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How a little-known Baltimore black civil rights group helped pave the way for organizations like the NAACP

This image depicts the ad hoc committee of attorneys and ministers who fought successfully to place African-American teachers into Baltimore's Colored High School at the turn of the century. Many in this group went on to assume a leadership role in early civil rights struggles. W. Ashbie Hawkins (Second row,center) mounted a vigorous challenge to city residential segregation ordinances; Baltimore's NAACP was founded in his living room. Warner T. McQuinn (3rd row,second from rt) , later elected a city councilman, became a leader in Baltimore's NAACP. The first African- American in Maryland to be elected to high political office, Harry Sythe Cummings (1866-1917) served several terms as a Baltimore City council member. Elected in 1890 on the Republican ticket, the Baltimore attorney soon garnered the notice of national political party leaders. Councilman Cummings, one of Maryland's early civil rights leaders, lobbied for greater education and training opportunities for black citizens at a time of increasing racial segregation in our national history. -- Reproduction of albumen print, c. 1900. Prints and photos, Library Division, MD Historical Society. (Handout scanned 11/30/99)
This image depicts the ad hoc committee of attorneys and ministers who fought successfully to place African-American teachers into Baltimore's Colored High School at the turn of the century. Many in this group went on to assume a leadership role in early civil rights struggles. W. Ashbie Hawkins (Second row,center) mounted a vigorous challenge to city residential segregation ordinances; Baltimore's NAACP was founded in his living room. Warner T. McQuinn (3rd row,second from rt) , later elected a city councilman, became a leader in Baltimore's NAACP. The first African- American in Maryland to be elected to high political office, Harry Sythe Cummings (1866-1917) served several terms as a Baltimore City council member. Elected in 1890 on the Republican ticket, the Baltimore attorney soon garnered the notice of national political party leaders. Councilman Cummings, one of Maryland's early civil rights leaders, lobbied for greater education and training opportunities for black citizens at a time of increasing racial segregation in our national history. -- Reproduction of albumen print, c. 1900. Prints and photos, Library Division, MD Historical Society. (Handout scanned 11/30/99) (UNKNOWN / Baltimore Sun)

The United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty doesn’t headline the pages of history textbooks. The name of the group and its leaders rarely get mentioned in the same lists as the NAACP, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or other civil rights groups that came after it. Yet researchers argue that many of these groups might not exist without the Brotherhood of Liberty — a group that, like the NAACP and DuBois Circle, points to Baltimore’s influential role on black civil rights advocacy and organizing after the American Civil War.

In “A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920,” published last year, Dr. Dennis Halpin of Virginia Tech provides perhaps the most comprehensive account of the Brotherhood of Liberty’s story to date. Halpin dug deep into records, news archives (including The Sun’s) and other historical sources to explore the group’s impact on Baltimore and civil rights history.

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“Active between 1885 and 1891, the Brotherhood was not only Baltimore’s first civil rights organization, but one of the first in the nation," Halpin wrote. Co-founded by community organizer and Union Baptist Church leader Rev. Harvey Johnson, along with five other black clergymen (Ananias Brown, William M. Alexander, Patrick Henry Alexander Braxton, John Calvin Allen and W. Charles Lawson) in Johnson’s home, the group and its members claimed several notable legal victories. For instance, Johnson organized to overturn Maryland’s prohibition on black attorneys in 1885; strengthened by this victory, the Brotherhood of Liberty and supporters throughout Maryland then successfully fought the exclusion of black mothers from protection under Bastardly Act, which Halpin wrote “allowed women to compel their child’s father to provide financial support in cases of abandonment.”

Articles in the Afro-American attributed several other actions to the Brotherhood. With segregation ruling the city, the group pushed Baltimore government to open school No. 9, its first new one with black teachers teaching black children, at Riggs and Carrolton Aves. Members also defended black laborers working on Navassa Island near Haiti, who rebelled against oppressive work conditions in 1889; at least 15 men were either acquitted or otherwise avoided death sentences.

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Halpin’s book considers all of these cases in its argument that the Brotherhood’s pursuit of organized legal and community challenges to segregation would influence the shape of civil rights to come.

“[Look] at the way that they kind of spearheaded this strategy...of using a primarily legal strategy and coupling that with acts of civil disobedience,” Halpin said. “The people that are part of this group do a lot to keep issues of racial injustice on the pages of white newspapers at this time, they combat some of the really poisonous racial rhetoric that’s going on in this period, and they’re a link.”

To aid his research, Halpin spoke with the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway, the current pastor of Union Baptist Church. Hathaway, who first learned about his predecessor during childhood Sunday school at Union Baptist, also focused on Johnson while researching his dissertation. Hathaway has spoken about Rev. Johnson’s work at Enoch Pratt Free Library, and he plans to continue telling his story (including his activism beyond the Brotherhood of Liberty).

“The first lesson that we learn [from the Brotherhood of Liberty] is that the empowerment process of African Americans began first in the faith community,” Hathaway said. “From the faith community, it went to the legal community. From there, it went to the business community, and then it went to the political community."

Hathaway added that the Brotherhood’s legacy remains little known because of the “Eurogenics” movement, a white supremacist cultural phenomenon that influenced the likes of President Woodrow Wilson (himself a budding scholar at Johns Hopkins before becoming U.S. president).

"The powers that be would not tell the story of Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson, and the public school system systematically sought to wipe out his presence and name,” Hathaway said.

Johnson also counted W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and other civil rights leaders as contemporaries. He would support the Niagara Movement, which preceded the NAACP. His friend W. Ashbie Hakins, with whom he’s photographed in the historical image above, co-founded Baltimore’s NAACP chapter (the second in the nation) in his living room. His wife, Amelia Johnson, edited The Baptist Force, a nationwide Baptist church publication, and was part of the DuBois Circle, the women’s auxiliary to the Niagara Movement that also advocated for women’s suffrage.

“Members of the Brotherhood of Liberty’s spouses were members of the DuBois Circle,” said Beverly Carter, the DuBois Circle’s Baltimore-based historian and archivist. “Rev. Braxton’s wife Beatrice was a member of the circle.”

Carter and Hathaway are both planning remembrances around the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. later this year, as well as the 150th anniversary of black men’s suffrage. Beyond these remembrances, Baltimore has one other notable connection to the Brotherhood of Liberty’s legacy: Andrew J. Reed, its last documented leader, is the grandfather of jazz greats Cab and Blanche Calloway.

Over the past year, several of the Calloways’ descendants were involved in an acrimonious conflict with a local community development corporation over preserving a house where Cab Calloway once lived in the Druid Heights area. Neither Halpin nor the Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation could verify if Reed ever lived at the house in question, but Christopher Brooks, Cab’s grandson and one of the pro-preservation supporters, said he hopes to channel the Brotherhood’s legacy into the house’s future.

“Like most people, I didn’t know much at all about my great-great-grandfather, other than his name, where he lived and little bit about what his life was like from stories that my granddad told me ... his involvement in the Brotherhood of Liberty was a real eye-opener for me," said Brooks, a musician that performs revues of his grandfather’s music. He added that he and his brother Peter “are vaguely hoping to reincarnate the organization a little bit, having put up a Brotherhood of Liberty Facebook page," and that they’re still hoping to save the house.

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