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Baltimore's true identity: black history

A new vision for our city in the 21st century is sorely lacking from the discourse in the Baltimore City mayor's race.

Sure, lowering property taxes is a good idea, but it is not a game changer — even if it could be done without slashing city services. More than fiscal magic, our city yearns for a leader with a strategy for improving Baltimore's image and economic prospects.

We all realize that Baltimore is not a place that people from other states or countries think of as a prime vacation destination. But we could be, one day soon; we just need a leader who can see the way to that economically and culturally vibrant city we have always been meant to be.

It is not pie-eyed optimism to suggest that one good mayor could spark another period of rising prosperity and esteem for Baltimore. We have seen it happen in the not-too-distant past. Just look at how much of what is nice about our city today we owe to the vision and leadership of the late Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Therefore, in the hope of expanding the scope of the current debate, let me suggest to the candidates a good place to start Baltimore's 21st century renewal.

What historical or cultural figure is most prominently associated with Baltimore? Edgar Allan Poe was a truly great writer and maybe even loved our city. But he was also creepy, and mainly moved here to marry his local adolescent cousin. So how did he become the main symbol of our city's civic identity?

I suspect the answer has something to do with race. So many of the greatest true stories in America's political and literary history take place in Baltimore, but visitors from out of town could probably spend weeks here and never suspect they were treading on hallowed ground. But most of these stories come from African-American history, and so earlier generations were not sufficiently proud of them. And this rich legacy continues to be ignored by city officials today, out of general ignorance or simple shortsightedness.

This is the only suitable explanation for why you will still find on Charles Street a statue honoring the author of the worst Supreme Court decision in American history, Chief Justice Roger Taney, whose notorious Dred Scott ruling declared that blacks could never be American citizens. It may also help explain why our official state anthem still calls for the assassination of "the tyrant" — that is, President Abraham Lincoln — and the return of Maryland to her white-supremacist family.

By contrast, the city does little to promote the man who is arguably its greatest literary, cultural and historical product: Frederick Douglass. Yes, we have the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, tucked away in Fells Point. And Morgan State University displays a statue of the great man. But any other city would have made an industry out of such a colossal hero of American history.

As a city history teacher and proud native, I think Baltimore should be the Colonial Williamsburg of African-American history, what with Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday, the NAACP and so many others. Anyone who doubts that this is Baltimore's true identity need just look at the ceaseless efforts of Baltimore's large, pre-Civil War population of freemen and women to smuggle and/or ransom those African-Americans still trapped in slavery — a historical fact that plays a large part in Frederick Douglass' story, too. Though "free," these local African-American co-conspirators were taking terrible personal risks, just like members of any suppressed resistance movement anywhere in world history. When I see how much more other cities, both North and South of us, make of their far less heroic roles in American history, the lingering effect of past racism in our local government is the best explanation I can find for our own apparent lack of civic pride in this area.

However, the problem goes beyond race. It seems that Baltimore is generally unable to celebrate and market its historical legacy, even of our prominent white people. For example, that Frank Zappa bust in Highlandtown was foisted upon the city by his fans in the Baltics instead of commissioned by a proud and savvy city government. To our elected officials, the whole matter seemed more of an annoyance.

This sort of thing must change if we are again to be seen as the vibrant cultural center Baltimore is meant to be. Perhaps the upcoming bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 would be the perfect time to begin to kick this habit of self-deprecating historical amnesia; I hope that some candidate will step up and show us the way.

Perhaps we could begin by replacing that disgraceful Taney monument with one of young Frederick Bailey, disguised as a sailor, clutching his borrowed freeman's papers, heading to the train station to begin his trip to freedom in the North and his future triumphs for all humanity as Douglass. And we desperately need a real monument to Douglass down in Fells Point too; maybe a statue of Bailey as a youngster, tricking neighborhood white kids into helping him learn to read. Douglass' literacy enabled him to convince the train and boat conductors that he was a freeman; it later became the source of his fame and influence, and today literacy is still the key to wealth and personal freedom, even for athletes and rappers. That is why I think that a mere plaque is a grave insult to Douglass' contributions to the world.

To my mind, no one better represents the tenacious, resourceful, and knowledge-loving spirit of Baltimore that we should be known for around the world.

J.B. Salganik will be teaching social studies this year at the Baltimore Rising Star Academy@Laurence G. Paquin and is the founder of Civics International. His email is salganiks@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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