Guest Post: African Americans, Mobility, and the Law

Today’s guest poster is Robert Gamble, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kansas. He is currently at work on a manuscript entitled “The Civic Economy: Regulating Urban Space and Capitalism in the Early American Republic,” and has written a chapter on secondhand goods for Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America (Brian Luskey and Wendy Woloson, eds.).

The death of Freddie Gray three weeks ago and the ensuing protests prompted many people to seek richer historical context for what happened. Consider that Seth Rockman’s twelve-year-old Common-place essay on rioting in early Baltimore had garnered some one million re-tweets by last Tuesday afternoon, according to his estimate. Justly concerned about half-baked historical parallels, Rockman doubts “the 1830s is [the] most useful context for now.” Certainly, there are more recent sources and contexts to consider: the real estate and lending practices that fortified segregation, reeling public school systems, eroding city tax bases, deindustrialization and the exportation of jobs, transit systems that bypass largely black neighborhoods, a deteriorating housing stock encased in lead paint, the mutual distrust sown by the War on Drugs, militarization of the police, and so on. Baltimore’s bank riot of 1835, though a nice lesson in shifting attitudes toward capitalism and urban order, does little to make the issues of 2015 any more coherent.

Yet there are aspects of Gray’s arrest and the official reaction to last month’s protests that seem to transcend the twentieth-century context—namely, the question of mobility. In the 1830s as in the 2010s, black Baltimoreans labored under a system of law that held their physical movements through the city as latently criminal and their presence in public spaces intrinsically suspicious. The 1820s and 1830s especially witnessed an important shift in how public officials, white residents, and local media regarded how African Americans moved through the city. At the same time, commercial and political elites threw their weight behind new laws and urban improvements (including rail lines and wider sidewalks) that promoted the freedom of movement at the heart of liberal visions for the city—a freedom reserved for whites, especially of the middle and upper classes.

Although there was no single point of origin for this legal regime of mobility, Nat Turner’s revolt crystallized white Baltimoreans’ fears of unregulated black mobility as it did throughout the slaveholding South. News (or rumors) of the rebellion and Turner’s whereabouts came to Baltimore in fits and starts in the late summer and fall of 1831. One anonymous author alleged Nat Turner “and several other men [were] intending to come on from Philadelphia on the morrow to get the negroes here in muster.” Another letter, claimed to have been intercepted from the conspirators, detailed a plan involving “eight hundred peple in town that were going to murder the damd white people,” save for the Quakers. Months after Turner was captured, a rural Marylander warned Mayor Jacob Small that “the colored peple intend risin here on satardy next to go to buttemur [Baltimore],” 234 rebels in all.[1]

Spurious or not, reports like these were used as justification for new local and state laws. City councilmen claimed the authority to shut down grog shops “in such sections of the city as they … may deem expedient.” It was not the alcohol such shops sold but the stolen goods they supposedly fenced for black thieves that prompted intervention. More extensively, Maryland lawmakers in March 1832 passed “An act relating to Free Negroes and Slaves” that forbade the immigration of free blacks and importation of slaves, required free blacks to take out licenses to carry firearms, and prohibited whites from purchasing pork, tobacco, and corn from blacks unless a statement from a white person could be produced—sharply undercutting the economic autonomy of rural African Americans who sold the produce of their own gardens (or barter) in Maryland towns. Courts could banish from Maryland any free black person convicted of a noncapital crime.[2]

Much has been made of the curfew that was imposed after protesters and police clashed last Monday night, particularly its uneven enforcement for white and black protesters and its economic consequences for those who worked night shifts. For free blacks and slaves in antebellum Baltimore, curfews were the norm. To gather in private or at night required direct appeals to the mayor, often with letters of support from white neighbors. This not only curbed the nocturnal movements of African Americans but also enmeshed them in a formal system of paternalism. Whether asking for the “privilige” of holding an “oyster supper,” of having a “little Dancing party to raise some money” for one’s own benefit, or of taking one’s carriage out at night to conduct business, petitions typically stressed the sobriety, respectability, and general good character of the black residents in question. Such a system imposed particular challenges for black women whose labor as washerwomen, hucksters, scavengers, and prostitutes meant navigating Baltimore’s streets, courts, and inns at night. The system apparently failed to curtail unlicensed movements, as an 1845 police report decried “the number of persons of that class who are seen perambulating the streets at all hours of the night” and called for all free blacks and slaves found in the streets after 11 pm without a pass to be imprisoned for the night.[3]

Such episodes can be found scattered through the records of antebellum cities like Baltimore and generate evidence of the pervasive influence of slavery in American law. But more than that, they also attest to the influence of slavery on ideas about the city and how different groups move through it. The tension between promoting and prohibiting mobility has been a persistent theme in American urban history—seen in the introduction of railroads and automobiles to the urban landscape, the invention of “slums” (and the “slummers” who ventured into them), the development of racially exclusive suburban enclaves that fostered curvilinear fantasies while building walls (look no further than Baltimore’s Roland Park). Indeed, Baltimore offers more than its fair share of examples of the racially coded ways that movement has been defined and patrolled. It is true that many of the structural problems that underlay the tragic death of Freddie Gray are rooted in the twentieth century. But the underlying social and legal assumptions that deem a young black man on the move in the city as inherently suspect draw from a much longer history, in Baltimore and beyond.


[1] Mayor’s Correspondence, 1831:463, 464, 462, Baltimore City Archives (BCA).

[2] Mayor’s Correspondence, 1831:452, BCA; “An act relating to Free Negroes and Slaves” (Ch. 323), Session Laws of Maryland (Annapolis, 1831), 445.

[3] Mayor’s Correspondence, 1839:329-335, BCA; City Council Records, 1845:709, BCA. In enforcing these regulations, Baltimore’s small and loosely organized police force did not regularly resort to force. But in a city with one of the most robust slave markets in the country, where enslavement for petty crimes like stealing a coat were not unheard of, and whose night watchmen moonlighted as slave catchers, there were other coercive tactics to be found.

6 responses

  1. Your observation that “there are aspects of Gray’s arrest and the official reaction to last month’s protests that seem to transcend the twentieth-century context—namely, the question of mobility,” is undoubtedly true. However, attempts to restrict the movement of blacks, (e.g., frisk and stop or Sundown Towns), long pre-dated the antebellum era and were not limited to southern states or urban areas. In the colonial era statutes restricting the movement of blacks were commonplace. The mobility of black seamen was viewed by many whites as a primary factor in slave resistance (e.g., New York in 1741 and Charleston in 1775) and led to the imposition of Seamen’s Acts. But concerns over blacks’ mobility was not simply focused on mariners or blacks in cities. In the 1820s free blacks who sought to migrate to Illinois were not only required to obtain certificates of emancipation from the southern states they sought to leave, but also required to have bonds posted before they were allowed reside in Illinois. The result was very limited migration of blacks into Illinois prior to the Civil War.
    Factors for restrictions on black movement over the past three hundred years may have changed but the concerns of a black teenager in Baltimore in 2015 share much with that of a black mariner in the late 18th and early 19th century; am I seen as a threat, what are the risks of my moving about, and how can I mitigate those risks.

    • You are absolutely right – fears of black mobility were hardly new to the post-Turner South or to American cities. Going back to the seventeenth-century Virginia slave codes, which like the 1831 Maryland law collapsed distinctions between enslaved and free persons of color, local and state/colonial laws employed a range of formal and informal mechanisms to police black mobility.

      What was novel were the emerging mechanisms for policing black mobility in the antebellum city (and the ironies in doing so), not the fear of black mobility itself. Part of what I see as distinctive about the antebellum period in Baltimore and other major eastern cities is the confluence of new ideas about and techniques of urban policing, this at a moment of heightened anxieties about slave conspiracies (including also Vesey and Walker) and race “amalgamation” (as caricatured in Edward Clay’s cartoons). I briefly mentioned the first of these ideas in my post: the emerging belief that city leaders should promote and preserve, above all else, citizens’ freedom of movement. There were many ways in which this belief took shape – improving street lighting and paving, driving hogs and cattle from public spaces, the publication of urban guidebooks and maps, the introduction of new technologies of transportation, etc. This process was driven in large part by the rise of the urban middle class, whose ideas about what a city should look like profoundly altered the urban landscape. As the antebellum city expanded after 1820 and more urban residents became dependent on forms of public transportation, African Americans’ lack of freedom of movement anchored certain inequalities (including basic access to fresh food and water) in the built landscape. The second development that makes the 1830s worthy of particular attention, in my view, is that this was a period when American cities began the process of reforming their police forces (a process that culminated in the late 1850s). Interspersed with correspondence about the alleged conspiracies to attack white Baltimoreans were letters to and from other mayors about how to create a more robust and responsible police force. What drove these reforms wasn’t rioting (as many scholars tend to associate with antebellum police reforms) but rather fears of theft and the trade in stolen goods – activities that urban authorities overwhelmingly associated with African Americans in Baltimore. Finally, with the rise of penny dailies in the 1830s, mass media became a more influential source for popular perceptions of criminality, especially through their frequent reporting on local crimes and court trials. Even penny dailies like the Baltimore Sun, which was relatively moderate (for a southern paper) on issues of slavery and race, reminded its readers to be wary of African Americans they encountered in the city (as one 1848 article put it after describing a black thief in one of the city’s public markets: “Never turn your back on any thing that you should keep your eyes upon”).

  2. Just to clarify, I don’t think I suggested there were 1 million re-tweets of the Common-place essay. Rather, after the Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum posted it on 4/27, there were 515 retweets. But some of those retweeters were people like Ta-Nehisi Coates with 149,000 followers– so I figured it was getting tweeted out to a large number of people. I put out an apocryphal number in a tweet of my own, but I made/make no pretense of having actual data on this.

    More to the point: this is a good essay, Rob. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Thanks for the clarification of your estimate, Seth, and my apologies for misconstruing it (sigh, Twitter is great for many things, but nuance — or at least the reading of it — isn’t one of them). I suppose if the precise number of hits really mattered, I could check with the good folks at the Common-place site to see if they have traffic numbers. In any case, your tweet was good for thinking, as it raised for me the issues of just what contexts we should be considering (and the consequences of being too incautious with where we look for historical causation). And perhaps most important of all, looking back at your C-P essay reminded me of the Fielding Lucas image of Centre Market, one of my favorites.

  4. For what it’s worth, about a hundred thousand people read the tweet, and about three thousand of them clicked through to the Common-place article. I certainly didn’t mean to make a facile historical comparison. But I thought Seth’s article usefully demonstrated that rioting is a phenomenon that extends beyond the racial dynamics of this particular moment in time. I spent that week editing and publishing coverage and context for Baltimore. But as a historian, I also wanted to suggest some of the historical echoes, and to unsettle assumptions. Anytime a slightly simplistic tweet drives three thousand people to back to a well-executed historical essay, I’ll consider it a good use of 140 characters.

    • Agreed, both on your point about rioting and the value of tweeting for directing an interested public to good and accessible works of history. (And that there was nothing “half-baked” about the widespread efforts to provide historical nuance to the recent events.) Indeed, some of the replies to Seth’s original tweet (or at least one reply, in my recollection) made a good point about how the bank riots illuminate some universal themes about power, space, and capitalism. The Common-place article also brings to mind MLK’s quote about rioting as the language of the unheard, which is doubly relevant for historians in this case, since early Baltimore rioters left us with few words describing their actions or motives. Works like Seth’s have contributed to the disaggregation of the category of “rioters” and moved us away from characterizations of “mobs” as operating under some primordial motive energy (as typified by George Rudé and critiqued by Joan Scott). All of which is to say that I overstated my point about the 1835 bank riots not providing some clarity to the recent riots — there are many important parallels to be drawn, such as rioters in both cases targeting property they identified with inequalities wrought by capitalism (the Bank of Maryland, the CVS, etc.).


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