The Chatter

New Book Tackles Tangled History of Baltimore Politics

Johns Hopkins professor emeritus Matthew Crenson examines the role of race and politics.

Baltimoreans appreciate our beloved hometown for its great neighborhoods, eccentricity, and “Smaltimore” feel, but political disarray, inequality, and violence have also long-plagued the city.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Neighborhood Politics and the co-author of Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public. In his new book, Baltimore: A Political History, he tackles the tangled history of the city’s political and cultural disjointedness, examining the role of race and politics from the 18th-century through to our present circumstances  

Why this book and why now?
Like many Baltimoreans, I was curious about the city’s many curiosities. And it has been a long time since anyone told the city’s story. The second edition of urban geographer Sherry Olson’s book, Baltimore: The Building of an American City, appeared 20 years ago, and it concentrates on the physical development of Baltimore, not its political history.  

One vital research source also became more accessible when the Baltimore City Archives relocated and reorganized in 2010. The Archives are essential for understanding the city’s political past, but only a few authors have relied on these records.   

Of course, I could not have foreseen the death of Freddie Gray or the turmoil that would follow it [when I started working on the book]. Retracing the path by which we got here now seems even more vital than when I began. 

You make the case that Annapolis, the state capital, long held political sway over Baltimore. Do you think that’s still the case?
Because Baltimore was a late-blooming city, there was already an entrenched political establishment in Annapolis at the time of the town’s birth. It cast its shadow over Baltimore from the time it received its town charter in 1729. Even after it became a supposedly self-governing municipality in 1797, the city’s powers were limited by the state. The city, for example, could levy property taxes, but for decades after it became a city, the state legislature decided what the tax rate would be. 

Baltimore can fix its own property tax rate today, but the city’s police department is still technically a state agency, as it has been since just before the Civil War. The Governor’s cancellation of the Red Line reminded Baltimoreans of just how much control the state has over the city’s public transportation system. Then there’s the Maryland Stadium Authority. In 1997, Baltimore’s mayor conceded partial control of the city’s school system to the state in return for increased state funding. Governor Larry Hogan closed the city’s detention center (probably a good decision), but without consulting any city officials in advance. Baltimoreans are reminded of their exposure to state government every time the General Assembly convenes. 

Baltimore was home to the largest number of free African-Americans in the South in the decades before the Civil War—some 92 percent of black Baltimoreans were free at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. But you conclude white Baltimoreans were always afraid to address the issue of race head on. What drove you to that conclusion? Do you believe that’s still true?
As early as 1817, when prominent Baltimoreans became advocates of the American Colonization Society, the city’s leading whites have repeatedly practiced evasion or equivocation when confronted with issues of race or slavery. The Colonization Society proposed sending African Americans to Liberia. On the one hand, they argued that exporting free black people to Africa would help to preserve slavery in this country, because the presence of free black people made slaves restless.  On the other, they claimed that slave owners would be more likely to manumit their slaves if they could send them to Africa, instead of having to live with them after they were free.  Baltimoreans, in other words, managed to come down on both sides of the slavery question. Colonization would preserve slavery while eroding slavery. 

A long series of similar dodges led me to conclude that the city’s white leadership was leery about confronting the issue of race head-on,  perhaps because Baltimore is a border city where whites are unlikely to be united on issues of race. And then, soon after World War II, many whites abandoned the city for the suburbs. The exodus accelerated after the 1968 riots. Much of Baltimore’s former white population can now avoid the race issue—and practice segregation—without thinking or feeling like racists. 

Can you tell us when the division between Baltimore City and Baltimore County was created and why?
This is complicated. 

The separation was a two-step process—maybe three. In 1850, the General Assembly passed legislation that would enable the residents of Baltimore County to vote on whether to separate from Baltimore City. (The legislators held that this would be advantageous to Baltimore County.) The voters were also to elect a commission whose members would decide where to put “public buildings”—a courthouse, a jail, and a poorhouse—facilities which the County had previously shared with the City. The voters decided to disengage County from City. The Commission was elected, but couldn’t agree on where to put the public buildings. The commission divided down the middle on whether to leave the City.

In the meantime, the voters of the state approved the calling of a constitutional convention. When the convention completed its work in 1851, it placed Baltimore City and Baltimore County in separate judicial districts, requiring them to have separate courts and jails. In 1852, the General Assembly repealed its act of 1850 calling for the election of a commission, thereby depriving the commission of its authority to make decisions for the County.

If we can go back, say, before William Donald Schaefer, what important character, politician or leader should Baltimoreans know about—but probably don’t?
Mayor James H. Preston [in office from 1911-1919] was a creature of the Democratic political machine. But he had vision. He proposed a gradualist alternative to annexation. It would have created four “boroughs” outside Baltimore City, one in each quarter of the compass. The boroughs would be governed by their own councils and could purchase services from the City. As they bought in to more city services, they would eventually become parts of the City, which would achieve annexation, but without suddenly imposing high city taxes on former suburbanites. Unfortunately, politicians from Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties prevented Preston’s plan from becoming law. If they had agreed to it, we might have a viable metropolitan area government today—like Miami-Dade and Indianapolis.

Who is your favorite historical Baltimore political figure? And why?
This is hard. There’s John Pendleton Kennedy—novelist, politician, and designer of an iron bridge over the Jones Falls that would stand up to floods. Then there’s Samuel Smith—businessman, politician, and military tactician who anticipated every move that the British would make in their 1814 assault on Baltimore. And of course, there’s Frederick Douglass, who learned to read in Baltimore, and became the country’s premier writer and orator in the struggle against slavery. 

But I have a special admiration for Samuel Purviance, a forgotten Baltimore revolutionary. He chaired the city’s Committee of Observation during the Revolutionary War. It functioned as the town’s government, struggling to maintain public order in the face of the city’s anti-British hotheads, one of whom was Samuel’s brother, Robert. He also had to contend with a revolutionary government in Annapolis that was far from revolutionary. As late as January, 1776, the provincial convention declared its “affection for, and loyalty to the house of Hanover” [the British dynasty the produced six monarchs, including George III] and its conviction that to be British subjects “is to be the freest members of any civil society in the known world.” Purviance endured censure by the Annapolis authorities for trying to take the royal governor into custody. (The royal governor had been providing intelligence to the British military about prospects for invading the Chesapeake.) Purviance’s business interests collapsed in the recession that followed the Revolution. He tried to retrieve his fortunes in the West, but was captured by Indians while traveling by boat on the Ohio River, and was never heard from again.