Baltimore: How did we come to this?

My hometown of Baltimore was not always the gritty, drug-infested, poverty-ridden, primarily African-American town portrayed in the HBO series “The Wire” and now the focus of media attention due to recent race riots. Once upon a time it was a thriving seaport with a diverse population.

In the mid-19th century there were more free blacks in Baltimore than slaves, even though Maryland began the Civil War as a slave state.  They lived and worked among white Americans and German and Irish immigrants. The mingling of the races in this way was unique to the country in its day.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and spent his young formative years in Baltimore. “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity,” said Douglass in later years (PBS).

After the Civil War Baltimore endured Jim Crow laws like a lot of southern states, but still had a thriving African American culture. Morgan State University was founded shortly after the war. The city had vibrant black churches which were active in early civil rights advocacy.

The Baltimore black community produced Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and famous musicians such as Eubie Blake and Billie Holiday in the mid 20th century.

Prior to the 20th century, distinct black neighborhoods did not exist in Baltimore. It was economic trends which transformed the city during the last century.

The advent of the steel industry created a mass migration to Baltimore. In addition to the immigration of white Europeans, Baltimore received many southern blacks who were fleeing Jim Crow and looking for s better life.

By 1950 the city was the 6th largest in the United States. Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point was a unionized employer providing a good living for its workers. However, like the rest of the country, Baltimore’s manufacturing base spiraled downward in the last part of the 20th century.

The demographics of the city began to change because of this and  because of racial polarization incited by greedy real estate brokers. Seeking to make a quick buck, they inspired fear and racial animosities among Baltimore’s white population.

These people sold cheap and moved to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1970 the black population of Baltimore doubled. Then middle class blacks left. So in the last half of the 20th century the city went from two-thirds white to two-thirds black.

Not only did the wealthier people leave, but the businesses did as well.  According to the report “Putting Baltimore’s People First”, it is not race that defines the city now:

“Between 1990 and 2000, the number of African-Americans living in the City declined for the first time, while the most recent census report shows a decline in Baltimore’s black population roughly equal to that of its white population. Now, after decades of population drain, the characteristic that defines the City’s polarization from the suburbs is not race, but economic class.”

What is left in place of industrial jobs in Baltimore is low paying service jobs.

Thus, my hometown is only a microcosm of what has happened in America since World War II in the social and economic spheres. I would add, however, that Baltimore is also a hotbed of political corruption and elects poor self-serving leaders.

Current mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is under fire for her statement this week that her administration gave “space” to those who wished to destroy things in the city. How did Ms. Blake get her job? She replaced Sheila Dixon, the first female mayor of Baltimore and third African-American to hold the post.

Ms. Dixon was forced out due to felonies which included stealing funds meant for the poor.

But African-American leaders in the  Baltimore area are just following a long history of corruption and malfeasance perpetrated by their white predecessors. Historian George Calcott has noted that between 1962 and 1979 two governors, two congressmen, a Speaker of the House of Delegates, eight members of the General Assembly and 14 major state and county officials were indicted. Most of these “statesmen” were from the Baltimore area.

Not to be outdone, current politicos have tried to surpass their 1970s colleagues. The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported in 2012:

“For the past three years, Maryland has experienced an unprecedented crime wave of political corruption. The only comparable period in memory would be the 1970s, when a governor was jailed and a sitting U.S. vice president (who had served as governor and Baltimore County executive) resigned in shame. The current offenders have been high-ranking elected officials, and the offenses have been far more serious than simple lapses in judgment. They have involved a level of hubris and ethical depravity that are shocking by any standard.”

Is it any wonder the people of Baltimore have had enough/  Trust in government is gone. The  city has had several generations of rottenness at the top and the poor have been defrauded.

I liken the plight of the poor of Baltimore to that of the Palestinians. The people have been in refugee camps since Israel became a nation in 1948.

The Economist  in 2013 interviewed a Palestinian psychologist. It reported this:

“It’s been too long,” says Mahmoud Subuh, a psychologist in Balata, where the population of 28,000 is crammed into a square kilometre of squat housing. “People don’t even dream any more” of returning to their old homes, he says.

The magazine added, “After 65 years as the fount of anger sustaining the struggle, the camps have degenerated into wretched inner-city ghettoes”

It also maintained that the people are victims of the Israelis and the Palestinian authorities, both which view the aforementioned camp “as nests of gun-runners, drug-traffickers and car thieves.”

A botched Israeli raid killed three refugees and wounded 17 in a raid of a camp near Jerusalem that year, the Economist said. The Palestinian Authority also killed a refugee making arrests in Balata at the time.

Sound familiar?

Somehow, some way the people have to get their rights back and throw the scoundrels out. Perhaps it will start with the African American churches in Baltimore.

Watching television today I saw where one pastor was front and center decrying the violence. The average citizen was also out on the Baltimore streets cleaning up the mess made by street thugs.

It’s time people like this really make themselves heard. I’m afraid once the media barrage is over Baltimore will go back to business as usual. Let’s hope not. Now’s the opportunity for the average Baltimoron to make a difference in their city and change things for good.

It won’t be easy because the corrupt politicians and business people are entrenched. But great leaders have emerged in the past in such circumstances. Hopefully Baltimore will find theirs.

For further reading:

Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance

By John T. Willis, Herbert C. Smith


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