Rodricks: Breaking monuments, breaking silence

I return to Matthew Crenson’s new history of Baltimore, and my discussions with him on the Roughly Speaking podcast, because of a point he made about this city and race: We do not like to talk about it. Never did.

Starting in the Colonial period, Baltimoreans mostly avoided the subject, let it slide, never really confronted it, until it blew up in their faces more than 100 years after the Civil War, with the riots of 1968.

Baltimoreans of the early 19th century “seldom spoke of slavery, but when the subject came up, it did not provoke much strife,” Crenson writes in “Baltimore: A Political History,” published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press. “The limited and subdued character of discussions of this delicate topic may have been suited to the city’s position on the frontier between slave and free states.”

Baltimore’s identity as — depending on your view — the northernmost Southern city or the southernmost Northern city offers part of the explanation. Crenson speculates on another: “Perhaps Baltimore’s connection with the West did as much to mute the town’s deliberations about race as its position between North and South. The western grain trade, the foundation of the city’s [early] prosperity, linked Baltimore to a region where slavery was relatively unimportant. ... Some Baltimore-owned ships carried tobacco to England, but the city had no substantial economic stake in the slave-based culture of tobacco growers.”

Crenson notes that, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Baltimore had Quaker abolitionists, but they were relatively quiet and coexisted — and even did business with — members of the city’s pro-slavery patrician class. And slavery in its harshest form was generally out of sight. “The local conditions of servitude,” Crenson writes, “allowed considerably more autonomy to slaves than they could exercise on the tobacco plantations of Southern Maryland.”

Frederick Douglass, for instance, worked as a ship’s caulker in Fells Point; his master collected his weekly pay. “I endured all the evils of being a slave,” he later wrote, “and yet suffered all the care and anxiety of a responsible freeman.”

In 1861, a deadly clash on Pratt Street between a pro-Southern mob and a regiment of Massachusetts volunteers resulted in the first bloodshed of the Civil War, and federal troops occupied the city for the next four years.

When the war ended and freed slaves came north, they found in Baltimore a black community with well-established churches and charitable organizations. It was a segregated city, of course, made officially so in the early 20th century by municipal ordinance.

Later, after World War II, intra-city migrations started and soon accelerated, followed by the great white flight to the suburbs, followed by decades of deindustrialization, population loss, the concentration of poverty, and the Baltimore we see today: A majority-African-American city of great potential and stubborn problems, still recovering from the seismic economic and social changes of the last 50 years.

While the death of Freddie Gray provoked conversations about race in Baltimore life, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s decision to remove the city’s Confederacy-venerating monuments seems to have cracked further Crenson’s portrait of the tight-lipped, look-the-other way Baltimorean. Maybe once and for all.

When the woman who cuts your hair is talking about it, you know something important has happened. I even had a good talk about it the other day with a descendant of two men from Georgia who died in the Civil War.

For the last week — and more so since the night raids Tuesday on the bronze likenesses of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Roger B. Taney — Baltimoreans, Marylanders and people across country have done almost nothing but talk about the nation’s original sin, and the war that was fought to maintain it.

In social media, particularly, there has been a rush to gather the facts and share them and use them to counter the revisionists. We are not erasing history, we’re studying and appreciating it again. I hope it lasts.

Since arriving in Baltimore and first seeing the city’s monuments to the Confederacy 40 years ago, I always wondered what they were doing here — especially the statue of Taney, author of the Supreme Court’s racist Dred Scott decision. I never understood why Baltimore, or any city that considered itself part of the United States of America, would have such a grand public honor for men who supported a war against their own country, and for an evil purpose.

Well, goodbye to all that.

I hesitate to declare a watershed moment for this city, our state or our country, but, in some important respects, we might have reached one by way of Charlottesville. And President Donald J. Trump’s appalling reaction to that tragic event might have stirred awake the good people of this city, this state and this country to confront our past, understand what it made us, break from that and get to work on a better future.

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