These new [black] voters were Republicans. The Democrats in the state weren't going to let this kind of political power go on. What was the quickest way to nip it?
All blacks had been able to vote since 1870, but in 1908, the Maryland General Assembly passed an amendment to the Annapolis city charter. Among other things, it said city residents had to have $500 worth of property in order to vote — and that you, your father or your grandfather had to have been eligible to vote on Jan. 1, 1868.
Well, the only people who could vote on that date were white! Suddenly all but about 100 of the 800 voting blacks in town were disenfranchised. This was never taught in white history.
Some important lawyers, including Charles Bonaparte, the secretary of the Navy, took up the case. The Supreme Court heard it in 1913, along with one involving the state of Oklahoma. The court handed down a decision in 1915: "You can't do this. The Constitution forbids it."
Did that whole idea originate within city government?
The city council minutes make no mention of it. I couldn't find the back story. I tried.
Did the injustice have lasting effects?
This is just my opinion — I don't touch on it much in the book — but we have racial prejudice in this town even today, and I believe some of it can be traced to that era. People get their history from their grandmothers. It permeates. And I believe 1908 is part of the collective genetic memory of the African-American community, more so even than [Butler's election] in 1873.
How has that kind of gap affected previous histories of the city?
What happened was that you've always had two parallel histories. Most who have written history have focused on the white side — often the stories of prominent white men. Mr. Philip L. Brown, who died just recently, wrote a very nice history ("The Other Annapolis," 1991) of black life in town. These [approaches] reflect the kinds of faces the town has wanted to put on itself. One reason I wrote the book was to thread the two together.
What was that process like for you?
It involved weaving more recent scholarship back through the Colonial era and beyond — and exploring both sides of more recent controversies. There were many moments where I ended up thinking, "Wow; these events were taking place at the same time, on parallel tracks." It was fascinating.
The urban renewal movement [1960-1975] exacerbated the divide. Up here around [Clay, Calvert and Larkin streets near West Street] was a neighborhood with a rich African-American culture. There were clubs that drew artists like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. But people were also living in rented properties that lacked floors, running water, heat. This continued right into the 1960s.
City planners built far better public housing units for people, but the buildings were a mile and a half from downtown. There was no public transit. ... I believe those behind [urban renewal] had good intentions, but many in the African-American community are still convinced it was a deliberate effort [to marginalize blacks]. This was all very painful for me to write about.
Annapolis was chartered in 1708, and in the book, you take stock of where things were every 100 years. Here at the beginning of century four, what's the outlook?
Well, one thing has been productive: During the 1960s, Annapolis collectively realized that preserving its history could make it economically viable, and went in that direction. I call it the time Annapolis decided what kind of place it was going to be. There's a lot more interaction between the black and white communities today. But Annapolis is still two cities — three, including the growing Hispanic population.
Things are cyclical, though. Nothing is always on the upswing. We're a city that enjoys looking back, but that doesn't have to mean we're finished, does it?