Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture has an exhibit of photographs by Roland Freeman of Arabbers in Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
The senior citizens took one look at Roland Freeman's photographs on the museum wall of arabbers selling fruit from their horse-drawn wagons and spontaneously began to chant from memory the distinctive musical jingles they hadn't heard in more than half a century.
"Strawbu-e-ES," one woman sang out, reading a chant spelled phonetically on an exhibit wall text and emulating the fruit seller who trolled her neighborhood for customers when she was a kid. She lingered on the final syllable and pitched her voice loud and high. "Wallbu-e-ES [wildberries]!"
A brief glimpse of a feathered plume on a horse's head or the towering pyramids of produce aboard a big-wheeled cart was all it took to spark memories of a once-frequent part of the visitors' childhoods. The adult learners from Howard Community College were touring the exhibit, "Roland Freeman's Arabbers: Life in Baltimore Streets," which runs through March 31 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American Culture.
"We lived on Park Avenue in the 1940s and we would hear the arabbers coming down the alley," Jane Wall, 80, of Scaggsville reminisced. "I'd smell the honeysuckle bush through my open bedroom window. I'd hear a man in the distance, softly calling 'Strawbu-e-ES.' As he got closer, the call would get a little louder and I'd hear the jingle of the bells and the clip-clop of the horse's hooves."
Wall shifted first her right shoulder and then her left up and down in imitation of the animal's four-legged gait.
"I grew up in an all-white neighborhood," she said. "The arabber's visit was one of the only times I saw a person of a different race, and it's one of the magical memories of my childhood."
Starting in the late 1960s, Freeman, an acclaimed photojournalist and cultural anthropologist, shot more than 100 intimate, black-and-white images of the peddlers who plied their trade on Baltimore's byways. There's one photo of an arabber bending over a formidable pile of wheels while mending a broken wagon, and another of two boys looking both expert and bored as they hold a cart pony by its reins. There's a photo of a wagon heading down a street in the dead of winter and one of a stable featuring two objects that seem essential for the proprietor's comfort — a circular fan and a painting of Jesus Christ.
Though this is not the first time that many of these portraits have been on public display, it's perhaps the most comprehensive local museum exhibit of the past quarter century to explore this vanishing and quintessentially Baltimore tradition. (A smaller selection of Freeman's photos ran at the Lewis for about a month last spring.)
"What was once a vibrant community of mostly black men who sold their vegetables and fruits from horse-drawn carts has now dwindled to perhaps two or three arabbers," said Jackie Copeland, executive director at the Lewis. "This is a distinctive part of Baltimore history that should not be forgotten. No other city in this country still has arabbers."
The exhibit is being held in a first-floor gallery, for which admission is free, unlike the rest of the museum. The gallery has space for only about two dozen images, but the staff is cycling in new artworks to replace photos that originally went on view for the show's January opening. Repeat visitors will end up seeing about half the arabber images in Freeman's collection; if the exhibit is extended further into the spring (as Copeland is contemplating), even more of Freeman's work will be on view.
The public fascination with this colorful tradition shows little signs of waning despite occasional controversies. In 2015, the city shut down a Southwest Baltimore stable and confiscated 14 horses. A veterinarian later testified at trial that the seized animals showed no signs of abuse or neglect and a judge acquitted all six arabbers of animal cruelty charges.
Freeman has done as much as anyone to keep the arabber tradition in the spotlight. The project has been a labor of love for the 82-year-old cameraman. He grew up in an arabbing family — his great-uncle, Handy Janey, ran a thriving stable in Baltimore — and as a child, young Roland helped out by selling produce from the carts.
But he learned early on that a camera could be a tool for combating social injustice and for memorializing the culture that shaped him. Freeman's first major photography project was documenting the Poor People's March on Washington in 1968, a campaign organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that included a massive camp set up for six weeks on the Washington Mall. Not long after that protest, Freeman was sitting with his grandmother on the front steps of her Baltimore home when one of the arabbers' wagons came down the street.
"My grandmother said, 'Now that you're a hotshot photographer, tell our story and do us proud,'" Freeman recalled.
According to the exhibition wall text, "arabbers" is thought to have been derived from the phrase "city arabs" used to describe homeless children in London in the 1800s. To a contemporary audience, the word — pronounced "ay-rabbers" — can sound like an ethnic slur. But experts say it is not, because it refers to a job and not skin color or ethnic origin.
"The term isn't really about race but about being a nomad or wanderer," Copeland said.
Bilal Abdullah, 30, believes that at least some members of the younger generation will keep the tradition alive. He goes out every day that the temperature is between 32 degrees and 92 degrees with his palomino horse, Tony, and often brings along child helpers. He said the youngsters enjoy both being around the horse decked out in its red and yellow feathered plume and handing fresh bananas, oranges and melons to his regular customers.
"I bring kids with me all the time," Abdullah said. "There are a lot of them and they like it. I hope they keep it up."
In the early 19th century, arabbers flourished in cities along the East Coast. But only in Baltimore did they become so essential a way of life that even in 2019, traces of the tradition remain.
Matthew Holden Warren, vice president of the Arabbers Preservation Society, thinks that's because of a confluence of circumstances.
Baltimore had the second largest port on the East Coast, which provided merchants with easy access to fresh produce and seafood. The city had a large population of free black people, a group with limited employment opportunities. And the city was smaller than such behemoths as Philadelphia and New York, making it easier for a horse and cart to navigate the metropolis.
The tradition of horse-drawn vending dates back to the 19th century. Now, just three arabber stables remain in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun video)
"At one time, there were hundreds of arabbers in Baltimore," said Warren, who is filming a documentary about the street peddlers. (The film is not yet slated for release.) "It was a version of the American dream. You had your horse, you worked for yourself and you could make good money selling things people needed."
A 1988 photo of the arabber contingent from the "I Am an American Day" parade, a once-annual event in East Baltimore that at its peak drew over 300,000 people, shows a bunch of carts parked every which way on an unnamed street fronted by rowhouses with Formstone facades. Young men lounge nonchalantly in the drivers' seats of the carts; their horses, bedecked in fancy harnesses, wait patiently.
Copeland noted that arabbers were almost always male and speculated that this reflected traditional gender roles. The racial history, however, is more mixed.
"Most people today think that arabbing started out as a black profession," Freeman said. "But up until World War II, it was more white folk who were doing this."
In the years leading up to World War II, hundreds of thousands of mostly white men were hired for well-paying jobs in the defense industries. That left arabbing to African-Americans.
"Instead of going to the supermarket, the supermarket came to you," Freeman said.
"People bought everything they needed from these carts, not just fish and fruits and vegetables. They bought rugs and they bought rags. In the winter they bought coal and wood, and in the summer, they bought ice. You'd see people walking down the street carrying a live chicken in each hand."
Each arabber developed an idiosyncratic and immediately identifiable signature look and chant. Much of what contemporary Baltimoreans find so charming about the tradition — the vibrantly colored carts, the festooned horses, the catchy and clever calls — were the merchants' way of standing out in a crowded, noisy and visually complex environment.
The Lewis exhibit includes a wall text with one full jingle:
Copeland thinks Freeman's photos make more of an impact on black-and-white film than they would have if the vibrant scarlet and gold wagons had been shot in color.
"Roland is documenting a culture," she said. "When you strip away the distraction of color, it allows the viewer to see what's really there. It adds importance and gravitas to the scene."
As Freeman noted, the rise of the large supermarket chains that began in the 1930s changed the way most Americans shopped for food. Like the once-ubiquitous corner grocery stores, arabbers began to vanish from cities such as Philadelphia and New York.
Copeland thinks arabbers hung on in Baltimore because they filled a need. The Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that 23.5 percent of the local population today lives in "food deserts" not served by grocery stores or supermarkets. For the residents of these neighborhoods, a cart stacked with fresh produce that easily negotiates narrow streets provides a valuable service.
"Arabbers provided a lifeline for sick people and shut-ins and those who didn't have a way to get to stores," Copeland said.
Her favorite photo is a shot of an arabber cart moving down a street at night. The image is moody and contemplative. Most of the landscape is shadowy and black. But in the very center, in a small circle of light, the horse and driver plod forward.
They set out to do a job, and they aren't finished yet.
If you go
"Roland Freeman's Arabbers: Life in the Baltimore Streets" runs through March 31 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Free. Call 443-263-1800 or go to lewismuseum.org.