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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Harry Sythe Cummings: Relentless Advocate for Black Empowerment and Possibility in Baltimore

BHW 28: August 12, 2023

Photo of a historical marker on the side of a brick building titled: “Harry Sythe Cummings (1866-1917).” It includes an engraved image of Cummings near the top of the marker.
Figure 1. Devry Becker Jones, “Harry Sythe Cummings,” July 21, 2022, public domain [1].

 

On June 10, 1889, the New York Times reported: “In this year’s class at the Law School of the University of Maryland… there were two colored graduates, Harry S. Cummings and Charles W. Johnson. In the same class were representatives of some of the most aristocratic families of the South.” [2] Cummings and Johnson were the first African American graduates of Maryland’s top law school. The next year, Cummings became the first African American elected to public office in the state of Maryland when he joined the Baltimore City Council. He went on to serve several terms on the Council over the course of the subsequent twenty-seven years, ending with his passing in 1917. By contrast, all his grandparents were born enslaved in Baltimore County. [3] This example of Black Baltimorean academic and professional success reflects how in the aftermath of Reconstruction there was a period of hard-earned Black public representation in Baltimore preceding the Jim Crow era. Of course these accomplishments were exceptional, but their possibility and realization still carry great significance. Cummings embodied, represented, and advocated for the perceived interests of post-Reconstruction Black Baltimore. Indeed, he once described himself in a letter as, “a humble representative of my race in this City, knowing as I do their sufferings and their hopes, their heart beats and their yearnings.” [4] He also reached national political notability when he was invited to give a speech seconding Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential nomination at the 1904 Republican National Convention. However, he was later forced to watch a major 1907 Republican event in Baltimore from a segregated balcony, showing how his career paralleled the rise of Jim Crow in the city. [5] Cummings’s story illuminates the contexts of post-Reconstruction Baltimore as a place of possible Black male public success in historically white spaces, Baltimore as the largest city in a border state in this period, Black Baltimorean emphasis on the importance of education, and the struggle against early-twentieth century Baltimore’s housing segregation ordinances.


Maryland being a border state and Baltimore being its largest city provide important context for Cummings’s career. Upon his first election to the Baltimore City Council, African American historian Henry E. Baker wrote to him: “Your election to a seat in the council of a city like Baltimore and in a state like Maryland signifies much, very much, as to the future intelligent young manhood of our race.” [6] While Baker did not specify what the accomplishment signified, it seems he is referring to Baltimore’s border state urban context and historically large Black population. As historian Dennis Patrick Halgin emphasizes, “Because the Border States had not seceded, the federal government did not oversee Reconstruction in Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware… Without the presence of federal troops, African Americans were even more vulnerable… Nevertheless, African Americans fought prolonged battles… to fashion a black self-reconstruction of Maryland.” [7] What Halgin terms self-reconstruction was best accomplished in an urban context, where Black residents could consolidate communities and build channels of Black success. This is precisely what happened in Baltimore, fueling Cummings’s public rise. [8] His 1890 City Council election resulted partly from recent redistricting grouping together significant Black Baltimorean enclaves. He seized the opportunity presented by the Eleventh Ward becoming the first majority-Black ward in the city. [9] Black voter turnout was crucial and was notably greater than its white counterpart. The year before Cummings’s first election, roughly fifty percent of eligible Black Baltimoreans were registered to vote, in contrast to forty-five percent of eligible white Baltimoreans. Black Baltimorean registrant turnout was over ninety percent, much higher than white turnout. [10]


Cummings made Black public education one of his top priorities on the Baltimore City Council, reflecting the heavy importance placed on education by turn-of-the-century Black Baltimoreans. During his first term, he sat on the Committee on Education and pushed for infrastructural improvements for Black schools. In his later Council stints, he continued to introduce education-related legislation despite no longer sitting on the education committee. [11] Shortly before Cummings joined the Council, the body gained effective control of the city’s schools. He fought against councilmember attempts to solidify Jim Crow segregation and inequality through the schools. [12] With Cummings at the helm, Black Baltimoreans pushed for strengthening Black education opportunities to foster what historian David Taft Terry describes as a “counter-narrative to Jim Crow’s aspersions.” [13] A key part of Black Baltimorean efforts to consolidate and empower Black community was the strengthening of community institutions, schools foremost among them. Terry points out that this must be seen as a form of resistance to the power of white supremacy. A letter that a group of Black Baltimorean teachers sent to Cummings in 1892 exemplifies the power of this work. The teachers wrote, “We… send to you our heartfelt thanks, for the success you have obtained in causing an Ordinance to be passed for the establishment of a Colored School No. 10; in which Colored Teachers are to be employed. May success crown all of your efforts in the future, to introduce matters that will tend to the elevation of our race.” [14] Cummings saw Black-led education of Black Baltimoreans as vital to liberation from white supremacy. [15]


Cummings’s own educational experience and the role it played in his career successes illuminates why education was so highly valued by Black Baltimoreans. His graduation from the University of Maryland School of Law reflects the school’s “first integration.” [16] The very next year, this same school imposed a strict policy of segregation, which remained in effect for nearly the next half century. [17] Cummings and his Black classmate Charles W. Johnson claimed they “had been treated with the utmost respect… and made to feel that they were gentlemen associating with gentlemen” throughout the course of their studies. [18] Yet, the successful student and faculty push for resegregation a year later shows resentment was building. Post-graduation, Cummings set upon advancing higher education opportunities for other Black Baltimoreans. A funding deal between the Baltimore City Council and Maryland Institute of Art and Design enabled councilmembers to appoint scholarship students. In 1891, Cummings appointed Harry T. Pratt, who became the first Black student to attend the Institute. Historian David Bogen argues that, “the appointment may have been one of the factors in Cumming’s [sic] re-election defeat in 1892.” [19] Regardless, Cummings’s continued advocacy for the interests of the Black community did not go unappreciated. Many years later, he received a letter from Black newspaper editor John Mitchell, Jr., which proclaimed: “I hope you will pardon me in my delay in congratulating you upon your great fight for our rights in the matter of higher education.” [20] Mitchell was referring to Cummings’s successful 1913 resolution to prevent the discontinuation of college preparatory courses at Baltimore’s high school for Black students. [21]


Aside from education, Cummings also worked vigorously against the Council’s consideration and eventual passage of residential segregation ordinances. In 1910, councilmember Samuel L. West introduced the first of these ordinances. Cummings swiftly responded by moving that the Council suspend consideration of the ordinance until requisite city officials could investigate its constitutionality. It was a valiant effort, but the Council denied his motion. [22] West’s segregation ordinance was signed into law by Mayor J. Barry Mahool on May 15, 1911. It was titled, “[a]n ordinance for preserving peace and preventing conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races of Baltimore city, and promoting the general welfare of the city by providing, so far as practicable, for the use of separate blocks by white and colored people for residences, churches, and schools.” [23] The emphasis on schools shows that Cummings’s education policy efforts were not separate from his residential segregation prevention struggle. Indeed, as historian Emily Lieb argues, “Perhaps the most important lesson the short story of residential-segregation ordinances teaches is this: in Baltimore and in other American cities, neighborhood segregation started with school segregation—not the other way around.” Segregated schools became an instrument for facilitating and maintaining the segregation of neighborhoods. [24] Other cities quickly followed Baltimore’s example and introduced similar segregation ordinances, which shows how Cummings’s struggle had national implications.


The other main way Cummings asserted his influence at a national level came through his involvement with the Republican Party and especially President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Republican presidential re-election campaign attempted to cultivate African American support as an electoral strategy to counter the Democratic Party’s embrace of racial segregation. An avowed Republican his entire career, Cummings saw the opportunity this presented and seized it. He traveled to predominantly-Black districts around the country to speak and advocate on Roosevelt’s behalf. In 1904, Roosevelt invited Cummings and a couple of African American associates to visit him at the White House. [25] Cummings again visited the Roosevelt White House later that same year as part of a small committee calling on President Roosevelt to protect Black voting rights. In the latter visit, Roosevelt largely ignored Cummings and company, perhaps since this second visit did not directly correlate with his presidential re-election campaign. [26] Also in 1904, Cummings spoke in support of Roosevelt’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Hiram Watty, Cummings’s sole Black colleague on the Baltimore City Council in 1904, also gave speeches for the Roosevelt campaign. [27] Upon hearing of Cummings’s speech at the National Convention, Watty wrote to Cummings: “My dear Sir: accept most hearty congratulations upon the splendid manner in which you acquitted yourself on the recession of your Chicago speech. The reading public among the colored people of Balto. [sic] are prouder of you today than ever before and none more than myself.” [28]


Harry S. Cummings’s rise through the legal profession and as Maryland’s first African American elected official provides insights into the upper parameters of Black Baltimorean life opportunities in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. His experiences also speak to the nature of Baltimore’s role as the largest city in a border state, the prioritization of education by Black Baltimoreans, and the struggle against residential segregation in Baltimore. In 1948, African American Maryland historian A. Briscoe Koger looked back on the trails blazed by Cummings and other professionally trained Black lawyers in the state. He wrote, “The truth of the matter is, the Negro [sic] lawyer from his entrance here in Maryland, has made tremendous and gigantic efforts over a long period of this sixty odd years, and has arrived at his present place of trust and leadership only after a historic fight.” [29] The same can be said of Cummings’s determined long-term public excellence as a local politician. In both fields he fought to break down barriers and improve Black Baltimorean futures, while actively suppressing the onset of Jim Crow segregation. During a period of notable Black achievement in defiance of mounting turn-of-the-century support for white supremacist policies, he courageously and relentlessly advocated for Black Baltimorean communities. The severe white backlash that followed this window of Black public success must not take away from its significance. Cummings’s professional and academic accomplishments in historically white spaces in and of themselves disproved the claims of white supremacists. At the same time, he deeply committed himself to working for Black empowerment and possibility in Baltimore City nearly three quarters of a century before the apogee of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

 

[1] Devry Becker Jones, “Harry Sythe Cummings,” July 21, 2022, Historical Marker Database, public domain, https://www.hmdb.org/PhotoFullSize.asp?PhotoID=669147.

[2] “EQUALITY IN BALTIMORE – COLORED MEN SEEM TO BE DOING WELL IN THE SOUTHERN CITY,” New York Times, June 10, 1889, 2, https://nyti.ms/3YEaTe1.

[3] Suzanne E. Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council, 1890-1931,” Maryland Historical Magazine 74, no. 3 (September 1979): 205-206, http://mdhs.msa.maryland.gov/pages/Viewer.aspx?speccol=5881&Series=1&Item=296.

[4] Harry S. Cummings, “Letter: Harry S. Cummings to Cardinal James Gibbons, July 23, 1913,” Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), Special Collections Department, Harry Cummings Collection MS 90, digital reproduction, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/hscc/id/13/rec/7.

[5] David S. Bogen, “The Forgotten Era,” Maryland Bar Journal 19, no. 4 (May 1986): 13, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/fac_pubs/642.

[6] Henry E. Baker, “Letter: Henry E. Baker to Harry Cummings, November 6, 1890,” Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), Special Collections Department, Harry Cummings Collection MS 90, digital reproduction, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/hscc/id/44/rec/8.

[7] Dennis Patrick Halgin, A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 5-7, Kindle edition.

[8] David Taft Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South: Confronting Jim Crow in Baltimore before the Movement (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2019), 21, Kindle edition.

[9] Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council,” 205.

[10] “EQUALITY IN BALTIMORE,” New York Times, June 10, 1889, 2.

[11] Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council,” 205.

[12] Halgin, A Brotherhood of Liberty, 30.

[13] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 12.

[14] Garrison D. Trusty, Mollie E. Taylor, and Nellie S. Anderson, “Letter: Colored School Number 9 to Harry Cummings, March 29, 1892,” Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), Special Collections Department, Harry Cummings Collection MS 90, digital reproduction, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/hscc/id/42/rec/4750.

[15] Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 1-2, https://archive.org/details/upliftingracebla0000gain.

[16] David S. Bogen, “The First Integration of the University of Maryland School of Law,” Maryland Historical Magazine 84, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 39, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1711&context=fac_pubs.

[17] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 20.

[18] “EQUALITY IN BALTIMORE,” New York Times, June 10, 1889, 2.

[19] Bogen, “The Forgotten Era,” 11.

[20] John Mitchell, Jr., “Letter: John Mitchell, Jr., to Harry Cummings, March 19, 1913,” Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), Special Collections Department, Harry Cummings Collection MS 90, digital reproduction, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/hscc/id/47/rec/15.

[21] Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council,” 209.

[22] Matthew A. Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 340, https://archive.org/details/baltimorepolitic0000cren.

[23] Garrett Power, “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913,” Maryland Law Review 42 (1983): 289, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1183&context=fac_pubs.

[24] Emily Lieb, “The ‘Baltimore Idea’ and the Cities It Built,” Southern Cultures 25, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 106-107, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26696401.

[25] Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council,” 212.

[26] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 47.

[27] Greene, “Black Republicans on the Baltimore City Council,” 212.

[28] Hiram Watty, “Letter: Hiram Watty to Harry Cummings, June 27, 1904,” Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), Special Collections Department, Harry Cummings Collection MS 90, digital reproduction, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/hscc/id/44/rec/8.

[29] A. Briscoe Koger, The Negro Lawyer in Maryland (Baltimore: A. B. Koger, 1948), 4, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/inu.32000009800840.

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