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.
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.
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.
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.
 Mayor’s Correspondence, 1831:463, 464, 462, Baltimore City Archives (BCA).
 Mayor’s Correspondence, 1831:452, BCA; “An act relating to Free Negroes and Slaves” (Ch. 323), Session Laws of Maryland (Annapolis, 1831), 445.
 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.