A walk in shoes of slaves

History: Baltimore's role in the trade of human lives is recalled with a procession and minidramas.

October 31, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For three sunlit hours yesterday, several hundred people retraced the steps of a shameful and little-known part of Baltimore's history.

Wearing tags bearing the names of slaves, and carrying flowers in their memory, the mostly youthful throng followed in the footsteps walked by thousands of slaves in the early 1800s, from holding pens near what is now Camden Yards to board southbound ships at Fells Point, in a flourishing but often-overlooked trade in human flesh.

They walked not only to acknowledge a bitter past, but also to affirm a better and more just future.

"It's a lot of different emotions you get from this," said Joseph Jenkins, a senior at Mount St. Joseph High School in Southwest Baltimore, at the end of the walk yesterday afternoon.

"I'm torn between sadness and happiness. Sadness because there were slaves, but happiness because they're being acknowledged."

Herman Ross, also a Mount St. Joseph senior, said the distance gave him an inkling of what slaves went through.

"I wasn't there with shackles on my feet but it gives me a sense of what it must have been like," said Ross, one of 20 members of the school's cultural awareness organization to go on the walk.

"It's hard to think of what so many people had to go through just for us to get where we are today."

The trek, billed as "Present Hope for the Past: A Walk Through Baltimore's Racial History," was organized by Interfaith Action for Racial Justice as part of its mission to end prejudice by promoting tolerance and understanding.

At a breakfast meeting at Camden Yards for business, political and religious leaders before the walk, John Springer, executive director of Interfaith Action, said that "the story of the slave trade in Baltimore is a story about suffering" and "acknowledging this history will give us new and essential tools" to solve problems of justice and equity.

As the breakfast drew to a close, hundreds of students of various races and their teachers from dozens of area schools began filling the plaza outside the baseball stadium. A small wooden pen for a handful of people was set up beside a stage to symbolize the holding pens for slaves. African drummers and dancers entertained the crowd.

Cheryl Pasteur, a teacher and administrator with Baltimore County schools, exhorted those who gathered to yell out the Americanized names of the slaves in whose names they were walking.

"We are not only going to feel their pain. We are going to feel their pride and their strength," she said.

Mildred Kington, 77, of West Baltimore came with her husband Garfield, also 77, to walk in honor of her grandfather, who was enslaved in the South.

"I can't even think of some of the horrors he went through," she said.

John Williams, 57, a retired federal worker from Rosedale in Baltimore County, walked with his wife, Tammy, 37, and their 8-year-old son and pushed a two-seat stroller with their two foster children, 9 and 16 months old.

"We think it's important for the children to have some contact with history," he said. "We feel all cultures have a responsibility to pass their history on."

The walk went by fliers that marked the sites of slave pens at several West Baltimore locales, including the Babe Ruth statue and Verizon headquarters at Pratt and Light streets.

The pens were part of the domestic slave trade that thrived in the city between 1808, when the United States banned the importation of slaves, and the Civil War, local historians say. Demand for slaves slackened in Maryland and Virginia at that time but grew in the Deep South, they say.

The most informative stop was at the USS Constellation at the Inner Harbor, where historian and exhibit curator Glenn Williams told the walkers that the historic ship was "included in a part of American history people today know little about."

From 1859 to 1861, the Constellation was the flagship of U.S. Navy efforts to halt illegal importation of slaves, Williams said. The Constellation captured three American slave ships, one of which had 705 people aboard. They were set free in Liberia, he said.

The Constellation's crew included 17 free black men, Williams said.

Along the waterfront in Fells Point, the walkers witnessed a mock slave auction, listened to spirituals and speeches and tossed flowers into the harbor as a final act of remembrance.

Michael Sutter, a Mount St. Joseph ninth-grader on the walk, said he found the event "pretty cool," singling out the "community of people" walking together and "all the flowers in the water."

Jayda Clark, a junior at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, said she found the event "very moving" but said a great deal more needs to be done to heal racial divisions. "There's still too much hate," she said.

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