When we witnessed the Baltimore uprising during the spring of 2015, it was tempting to name the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray as the sole cause. Gray succumbed to a traumatic spine injury suffered in the back of a police van — another unarmed Black man who died at the hands of police.
Surely a straight line exists between the intense images of that blazing Baltimore CVS and the death of Freddie Gray. But a closer look reveals another straight line, and it directly leads to industrial flight, which devastated all of Baltimore, but particularly ravaged her Black community. It is a longer line, filled with complications as it stretches all the way back to Baltimore’s earlier days.
Photo Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration)
In her youth, Baltimore’s geography charmed and tantalized. She is geographically protected from most hurricanes by the Delmarva Peninsula. She is shielded by the Appalachian Mountains from the coldest weather that would freeze her port. Her Patapsco River seduced Pennsylvania Steel in the late 19th century, and they danced until another suitor, Bethlehem Steel, cut in and acquired the company in 1916. That relationship grew into a love affair that yielded the largest steel mill in the world: Sparrows Point.
Situated at the edge of Baltimore’s alluring Outer Harbor, Sparrows Point made the steel that made 20th century America: The Golden Gate Bridge; the George Washington Bridge; Rockefeller Center; the U.S. Supreme Court Building. It produced so much of the infrastructure of the United States, some called Sparrows Point the Beast of the East, others, the Goddess of Industry. Its shipbuilding component supplied tankers and bulk carriers for private sector customers throughout and between both world wars.
By the late 1950s, the mill’s employment rolls climbed north of 35,000. Those workers — many African American and nearly all union members — were earning middle class wages, buying homes, sending their children to college, and paying taxes that funded roads, schools, and public services.
But imported steel encroached on the prolific love affair between Baltimore and her steel mill in the early 1970s. Not long after, the thrill was gone. Baltimore was bleeding jobs — 10,000 jobs gone by 1975. Small businesses folded, no longer sustained by those workers’ wages. The declining tax base meant curtailed services. People, who could, fled for the suburban hills. People who could not leave were simultaneously riven by a downward spiral of lessening employment opportunities and city services, and an upward spiral of frustration and despair. And then came the rage.
Before the first match was struck during the revolt sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore was already smoldering from her loss of more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Before the first chant was hurled at the battalions of police holding the line around the CVS, decades earlier, unscrupulous realtors had exploited the situation created by the downturn in manufacturing jobs and provoked White flight by illegally practicing block busting. Before the first brick was thrown, many of the good-paying union jobs in factories and mills evaporated, vaporizing the stability of the middle class families who depended on them, including Black families.
Baltimore’s manufacturing jobs were mostly replaced by non-union, service-sector jobs that paid low wages with no benefits.
Before the “contents under pressure” necessary for an explosion had been dragged to that downtown Baltimore street, her inner city had already been reduced by drugs, crime, and gross inequities in the criminal justice system.
Crime and drugs in Baltimore cannot simply be blamed on the people who live there. There is a more accurate, more complex story of people filled with the sense that there are no options, no places to turn; feeling trapped in a perpetual state of emergency, lacking any sense of security. The pervasive impact of industrial flight is the real powder keg, and it’s far more deadly than the looting of a drugstore.
But this ticking explosive can be defused. Fair trade policy can stop the flood of goods made overseas. It can also help protect the most vulnerable people from the workplace injuries, poverty, desperation, and deaths that frequently come along with being exploited as cheap labor when unfair international trade agreements create a global race to the bottom.
Although the love affair between Baltimore and Sparrows Point is beyond revival, it is still possible to bring back some of those lost manufacturing jobs by reversing the unmade in America trend. Proper investment in infrastructure could fuel the manufacturing sector even more. And smart workforce training can ready Baltimore’s sons and daughters to take positions that once again enable real participation in the American dream — and defer that dream no longer.
Gerald Taylor is a research fellow for the Alliance of American Manufacturing, non-profit, non-partisan partnership formed in 2007 by some of America’s leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers. Taylor is currently working on a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Georgetown University.