Tour illuminates city's rich history

Presentation: Lecturers provide a wealth of information about the 19th-century African-American residents of Mount Vernon in Baltimore.

February 08, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Seldom-told tales emerged yesterday during a walking tour of Baltimore's historic heart, Mount Vernon, where hundreds of African-Americans -- both slaves and freemen -- lived during the volatile period leading to the Civil War.

Tour participants learned that African-Americans who were slaves during those years mostly lived in back houses at the rear of the posh townhouses lining the square around the Washington Monument, a landscape considered an outstanding example of mid-19th-century American urban architecture. By contrast, free blacks owned the modest houses still standing on Hamilton Street east of Charles Street.

A group of 20 city and community officials got a chance to learn about Baltimore's most populous enclave of African-Americans on the tour sponsored by the Mount Vernon Cultural District. The same walk will be offered to the public Feb. 23 in honor of Black History Month.

Ralph T. Clayton, 52, and Philip J. Merrill, 39, experts on African-American history, collaborated on the sidewalk talk. Clayton, an Enoch Pratt Free Library research assistant and author, pointed to 16 E. Mount Vernon Place, owned by one of three Charles Carrolls living in Baltimore during the Civil War era: "Seven human beings were held in bondage here."

Clayton said, "This is not a crib sheet, but slaves' names are very important to me. Their names need to be remembered and spoken." Then he recited the names of seven slaves who lived there in 1858: "James, 40; Harriet, 30; Austin, 18; William, 15; Fisby, 35; Matilda, 25; and Ann, 14."

No last names, no middle initials, followed the first names and ages to further define their identities. In the 1860 Census, the "schedule of slaves" typically did not give names, Clayton said, but he consulted other sources, such as city directories, tax assessments and newspapers to find them.

He held up a London Illustrated News clipping that showed a "dandy slave" in Baltimore dressed up to go to market. "There was tremendous interest in London," Clayton said, in America's "peculiar institution."

Few among the group knew that the first black man elected to the U.S. Senate, Hiram Rhodes Revels, once lived in Mount Vernon. Nor did they know that Abraham Lincoln stayed overnight in a private home at 702 Cathedral St. in April 1864, a fact gleaned from The Sun.

Baltimore had the largest population of free blacks of any Southern city in the country then, and Mount Vernon offers a great deal of information about how many of them earned their living.

Clayton told the group many free African-American men worked as barbers and waiters. A resident named William Bishop, he said, owned a barbershop at Pratt and Charles streets. Emory Bond, a confectionery shop owner, and Bishop Alexander Wayman, who later became a senior bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, also lived there. The most prosperous on record was Henry Jakes, a caterer, who owned $15,000 worth of real estate in 1860.

Some on the tour wondered whether tension existed between those African-Americans who were enslaved and those who were free to work as servants, sometimes for the same families. "All of that going on under one roof," said Terry Alvin Gillard, director of the city's Community Relations Commission.

Clayton said there is no evidence of bad blood between African-American slaves and free blacks.

For spellbound listeners, Clayton's words illuminated part of the past that has no signs, plaques or monuments.

"This is all new to me. There was very little discussion of this anywhere, but this town is steeped in Southern history," said Valerie McNeal, a First Unitarian Church parishioner on the tour.

Lisa S. Keir, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District, said the walking tour will be offered on a regular basis, with information available online: "This is intended to be the beginning of something bigger."

She added, shaking her head, "I thought I knew something about Mount Vernon."

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