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The secret history of city slave trade

Blacks and whites alike of modern-day Baltimore have ignored the story of the jails that played a key role in the U.S. slave trade of the 1800s.

June 20, 1999|By SCOTT SHANE

By the Civil War, while slaves outnumbered free blacks in Maryland, in Baltimore there were 10 free people of color for every slave. Yet the slave trade posed a constant threat to free African-Americans, who were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

In fact, the warden of the Baltimore County jail ran regular newspaper notices listing black men and women he had arrested on suspicion of being runaways but who claimed to be free. Each notice would include a detailed description and the admonition, "The owner of the above described negro man is requested to come forward, prove property, pay charges and take him away, otherwise he will be discharged according to law."

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalled witnessing the traffic in slaves as a boy in the 1820s: "I lived on Philpot Street, Fells Point, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the basin ... with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. In the deep still darkness of midnight, I have often been aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our doors."

At that time, the city's leading slave trader was Austin Woolfolk. Woolfolk won notoriety for beating up Benjamin Lundy, a Baltimore abolitionist, who had referred to him in his journal, Genius of Universal Emancipation, as a "monster in human shape." Lundy took Woolfolk to court, but the judge -- pro-slavery in his sympathies, like most white Baltimoreans -- took note of the provoking nature of the name-calling and fined the slave trader only $1.

In The Sun in 1838, Hope H. Slatter, a Georgia-born trader who succeeded Woolfolk as Baltimore's leading trafficker in human beings, announced under the heading "Cash for Negroes" the opening of a private jail at Pratt and Howard, "not surpassed by any establishment of the kind in the United States." Slatter offered to house and feed slaves there for 25 cents a day, declaring: "I hold myself bound to make good all jail breaking or escapes from my establishment."

To keep the supply flowing, Slatter added: "Cash and the highest prices will at all times be given for likely slaves of both sexes. ... Persons having such property to dispose of, would do well to see me before they sell, as I am always purchasing for the New Orleans market."

Facing complaints about the grim procession of chained human beings along Pratt Street, Slatter found a solution of sorts: He hired newfangled, horse-drawn "omnibuses" to move the slaves to the Fells Point docks. He would follow on horseback.

"The trader's heart was callous to the wailings of the anguished mother for her child. He heeded not the sobs of the young wife for her husband," wrote one abolitionist eyewitness whose account was discovered by Clayton.

"I saw a mother whose very frame was convulsed with anguish for her first born, a girl of 18, who had been sold to this dealer and was among the number then shipped. I saw a young man who kept pace with the carriages, that he might catch one more glimpse of a dear friend, before she was torn forever from his sight. As she saw him, she burst into a flood of tears, sorrowing most of all that they should see each other's faces no more," the abolitionist wrote.

Families broken up

Though Slatter assured customers and critics -- among them the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier -- that he never broke up families, Clayton found records suggesting that the claim was marketing fraud, designed to salve the consciences of owners unloading their slaves for cash. He found a manifest listing two girls ages 6 and 4 among the slaves Slatter was shipping south on one ship; their last names were different from one another and from those of all the adults on board.

"In states like Maryland," Charles MacKay, a visitor from Scotland, wrote just before the Civil War, "slavery exists in its most repulsive form; for the owner, having no use for superabundant Negroes, seems to acknowledge no duties or responsibilities toward them, but breeds them as he would cattle, that he may sell them in the best market. ... The owners have little compunction in selling the wife without the husband, or both without the children, according to the caprice or wants of the purchaser."

The agonizing consequences of the trade is captured in an 1854 flier preserved in the archives of the Maryland Historical Society.

The flier, circulated by a white Baltimore preacher, sought donations to buy the freedom of 18-year-old Eliza Rogers. Rogers had been hired out by her owner to work as a servant in another family, a common practice in the city. But when the owner decided to sell Rogers, he merely notified a slave trader, who took the young woman from her employer's house and prepared to sell her south.

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