Baltimore's history of `illegal' workers

April 05, 2007|By Seth Rockman

Last week's raid on a Baltimore employment agency and the conviction of a local restaurateur remind us that undocumented workers cook our meals, stitch our T-shirts and perform invisible but indispensable labor throughout the city. The recent crackdown is noteworthy for targeting the employers, but immigrant laborers ultimately bear the highest costs when the law is enforced. In this regard, the long history of "illegal" labor in Baltimore offers a different context to consider the 69 workers arrested last week.

Runaway slaves and indentured servants constituted the city's first "illegal" work force. When an enslaved carpenter named Lancaster fled from Virginia to Baltimore in 1790, his owner expected to find him "employed on board vessels in the harbour as a carpenter, passing as a freeman." It was common knowledge that a worker without papers could get hired along the waterfront to join a ship's crew or to unload a vessel for $1 a day.

Irish indentured servant James Lynch came to Baltimore in 1793 hoping to earn wages for his work. His master, like almost all masters seeking to recapture runways, warned ship captains and merchants not to "entertain or carry off" the fugitive.

Baltimore employers paid little heed, which is why runaways continued to come to the city in search of better work. In the 1830s, Irwin Gibbs found jobs as a waiter, drayman and "packer of China" while eluding his Baltimore County owner. He had a free wife in the city and sought a semblance of family stability while working under the radar. Female slaves also ran away to Baltimore, and found jobs as domestic servants. Over years, these "illegal" workers built remarkable communities - but ones that could unravel whenever a constable asked to see freedom papers or an employer became dissatisfied. An 1832 Maryland law defined many free African-Americans as "illegal" workers as well. That law intended to discourage black immigrants from places like Virginia and North Carolina. Legislators from rural Maryland worried that these migrants would corrupt the state's slaves. The law proposed a $20 daily fine on any employer hiring new arrivals to Baltimore's thriving free black community.

The city's employers remained eager to hire free black workers - or black workers passing as free. African-American men regularly lined up at several sites around the city waiting for hire, a practice that sounds remarkably familiar to anyone who has seen day laborers congregating in the parking lot of a home improvement store. In theory, workers who could be "busted" at any moment were less likely to complain about bad conditions. And for these workers, earning bad wages in Baltimore was a marked improvement over slavery on a tobacco plantation.

Then, as now, the law saved the most severe penalties for "illegal" workers themselves. The 1832 law levied an astronomical $50 weekly fine on free black migrants to Maryland. Anyone unable to pay could be auctioned into temporary slavery to cover the costs. It is not clear whether the 1832 law was enforced in Baltimore, but it surely hung over the heads of many working-class families.

Today, the comparison of illegal immigration to slavery is not uncommon. Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, Congress' most outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, has labeled companies such as Baltimore's Jones Industrial Network the "21st-century slave masters."

The analogy is dubious, unless one believes that Africans willingly endured the Middle Passage in search of better lives in America.

Nor can Mr. Sensenbrenner don the mantle of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who also fought discrimination against African-Americans. Instead, Mr. Sensenbrenner's historical forebears were those 19th-century politicians who claimed that slaves and free blacks took jobs away from white people.

No more evidence supported this argument in the years before the Civil War than it does now among those who accuse immigrants of stealing "American jobs." Such incendiary rhetoric sparked mob violence against Frederick Douglass when he worked in Baltimore's shipyards, and it has jeopardized the lives and livelihoods of immigrant families today.

When we look at Baltimore's history of "illegal" labor, we should consider how earlier workers defied such an ugly classification to make better lives for future generations.

Seth Rockman, assistant professor of history at Brown University, is completing a book on the survival strategies of Baltimore's working families in the early 1800s. His e-mail is

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