Baltimore history on a scale much grander than Baltimore

Monday Book Reviews

January 13, 1992|By Matthew Crenson

THE BALTIMORE BOOK: NEW VIEWS OF LOCAL HISTORY. Edited by Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes and Linda Zeidman. Temple University Press. 208 pages. $29.95. FOR AN awfully long time now, Baltimoreans have felt that they had less history than other cities. History -- really Big History -- always seemed to happen someplace else. When America's founders and framers had Big Ideas to get off their chests, they went, unaccountably, to Philadelphia.

Washington had presidents. New York had Wall Street. Boston had Paul Revere, Puritans and the Adams family. By the time these other cities got finished with American history, there was hardly anything left for Baltimore. Not counting the Colts-Giants game in 1958, the biggest thing we had to brag about seemed to be the Star-Spangled Banner -- American history's background music.

About 10 years ago, a group of local scholars with roots in the protest politics of the '60s and "a vision of social justice and equality" began the People's History Tour of Baltimore. It was a bus ride around the city with stops at high spots of local labor, civil rights and women's history. The bus tour has now become a book -- "The Baltimore Book" -- published, unaccountably, in Philadelphia.

But instead of carrying us back to the familiar, Rodney Dangerfield kind of town that predated Harborplace, "The Baltimore Book" transforms the city's factories, neighborhoods, churches, railroads and shipyards into a stage-setting for Big History. It may not be the history of founders and framers or generals and presidents, but it is local history on a decidedly grander-than-local scale, history with some sweep to it.

Its organizing theme is the rise and decline of American industrial capitalism. Its mission is to trace the implications of capitalist political economy for relations between Baltimore's classes, races and genders. Its heroes and heroines are the Baltimoreans who organized to fight back.

This avowedly partisan history could have made for a grim and earnest story -- about as much fun as having the parson come to dinner. Academic practitioners of Big History are prone to become the captives of their own categories, ideologies and theories. These academics are no exception. But they are rescued repeatedly by their material -- by Baltimore. When Big History comes to Baltimore, the results are fascinating, unpredictable and wry.

The story opens in 1877 with a classic scene of class struggle. Baltimore railroad tycoon John Work Garrett has just cut the wages of his B&O workers for the second time in eight months. This latest imposition coincides with a 10 percent increase in dividends for Garrett and his fellow stockholders. The railroad workers rise up in fury. Garrett convinces the governor to call out the National Guard to crush the strike with force. A Baltimore mob stones the soldiers. The soldiers shoot into the crowds, killing 11 civilians. The crowd sets fire to Camden Station. The governor, the mayor, and the vice president of the railroad are trapped inside.

Except for the baby carriage bouncing down the steps, the episode has all the makings of socialist realist cinema. But instead of lapsing into cliche, the story spins off in unexpected directions: The profits earned by the sweat of the B&O workers help to enrich Garrett's friend and fellow stockholder Johns Hopkins. Hopkins bequeathes his wealth to endow a university and medical school. Meanwhile, Garrett's daughter Mary Elizabeth turns out to be a committed feminist. She uses her inheritance and influence to assist in the founding of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, where young women will learn that education and athletics are not unladylike. She also campaigns successfully for the admission of female students to the Hopkins Medical School.

Not only that, but it turns out that the first president of Hopkins, Daniel Coit Gilman, comes to town with a daughter also named Elizabeth. She grows up a determined socialist and a perennial candidate for public office in Baltimore and Maryland. Finally, there is Richard Macks, the former slave who becomes John Work Garrett's butler and goes on to become a successful caterer and a leader of Baltimore's African American community.

It may sound like "Dallas" for Marxists, but there is much more. As one might guess from its title, "The Baltimore Book" is not easy to describe. It is a picture album, a guidebook to historic sites, a collection of essays about Baltimore's workers, their workplaces, their unions and their communities, about their struggles with their bosses, with unemployment, with gentrification. There are also chapters about the development of residential segregation in Baltimore and its subsequent

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