Power Plant Live area was slave market


THE POWER Plant Live Plaza, a renovated section of Market Place featuring night clubs, bistros and bars, may be a magnet once it opens for entertainment that is expected to attract thousands of visitors nightly to a location several blocks north of the Power Plant.

Most Baltimoreans are not aware of the fascinating history of the area once known as Marsh Market Space, or Center Market.

Before Baltimore's incorporation as a city in 1797, the property where Market Place now stands was covered by marshland owned by Thomas Harrison.

He arranged for the marshland to be filled in and the space appropriated for a large market to be built near the intersection of Baltimore and Harrison streets. The legislature in 1784 ordered the construction and regulation of three markets to serve Baltimore, the largest of which became known as Marsh Market, or Center Market.

The thoroughfare passing through the market was one of the widest in Baltimore, nearly 150 feet across. By the early 19th century, the market spaces and stalls were filled with inns, taverns, food and supply stores offering a wide variety of merchandise.

Over the years, specific areas of the market became specialized. The fish market and the horse market attracted potential buyers to the northern end of the street.

Another attraction was the auctions and private sales of human beings in Baltimore's slave mart. The area bordered by Gay Street on the west, Pratt Street on the south, Baltimore Street (also known as Market Street) on the north and the Jones Falls on the east was rife with slave sales.

Before such auctions took place, the slaves were carefully examined for whip marks, hernias, bad gums and teeth or any other sign of imperfection. Bad gums were generally a sign of illness while whip marks were considered reflective of a troublesome servant. Both disclosures lowered the value at auction.

During the exam, questions were posed to the slaves that the prospective buyer hoped would glean fact from fiction while considering sellers' claims.

Auctioneers in Baltimore recognized the importance of holding such sales at the local markets, where the foot traffic was always high. Some examples:

During the late autumn of 1816, "a Negro girl, about 17 years of age" was being offered for sale. She was said to be sold for "no fault" and could be seen by applying at stall No. 2, Center Market.

Several days later, a "Negro woman, 25 years of age" was auctioned by Charles R. Green at the Horse Market (at the northeast end of Center Market) where he advertised, "One may also bid on a number of very fine horses."

In the summer of 1822, two small children were ordered sold at auction by the Orphan's Court. Before the public sale, handled by local auctioneer Nicholas Strike, the children were available to be inspected by potential bidders. The children were sold to the highest bidder in front of Garland Burnett's Tavern, at the head of Center Market.

Major interstate slave traders were also attracted to the area.

In 1818, Austin Woolfolk, who was to become one of the leading traders in the Baltimore area, took up residence at Mrs. Green's tavern in Marsh Market Space. From there he advertised to pay "the highest cash price for Negroes" for the Southern market.

One block west, on Frederick Street, John N. Denning, one of Baltimore's leading traders in the 1850s, offered "Cash for Negroes." Earlier, and a block east of the northern end of Marsh Market, the New Bridge Hotel, owned by Joseph Hart, had become a favored stopping place for traveling traders like David Anderson.

Anderson, of Kentucky, would often stay there while in town, collect his slaves, march them to the docks and ship them to New Orleans.

By 1816, rope stores, inns, taverns, clothiers, grocers, watch makers, hair dressers, confectioners, distillers and auctioneers were among the numerous businesses lining Marsh Market Space.

Now it seems as though the new market is destined to become one of Baltimore's major attractions once again.

Bright lights, music and good food will bring visitors to the restaurants and bars of the area. For those of us who know the market's history, the ghostly echo of the auctioneer's pitch and the cry of the chained passing by will always remain.

Today's writer

Ralph Clayton is a research assistant at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and has written several books and numerous articles on pre-Civil War black Baltimore. He is working on a book that chronicles the domestic slave trade in Baltimore.

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