability to move and live in sections of the city without risking violence and police harassment. As the case of Baltimore demonstrates, Jim Crow's power did not reside solely in its ability to codify racial separation or restrict the franchise. Each effort to institute Jim Crow—whether through voting restrictions or housing segregation—taught residents lessons about race and validated racial fears. Even with a strong, active, and successful community of civil rights activists, Baltimore became a city wracked by racial violence, marked by segregation, and burdened with an inequitable criminal justice system.

While scholars have found much to celebrate in the Progressive Era's push to democratize the country, segregationists used some of their concerns toward undemocratic ends. If we are to celebrate the Progressive Era's democratic initiatives, we must include the voices of African Americans. Despite considerable perils, Baltimore's black community battled on the front lines to define Reconstruction's legacy and achieve full racial equality during a profoundly dangerous period. Their efforts not only saved their own rights but also preserved democracy for all Marylanders. A Brotherhood of Liberty demonstrates that what was radical about the decades following the Civil War was not the white middle-class reform agenda but rather the audacity of African American activists.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. African Americans' Struggle to Define Freedom on the Border
Chapter 2. Rebuilding a Radical African American Activist Foundation
Chapter 3. The Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty and New Directions in Black Activism
Chapter 4. The Creation of Baltimore's Racialized Criminal Justice System
Chapter 5. "The Wave of Disfranchising Deviltry Has Gone to Its Utmost Northern Limits"
Chapter 6. "The Struggle for Land and Liberty"


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