By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, email@example.com
July 1 is my birthday, and it also marks the exact midpoint of the year.
Tragically, as we approach the halfway point of 2019 we are once again on pace to eclipse the 300 murder mark, continuing the grisly narrative we began the year of the Uprising in 2015.
As I write this, the city’s latest murder victim, an unidentified 32-year old male (almost assuredly Black) was shot to death on June 24 in the 4300 block of Wabash ave., in West Baltimore. He is the 151st homicide victim of the year with a few days to go before we reach the middle of the year on July 1.
It’s hard to measure the burden of being Black in Baltimore.
However, a historic context always helps provide insight for me when seeking perspective on that burden.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
I recently shared some of that history during a speech I delivered to members of the Johns Hopkins University Black Faculty and Staff Association on June 21.
One of the eras in the history of Black Baltimore I am most fascinated by is the decade prior to the start of the Civil War. I talk about the plight of Baltimore’s burgeoning Free Black community in my book, Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.
According to the 1850 federal census Blacks made up 17 percent of the city’s population of 169,154; 25,442 were free, compared to 2,946 slaves. By 1860, Baltimore’s population had grown to 212,418 and free Blacks increased to 25,680 while slaves dwindled to 2,218.
In the decade prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861, Baltimore’s Black community had established a viable religious, cultural, educational, political and economic infrastructure and this prototype of Black American freedom and independence seemed to threaten many of the state’s White population.
In the 1850’s, a pro re-enslavement movement led by Curtis Jacobs, a state legislator who owned 38 slaves on the Eastern Shore, literally imperiled the lives and freedom of Baltimore’s free Black population. However, the community mobilized its formidable infrastructure; delivering speeches, crafting petitions, praying and engaging in political activism, among other tactics, which helped beat back the re-enslavement movement and defeat Jacobs’ bill by a margin of three to one.
In addition to Jacobs’ machinations, roaming bands of White hooligans, mostly rabid Confederate sympathizers made the streets of Baltimore City a chaotic and extremely dangerous place in the 19th century. Their main targets were local and federal officials (including law enforcement and officers of the courts), the burgeoning immigrant population (mostly from Germany and Ireland arriving via the Port of Baltimore, which was the second busiest in the U.S. behind New York), and the Black population. Lynchings and vigilante violence wielded against free Blacks and slaves was commonplace, contributing to an air of anarchy in Baltimore, which led to the city’s nickname, “Mobtown.”
Yet, Black Baltimore not only survived the onslaught against it, but thrived in spite of it. From the mid 19th century, the city’s Black community embarked upon an odyssey that saw it become a vanguard community in the struggle for freedom and justice in the 20th century, rivaling other Black enclaves in New York (Harlem), Chicago (Bronzeville), Detroit (Black Bottom), and Pittsburgh (the Hill District).
I titled the final chapter (seven) of Baltimore After Freddie Gray (BAFG), “The Most Beautifully Resilient People.” That description of the vast majority of 21st century Black Baltimore is rooted in the 19th century heroics of our magnificent Ancestors.
Honestly, I recognize their spirit in most of the so-called Squeegee Kids I encounter around the city (despite the fact Mayor Jack Young seemingly criminalized them a couple of weeks ago).
It’s the spirit to survive in the face of often horrific odds.
“We just want to be represented as kids that make things better for themselves, that’s all,” one young man named Zion told my colleagues Stephen Janis and Taya Graham last week.
“There are people out here who have mom’s struggling with bills, rent overdue. We have to help our moms, we’re in the projects.”
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.