Building barricades

September 13, 1994|By Ralph Clayton

AS A RESULT of a few violent crimes in Guilford, there has been talk of possibly placing street barricades on the community's borders.

Guilford, a beautiful, tree-shaded north Baltimore neighborhood nestled between the campuses of Loyola College and Johns Hopkins University, is comprised primarily of well-to-do white professionals.

The eastern border of Guilford adjoins a high-crime area of York Road where large portions of the population are low-income African Americans.

The push among some in Guilford to have gates installed to block access along that border has resulted in a city-wide debate, which has prompted even some residents of Guilford to suggest racist motives.

Unfortunately, physical, social and economic barriers are nothing new to the African-American experience in America. Blacks, both slave and free, suffered as a result of repressive legislation that enabled barriers to be constructed and maintained before the Civil War. Baltimore was no exception. A complex series of events -- including the introduction of large numbers of European immigrants into the city and a decreased need for slave labor -- led to increased problems for the free blacks. Although their community was blamed for the decreased need for slave labor as well as the increase in crime both were due, in part, to the introduction of a large poor immigrant working class in the Baltimore area. Nevertheless, by 1858 more barriers were being constructed to control the free African American. Local leaders, noting the large number of black prisoners, passed legislation intended to deal with the problem. As a result, free African Americans were often sold into slavery as an alternative to prison. By the late 1850s, labor militancy had erupted numerous times, particularly in the shipbuilding industry. Once again the free African-American community faced a new barrier. Many lost their jobs to immigrants and were forced to move to affluent areas of the city in order to accept more menial positions as servants in the households of the wealthy. As a result, individuals lived as close to their jobs as possible, giving rise to alley living in the rear of white householders.

After the turn of the century the trend changed. In the early 1900s, blacks were able to ride the streetcars that webbed the city. Segregation of neighborhoods became more viable as there was no longer a need to live close to an employer's business or residence. Barriers became more defined as African Americans were restricted in where they could live, work, eat and even obtain a drink of water.

Although the civil rights movement of the past four decades has done much to pull down those barriers, there is one problem that has never been negotiated: You cannot legislate love into the human heart. And therein lies the root of our problems today. The rise in crime and the resultant fear in our individual communities has prompted us to build barriers rather than break them down. The scriptures reveal: "Because iniquity abounds, the love of many shall wax cold."

Perhaps Shakespeare pointed out the solution perfectly in hTC "Romeo and Juliet." During the famous balcony scene, Romeo scales the high wall enclosing Capulet's house. Having made himself known, from the darkness of the garden, Romeo faced the questions of Juliet. How had he scaled the great height of the wall and why had he ignored the danger of the certainty of death were he to be discovered? Romeo responds: "With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls. For stony limits cannot hold love out. And what love can do, that dares love attempt."

Perhaps by understanding the mistakes of the past, we can work together for a better tomorrow. It is through the combined efforts of the various ethnic communities that we must fight a determined battle against our common enemies: ignorance and apathy. Only then can we learn the lesson from Romeo, that love is the great destroyer of walls.

Ralph Clayton, a Baltimore writer, is author of "Slavery, Slaveholding, and the Free Black Population of Antebellum Baltimore."

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