A dark tour through one of Baltimore’s ugliest chapters of slavery – Baltimore Sun
There is no evidence at Oriole Park in Camden Yards that people have been sold to the site. In 1858, Joseph S. Donovan, one of Baltimore’s leading slave traders, built a slave pen near the southwest corner of Eutaw and Camden streets. According to a 1936 Sun article, it was one of a dozen private slave prisons downtown, which held enslaved people, suspected runaways, and kidnapped free blacks. Many, eventually, were forced to board ships for a final passage to the Deep South.
The United States banned the importation of enslaved Africans in 1808, but domestic sales of human beings increased after the War of 1812. Baltimore, a major port and shipbuilding center, was a pioneer in the coastal trade in human goods. When Maryland farmers switched from labor-intensive tobacco to wheat, corn, oats and other grains, they realized their surplus workers were a valuable commodity. At the same time, cotton, sugar cane and rice plantations developed in the Lower South. Traders operated near the port of Baltimore, shipping their human cargo to large markets in places like New Orleans.
Seeing what no longer exists is an arduous task. The footprints once left in the dirt streets by the coffles – mournful processions of enslaved men in chains, followed by women and children – have disappeared. Only a ghostly imprint remains etched in the ground we cross today.
Today’s recreational waterfront bordering Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Fells Point consisted of commercial docks 200 years ago. Usually under cover of darkness, the blacks were driven from the pens to the docks, where they were crammed into the holds of the brigs with the cargo. Historian Jennie K. Williams estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people were sold as part of the domestic slave trade on the coast between Baltimore and New Orleans from 1818 to the Civil War, based on her analysis manifests of inbound slaves to the port of New Orleans and other documents. .
Trade was an integral part of the booming economy of the pre-war South. “Money for Negroes!” advertised in newspapers, including The Sun. The average price for an enslaved person during the pre-war period was around $400, according to “Historical United States Statistics”. Today’s dollar equivalent is around $14,500, although Williams cautions against viewing slaves as slave traders: “Human beings should never have had a price in the first place.”
Austin Woolfolk, the Chesapeake area’s first large-scale coastal slave trader, purchased a white frame house in 1821 on the north side of Pratt Street, just west of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. . An account published in Genius of Universal Emancipation, an abolitionist journal, describes: “The little barred windows of his prison at the back – the chains, the irons and the miserable objects of suffering hidden there, make one’s blood run cold with horror. . By building the city’s first private slave prison, Woolfolk created the business model for storing human goods before they were shipped.
Woolfolk made at least 71 human expeditions between 1818 and 1846, delivering more than 2,600 slaves to New Orleans, according to available manifestos analyzed by historian Ralph Clayton in his 2002 book, “Cash for Blood: The Baltimore to New Orleans Domestic Slave Trade”. “In 1843, Joseph Donovan purchased Woolfolk’s pen and operated there before building new slave pens on Camden Street near Light Street, roughly where the Hyatt Regency stands today, and later at Camden and Eutaw streets. The Woolfolk slave prison site is now a small park with several tent encampments for the homeless.
Another slave trader, Hope Hull Slatter, boasted in Sun advertisements of his “light and airy” slave prison when it opened in 1838 on the north side of West Pratt Street, just east of Howard Street. Other traders could house their slaves in his “establishment” for 25 cents a day. At the rear of the high-walled prison, a bloodhound chained near an iron door helped deter escapes, according to accounts in “Cash for Blood”. Before selling his prison to Bernard Moore Campbell in 1848, Slatter sold over 2,500 slaves. The Pratt Street slave pen was liberated by Union troops in 1863. A blacksmith freed the anklets that bound pairs of men together.
Other successful local traders included John N. Denning and James Franklin Purvis. Denning operated a compound at 104 N. Exeter St., behind what is now the main U.S. Post Office on Fayette Street in Jonestown, and at 18 S. Frederick St., just north of the present memorial of the ‘Holocaust. Purvis’ slave prison, behind his residence at 1225 Harford Ave. in what is now Oliver’s neighborhood, was further away. Like other private slave prison sites in Baltimore, no trace remains of Purvis’ house and pen. Purvis is an example of a slave trader who used his profits to grow into a respectable business, becoming president of the Howard Bank of Baltimore in the mid-1850s. She is unrelated to the Howard Bank founded in Ellicott City in 2004.
Baltimore’s largest coastal traders — Woolfolk, Slatter, Donovan and Campbell — together owned seven out of 10 slaves transported from Baltimore to New Orleans, according to Williams. They weren’t above kidnapping free blacks, who in 1830 made up four-fifths of Baltimore’s black population. Traders also frequented the city jail, looking for unclaimed captured runaways or arrested free blacks.
The business underpinned every aspect of Baltimore’s economy and society, but the history of the local slave trade has been largely erased. The wealth accumulated by Donovan, who sold over 2,200 slaves, funded the philanthropy of his widow, Caroline Donovan. She donated $100,000—more than $3 million in today’s dollars—to Johns Hopkins University in 1885. The first endowed chair at the university was the Caroline Donovan Chair in English Literature. A towering mausoleum for the Donovans sits on a hill in Green Mount Cemetery.
Although few physical signs remain of the slave trade where it was carried out, there is an official state historical marker, placed by the Maryland Historical Trust outside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in 2009 .
A $20,000 grant from the Baltimore National Heritage Area, managed by the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage Area Association Inc., funds the development of a mobile app and touchscreen kiosk at Historic President Station Street which will include slave trade sites. Robert Reyes, vice president of the non-profit organization Friends of President Street Station, hopes the tour highlighting abolition and Underground Railroad sites, which will open in mid-summer, will be “a bridge builder for today’s relationships”.
At Camden Yards, Maryland Stadium Authority executive director Michael Frenz said the authority had not been approached to add a historic sign.
“It is horrifying to learn that chapters of the darker part of our nation’s history have taken place in the complex, a place you associate with lighter types of entertainment. There are several historical plaques in and around of the complex,” Frenz said. “Marking the history of the complex before the stadium was here is definitely something we are in favor of. We would probably consult the Orioles, because they are our partners.
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The baseball team’s senior vice president of community development and communications Jennifer Grondahl agreed, saying the O’s looked forward to “leading the conversation” with “the hope that this and Other historical themes will be incorporated into the design and development of future enhancements.
Another destination better known for entertainment than history lessons is Harborplace, which was acquired in April by Baltimore-based MCB Real Estate. Managing partner P. David Bramble said he was surprised that Baltimore was one of the most important ports for the slave trade.
Bramble, who is black, said it was too early to tell how this might be resolved at Harborplace.
“Our goal is to put out something authentically Baltimore, and I don’t think you can be authentic without leveraging the story. We’re very committed to having a meaningful engagement process with the community and stakeholders to see how they want to see history represented in the redevelopment. Bramble added: “You have to understand what was behind you, but what we do in the future is just as important. I’m an optimist. How do we look? us towards the future?
Philip J. Merrill, Baltimore historian and CEO and founder of Nanny Jack & Co., an African-American heritage consulting firm, said the city’s slave trade past was “a touchy subject,” but which could shed light on the future. With few visible official landmarks on the slave trade, he said, some of this history was taught informally, with stories passed down from generation to generation.
If “we could look at our enslavement from a different angle…we could be filled with perseverance and a sense of pride. Slavery, which is in the DNA of our ancestors, is something that should give us strength, determination and the ability to know that we can survive anything.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.