Fugitive Black Radical Self-Liberators Who Lived in Antebellum Baltimore
BHW 36: October 7, 2023
When considering the significance of human flight in Baltimore histories, some may think of the white flight out of the city in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, a different type of flight is crucial to understanding Baltimore City’s past: the fugitive flight of Black people fleeing into or through the city to escape enslavement in the antebellum era. Maryland’s best-known fugitive from slavery, Frederick Douglass, was publicized for an 1847 speaking engagement in New York as “A RUNAWAY SLAVE FROM BALTIMORE.”  Meanwhile, many runaways ran to or within Baltimore. The city had the largest free Black urban population in the antebellum United States, which proved crucial to its effectiveness in harboring and camouflaging runaways. These individuals carved out their own version of self-assertive living in Baltimore while remaining fugitives. Their decisions to flee enslavement, integration into Baltimore’s Black working class, and constant vigilance to avoid recapture illuminate fresh perspectives on meanings of Black self-assertion in antebellum Baltimore.
Black people who fled their enslavement to or through Baltimore are best referred to as radical self-liberators. Other scholars offer different definitions. Most recently, historian Viola Franziska Müller argues that fugitives from slavery living in southern cities should be analyzed as undocumented migrants. She emphasizes that these people, “remained within the jurisdiction of the very slaveholding society that stipulated they were slaves; their legal status did not change. The subsequent lives that these men and women built for themselves in southern cities therefore had, likewise, no basis in law; their sheer presence in the cities was illegal.”  While her usage of migration concepts carries great utility for understanding what it meant to live illegally in the cities of the antebellum United States, Baltimore must be distinguished from this group. This is where Müller’s attempt to focus on the four cities of Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans detracts from her analysis of the Baltimore case.  While a city-specific case is separate from what she sets out to do, it seems the Baltimore case has its own unique characteristics. It is unclear if focusing on a single city takes away from her migrant illegality conceptual framework. The other helpful framing of this subject comes from historian T. Stephen Whitman, who writes that the Baltimore case shows many runaways “found it unnecessary to flee slave territory to gain at least a measure of freedom.”  This is what made their action so radical, by refusing slavery these self-liberators claimed their own interpretation of freedom through self-liberation without leaving a place they perhaps considered home. Beyond the self-assertion in place of freedom suggested by Müller, an emphasis on self-liberation shows how formerly enslaved runaways claimed their own version of freedom in ways potentially more meaningful than legal freedom itself. 
What does freedom mean, and was its achievement possible for antebellum Black Baltimoreans? Answering this question requires lesser focus on legal status and “illegality” than Müller employs. It seems that focusing on legal status detracts from the lived experience of self-liberators carving out independent lives in Baltimore, the most effective safe haven in a slaveholding state. Müller emphasizes that “In the logic of the antebellum United States, they stole a body that belonged to another person—they legally stole themselves.”  While this lens is useful for law focused analyses, it detracts from the humanity of the situation. Instead, it is beneficial to think of self-liberators as re-definers of freedom. Rejecting the restricted freedom offered by antebellum law, they created their own space of self-led living. Their flight from enslavement was itself a rejection of the American legal system’s exclusion of Black people from conceptions of freedom. Excluded from the dominant narrative of American freedom with its focus on white property ownership, Black self-liberators claimed new lives for themselves. As historian Eric Foner writes in his work on freedom, “Apart from ‘liberty,’ the word most frequently invoked in the eighteenth century was its opposite, ‘slavery.’”  If liberty embodied freedom, as Foner suggests, and slavery was its opposite, then what Baltimore self-liberators claimed for themselves was none of the above.  These terms cannot contain it.
Using this abstract concept of self-liberation instead of prevalent legal conceptualizations of liberty, freedom, and slavery is itself radical. It is also both beautiful and heartbreaking. This is where recent work on historical empathy is so important.  By focusing on the emotions involved in these actions, a new level of intense relatability between past and present is created. With this relatability comes a new level of personal understanding. Legal definitions of freedom certainly continued to heavily govern the lives of fugitives from slavery, but empathetic historical practice suggests contemplating how people carved out lives outside these exclusionary parameters. The law does not directly operate inside the minds of people, emotions do.
It seems one of the most crucial and emotional aspects of individual decisions to flee enslavement related to family. Three main considerations reflect the emotional evaluations involved in navigating these family situations. Firstly, the decision to flee enslavement often meant abandoning family and any continued contact elevated the risk of recapture. As Müller points out, enslavers generally knew about the family situations of the people they enslaved.  Enslavers used this information in the newspaper advertisements they placed offering a reward for runaway recapture.  Secondly, choosing manumission or other forms of gradual emancipation as alternatives to flight sometimes meant the ability to tenuously stay with family and perhaps later purchase family members out of slavery. But this was a difficult balance. For example, as Whitman writes, Black people “knew that the purchase of a young man’s freedom might create an extra wage earner in the family… But doing so in preference to liberating a young woman could lead to her carrying children and passing the curse of bondage on to another generation.”  Clearly these decisions included complex emotional considerations. Thirdly, any possibility of staying with family was constantly threatened by the prominence of the domestic slave trade in Baltimore. As Müller shows, “Escape attempts surged in years in which unusually large numbers of southwestern dealers were operating in Baltimore.”  Furthermore, historian Jennie K. Williams emphasizes that the coastwise slave trade from Baltimore to New Orleans via Baltimore’s harbor was more likely than the land-based interregional trade to separate families. 
Self-liberators from slavery living in Baltimore incorporated themselves into the city’s free Black working class and were often treated as such. Müller importantly argues that all Black Baltimoreans were criminalized by state and local authorities, regardless of legal freedom status. As a result, Black fugitives blended in with the broader African American population. As historian Barbara Jeanne Fields shows, in the antebellum period local authorities were much more concerned with the threat to the peace posed by rowdy and notoriously violent white Baltimoreans than their Black counterparts.  Black Baltimoreans were also more likely to try to stay under the radar given the tenuousness of their freedom documentation and associated legal status.  Historian Adam Malka adds that often it was white Baltimoreans who violently confronted Black Baltimoreans in the antebellum period, rather than authorities themselves.  Antebellum working Black Baltimoreans were grouped together by the state, by white citizens, and by employers who often did not make a point of inquiring about freedom status.  As historian Blair L.M. Kelley writes, “Though they lived in a nation tilted against them, Black people built and rebuilt vital spaces of resistance, grounded in the secrets that they knew about themselves, about their community, their dignity, and their survival.”  This was true regardless of freedom status, which could itself be one of the secrets Kelley mentions.
It is important to remember that despite the Black empowerment evident in self-liberation through flight, runaways had to maintain constant vigilance of the threat of recapture. Given the difficulties of proving freedom even for the legally free, all Black Baltimoreans were at risk of being sold into slavery. But for fugitives, they specifically had to avoid being recognized by an acquaintance or associate of their enslaver.  Enslavers also described visual and personality features of the runaways they sought to recapture, exacerbating the need to be on alert for public recognition. As Whitman stresses, “The ads contain those ubiquitous but nonetheless gruesome references to twisted limbs, missing fingers and toes, burn marks… Likewise, the ads sketch various runaway personalities, as seen through masters’ eyes: some fugitives are described as likely to be ‘artful,’ ‘plausible,’ or ‘unusually self-spoken.’”  Black Baltimoreans knew to be careful to avoid suspicious visual or personal interrogation of these details. This was part of why it was so important for self-liberators to live under the public radar. The strength, size, isolation, and solidarity of the city’s Black working-class community enabled such invisibility.
When Black people fled slavery by abandoning their enslavers, they became radical self-liberators. While still legally enslaved, they found ways to feel unfettered and independent. Baltimore City provided an especially fulfilling environment for these self-assertions, amidst the largest free Black population in the antebellum United States. In a way, self-liberation was the ultimate act of enslaved resistance because it defied the very concept of enslavement. By making complex decisions to flee enslavement, blending with Baltimore’s Black working class, and staying alert to avoid recapture, these people claimed themselves back from their enslavers. This is demonstrated by the main tangible impact flight had on enslavers, which was a lost financial asset. The high value placed on these fugitives is evidenced by the significant sums of money offered in runaway recapture advertisements.  Enslavers calculated how they valued their enslaved people and sought to expend further to recoup these assets. The self-liberators themselves had other ideas, rejecting financial valuations of their own worth. They had lives for themselves to live.
 James B. Belt, “100 Dolls. REWARD,” unknown newspaper, July 19, 1853, Prince George’s County, Maryland, National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.), OID: 2011.155.293, open access, https://www.si.edu/object/broadside-offering-reward-capture-enslaved-man-richard-low:nmaahc_2011.155.293.
 Frederick Douglass, “Abolition Fanaticism in New York, speech of a runaway slave from Baltimore,” May 11, 1847, Library of Congress, 1, https://www.loc.gov/item/10016030/.
 Viola Franziska Müller, Escape to the City: Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum Urban South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 3, Kindle edition.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 6.
 T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 62, Kindle edition.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 3.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 5.
 Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 29, https://archive.org/details/storyofamericanf00fone.
 Foner, The Story of American Freedom, 12.
 See Jacqueline Jones, “We Are Only Human: Emotion, Empathy, and the Historian’s Craft,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, March 18, 2021, https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/april-2021/we-are-only-human-emotion-empathy-and-the-historians-craft; Katie Barclay, “State of the Field: The History of Emotions,” History 106, no. 371 (August 2021): 456-466, open access, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-229X.13171.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 106.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 82.
 Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 92, 103.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 27.
 Jennie K. Williams, “Trouble the water: The Baltimore to New Orleans coastwise slave trade, 1820-1860,” Slavery & Abolition 41, no. 2 (June 2020): 291, https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2019.1660509.
 Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 53, https://archive.org/details/slaveryfreedomon0000fiel.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 73.
 Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 3, Kindle edition.
 Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 72.
 Blair L.M. Kelley, Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (New York: Liveright, 2023), 11, Kindle edition.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 73, 106.
 Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 69.
 Müller, Escape to the City, 179.