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Fighting to keep a jail in Baltimore, for history's sake

It’s come to this: a black person (me) fighting to keep a prison in Baltimore, the only remaining structure that held runaway slaves in the city.

It’s come to this: a black person — me — fighting to keep a prison in Baltimore.

But not any prison: just the only remaining structure that held runaway slaves in the city. Currently a city landmark, the former slave pen and refuge for white abolitionists is slated to become rubble in weeks, if not days.

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Earlier this month, Maryland took one step closer to erasing the history of slavery from the city when Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted to approve a $27.5 million contract to demolish irreplaceable historical buildings that were part of the Baltimore City Detention Center, shuttered in 2015.

They did so over the objections of the Maryland historical preservation society.

“Baltimore Heritage is opposed to the current plan to tear down these significant buildings and we are committed to seeking alternatives to demolition,” it wrote on its website in 2016, shortly after the Maryland Department of Corrections released an early draft of demolition plans.

The state admits each of the 39 buildings slated for demotion is structurally sound, although almost all are severely outdated.

Baltimore City Jail housed runaway slaves after the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, awarding cash bounties to (primarily) white men who return black people to southern states as slaves. The practice did not always include seeking and imprisoning escaped slaves, but any black person — some even free — as detailed in the book and movie “12 Years a Slave.”

The five year period that preceded the Civil War was a tumultuous one for Baltimore as President Abraham Lincoln worked to secure allegiance to the union from Maryland, a state that had pro-slavery sympathies. From 1859 to 1864, the Baltimore City Jail was used to hold hundreds of “runaways” in addition to white abolitionists who were allies to the likes of Marylander Harriett Tubman, who ushered blacks to freedom passing through our city.

The eye-catching castle — the Warden’s House — “won recognition for its unique Gothic design when it was designated a Baltimore City landmark in 1986. Despite the designation, state agencies like the Maryland Department of Corrections are not bound by local protections for landmark structures,” wrote the state’s premier historical preservationists on their website.

If the single remaining slave pen isn’t on its merit deemed worthy of protection from the demolition ball, perhaps the letter from famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, reprinted in a May 20, 1870, Sun article, on his time imprisoned in Baltimore City Jail would help sway opinion.

The occasion for the letter was the celebration of the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that had “the colored citizens of Baltimore [celebrating] in an imposing and hearty manner” the right to vote with a march down Broadway leading to Pratt Street.

A proclamation from Garrison, “who once could not pass safely through this city,” according the The Sun, was read to the crowd: “Since the Declaration of Independence … never has our country been so powerful as now, never so prosperous … never so united … never so reputable and influential as now, in the eyes of the world.” Garrison would likely tell Governor Hogan that facing the inequities forced upon people oppressed by the state is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Marylander Frederick Douglass spoke directly to those gathered, both black and white, and his words of Baltimore’s promise are just as valid today:

“Baltimore … fifty years ago was a two story Baltimore, now it is a five-story Baltimore. We want our children to add a story to their height every generation,” said Douglass, as reported in The Baltimore Sun.

As a native Baltimorean, I implore the governor to heed Douglass’ words and refrain from tearing down walls. Instead, lift up future generations to build upon the promise of Baltimore by using its past as a touchstone for what’s possible.

Keesha Ha is a retired college professor; her email is profkeesha@gmail.com.

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