Free Blacks in Baltimore

When historians analyze slavery in Maryland, the free black community is almost always a center of the discussion. In Maryland, Free Blacks made up a significant part of the Black community. Maryland, in fact, had the largest free black population of any other state in the antebellum period. For white and black residents alike, free blacks were a contradiction to the institution of slavery. In his book, “Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860,” Christopher Phillips examines the life and culture of free blacks, the increasing restraints on their freedoms by white society, and more importantly, the resilience of these communities to create a determined and thriving culture despite this oppression. Throughout the book, Phillips attempts to show how movement through time and place regularly changed the face of freedom in Urban Baltimore.

Phillips points out the economic and social issues that are crucial to understanding Maryland slavery throughout the nineteenth century. Before the Revolutionary War, Maryland farmers depended on and experimented with tobacco cultivation all over the state. However, as they moved increasingly northward, planters discovered that tobacco was a fickle crop. Instead, planters diversified their large estates to grow a variety of crops, including less labor-intensive grains. This change made Baltimore a boomtown, and contributed to its status as a true urban city (11). Diversification of the economy meant many things for members of the enslaved population. For some, it meant manumission because masters sometimes freed slaves no longer necessary for planting and harvesting their crops. For others, and for similar reasons, it meant sale to the Deep South. For many, it meant their labor could be “hired-out” either on their own terms or on conditions arranged by their masters. Phillips argues that these changes in the economic system gave that slaves a certain amount of autonomy, especially when they lived in large black communities as they did in Baltimore. He suggests, because masters no longer relied on slaves solely for agricultural labor, slaves and masters engaged in a power struggle in which slaves had some autonomy, especially when they interacted with other blacks and spent time away from the spying eyes of their masters. This power struggle was intensified because of Baltimore’s proximity to the free states. Dissatisfied slaves could threaten to run away with some realistic chance of success- especially if their journey to freedom began in the less controlled environment of Baltimore.

As the nineteenth century progressed, racial discrimination grew in part because white slaveholders became increasingly worried about the influence of free blacks. According to Phillips, this fear led whites to impose harsher restrictions on the black community, and gave rise to an ideology of white supremacy, even in multi-cultural Baltimore where slaves were a small percent of the population (188). According to Phillips, free blacks responded to increased segregation and limits on their freedoms by working to become as independent as possible. Through home ownership, skilled and semi-skilled labor, and development of church communities and education, free blacks did what they could to overcome stereotypes and restrictions placed on them by white society and the pro-slavery government (154). Free and enslaved blacks adapted, finding ways to maintain their communities and culture as white society continually limited their freedom.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Adapted from Christopher Phillips and Free Blacks in Baltimore by Talbot Kuhn

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