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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Intertwined Histories of Courthouses and Black Legal Rights in Baltimore, 1770-1900

BHW 12: April 22, 2023


 

This lithograph from the mid-19th century shows a Baltimore courthouse streetscape with the Battle Monument at the center.
Figure 1. Augustus Kollner (artist), Laurent Deroy (lithographer), and F. L. Cattier (printer), "Baltimore Battle Monument," c. 1840-1850. [1] Baltimore’s second courthouse, built in 1809, stands to the left of the monument in this lithograph. [2]

 

Past courthouses in what is now Baltimore City provided the setting for extensive histories of construction, adversity, and reconstruction. These processes took place on a literal physical level with the structures involved and on a personal, lived level with the people involved. Baltimore courthouses predating the 1900 opening of the still-operating modern courthouse illuminate Black freedom stories of the late-eighteenth century and nineteenth century. Black Baltimoreans fostered individual and collective empowerment in these spaces, harnessing the law to assert their own worth. Cases were argued and won which provided legal sanction for claims of Black rights, laying important precedent to empower Black people nationwide. These freedom claims and racial equality gains bolstered the long struggle to eradicate the legacies of slavery. [3] In this way, Black lives were built, advocated for, and rebuilt in Baltimore courthouses. However, vestiges of slavery and harsh systemic racism continue to play a restrictive role in American courts, as they do in society in general. By centering late-eighteenth and nineteenth century Black Baltimorean courthouse experiences, light is shed on ongoing processes of Black legal empowerment.


Baltimore’s first courthouse opened in 1770 and stood near the center of Calvert Street, inaugurating a stretch of courthouses around this street that continues with the present-day courthouse. [4] This fosters a historically endowed space of justice and rights. It embodies what historian Dolores Hayden refers to as place memory. As she writes, “Place memory encapsulates the human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments that are entwined in the cultural landscape. It is the key to the power of historic places to help citizens define their public pasts.” [5] All of the city’s historic courthouses being located along Calvert creates a legal place memory shared by generations of Baltimoreans. This memory can only be harnessed for social betterment by raising awareness of the place’s history, which is a central goal of this piece. For Black Baltimoreans in particular, public pasts of freedom and rights are deeply rooted in these legal spaces. Even after the demolitions of both the first and second Baltimore courthouses, the spaces they occupied remain historically significant. The legacies of these courthouse assertions of individual and collective self-worth continue today.


The city’s first courthouse stood out on the landscape of Baltimore-Town and housed the first meeting of Baltimore City Council. This gathering followed the Maryland General Assembly recognition of Baltimore as a city on December 31, 1796. The meeting took place February 27, 1797, then City Council went to work creating a set of laws for the city. [6] As this meeting exemplifies, this original courthouse was home to much more than just formal adjudication. It also oversaw taxes, relief for people experiencing poverty, public works projects, liquor licensing, and other local matters. [7] This courthouse was also the first to physically stand in the area. Prior to its construction the county seat and courthouse for the region were at the town of Joppa. [10]


Baltimore’s second courthouse was built in 1809, to replace the deteriorated 1770 courthouse. The first courthouse was razed and the new one was built “on the southwest corner of Calvert and Lexington Streets.” [11] The grand and elaborate second courthouse symbolized Baltimore’s national prominence as the third-largest city in the country at the time. [12] Alongside the new courthouse, Baltimoreans led the creation of a monument to those who died defending the city during the War of 1812. Known as the Battle Monument, its image has been the city’s official emblem since 1827. [13] The monument expanded the space of freedom and civic pride in the courthouse area. The city further expanded and developed the area throughout the early-nineteenth century to create Monument Square, a popular public gathering place. [14]


Unfortunately, the grandiose design of the second courthouse increased its vulnerability to fire. On February 13, 1835, the upper dome caught fire. Firefighters could not reach the flames because they were too high-up on the grand building. While the people inside salvaged most of the vital records, the building was severely damaged. [15] It continued to operate despite this damage. Then in 1851, Baltimore City was designated as akin to a county in and of itself, fully separated from Baltimore County. [16] As a result, the still-functioning 1809 courthouse gained even greater significance and power. It continued to operate despite irreparable fire damage until 1894, when it was demolished to make way for the current courthouse, which was dedicated on January 8, 1900. [17] Clearly the construction, destruction, and reconstruction of courthouses was a significant occurrence in the early history of Baltimore City.


The lives of Black Baltimoreans also saw much construction, adversity, and reconstruction during this initial era of Baltimore City courthouses. Historian Martha S. Jones focuses on courthouse claims to citizenship to study assertions of Black freedom in Baltimore. She presents these stories as “a history, told through a series of disruptive vignettes.” [18] This reflects the archive of Black Baltimorean courthouse activity being scattered by fires and other forms of destruction. The disruptions also demonstrate the silencing of Black voices in the historical record of the United States. Case study vignettes presented by Jones and others add an evocative human aspect to the built histories of these courthouses. These stories illuminate lives built and reconstructed within courthouse walls. One of Jones’s most striking anecdotes is the first appearance in a Baltimore courthouse by a man named George Hackett in 1844. Jones points out this case was unusual for the time since Hackett, a black man, was the complainant in the case charging a white defendant. This went against the city’s racial power distributions, making the case disruptive to the city’s social fabric. It is this interruption of established power dynamics that made cases like these examples of assertive Black freedom-building. This is the freedom construction that runs parallel to courthouse destruction and construction throughout the course of Baltimore City courthouse history. As historian Michael A. Schoeppner argues, free Black people made these difficult courthouse debates and decisions happen, despite the potential unreadiness of legal institutions. They forced the issue by taking legal action, overwhelming social resistance. [19] That Hackett won his case exemplifies the possibilities for Black Baltimoreans to assert freedom and rights through courthouses. [20]


Another powerful story of Black Baltimorean courthouse victory in these legal spaces is that of Daniel Brown and Patrick McDonald, the police officer who killed him. Historian Gordon H. Shufelt writes extensively of this story in his 2021 microhistorical monograph The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown: How a White Police Officer Was Convicted of Killing a Black Citizen, Baltimore, 1875. Brown’s death embodied the unjust treatment of nineteenth-century Black Baltimoreans. [21] This makes the verdict in the case even more historically important as, just like Jones’s study of the Hackett case, it stands as an exemplar of Black courthouse empowerment. This is true despite Brown, the Black Baltimorean with their rights acknowledged by the court, being deceased at the time of the trial. As Shufelt argues, Brown was known for making clear his understanding of “the potential for social changes that came with emancipation, civil rights laws, and voting rights.” [22] He was a proponent of the movement for Black freedom and Black lives, and it seems this reputation increased his vulnerability to fatal treatment at the hands of law enforcement. This interrelationship between social advocacy together with vulnerability to state violence continues to this day. [23] Shufelt also provides the important qualification that analysis of this case must not be taken too far. It was an anomaly that went against the grain of virulent anti-Black racism and systemic injustice in Baltimore City. [24] Nonetheless, it is a remarkable case representing the great potential of Baltimore courthouses to manifest Black freedom in the nineteenth century. Occurring in 1875, it also happened in the later days of the last Baltimore courthouse to precede the current one. It happened fully amidst the civic atmosphere fostered in the area by Monument Square.


Baltimore City’s location as a nexus between North and South, in both the antebellum and postbellum United States, provides crucial context for the possibilities of Black freedom and self-assertion in its courthouses. A primary expression of these possibilities at the borders of slavery and freedom came through antebellum court manumissions. Baltimore had the largest free Black population of any city in the country in the early-nineteenth century, and manumissions consistently added to these numbers. [25] This court manumission example also speaks to the continued oppression amidst Black empowerment in this era. Indeed, as historian T. Stephen Whitman argues, the courts worked out a system of manumission with minimal involvement or admission of responsibility from enslavers themselves. The standard legal documents anonymized the process of manumission to fit a legalized template. [26] By design, enslavers walked away from these cases with minimal social stigma or consequences. For historians, the correlated document standardization limits the insights provided by manumission records. However, legal documentation complexities or lack thereof did not change the lived freedom granted by such acts. As Jones makes clear, free Black people strongly asserted both their race and their freedom in legal case records, as a point of pride and progress. [27] Many Black Baltimoreans walked free and empowered due to cases processed in Baltimore courthouses.


From 1770 to 1900, courthouses in what would in 1796 become Baltimore City underwent construction, adversity, and reconstruction just as they housed powerful assertions of Black freedom. Black Baltimoreans claimed these legal spaces for themselves, using the available laws to lay claim to individual rights and privileges of citizenship. While many obstacles remained and racism was still prominent in the courts, it was in these spaces that some of the strongest assertions of Black freedom in late-eighteenth century and nineteenth century Baltimore took place. When courthouses deteriorated and needed replacement, Black Baltimoreans reconstituted their freedom assertions within the confines of newly constructed courthouse facilities. Legal freedom claims were continuously transferable to new spaces because of the great determination of the claimants. When predominantly white city officials directed new courthouse construction, they likely had in mind the creation of vital infrastructure for the functioning of the local polity. What they may not have anticipated amidst continued anti-Black racism in the city was that they were creating hotbeds for Black empowerment. These spaces helped to build the power and community of Black Baltimoreans. All these courthouses resided alongside Calvert Street, and thus they created a historic space of Black rights and freedoms. [28] When the modern courthouse on Calvert was dedicated in January 1900, this legacy was carried into the twentieth century, and it continues with great strength to this day.


 

[1] Augustus Kollner (artist), Laurent Deroy (lithographer), and F. L. Cattier (printer), “Baltimore Battle Monument,” c. 1840-1850, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.10792/.

[2] Laura Rice, Maryland History in Prints, 1743-1900 (Baltimore: The Press at the Maryland Historical Society, 2002), 47, https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5339/000040/000000/000013/restricted/md_hist_in_prints_1743-1900.pdf.

[3] Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 70.

[4] John Carroll Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar: In Celebration of the Bicentennial of Baltimore City 1797-1997,” University of Baltimore Law Forum 27, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 27.2 U. Balt. L. F. 15, https://scholarworks.law.ubalt.edu/lf/vol27/iss2/2/.

[5] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), 46.

[6] Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar,” 27.2 U. Balt L. F. 8.

[7] Matthew A. Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 19, https://archive.org/details/baltimorepolitic0000cren.

[8] Baltimore National Heritage Area, “Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. (Baltimore City) Courthouse,” BNHA Heritage Resource, 2018, https://www.explorebaltimore.org/places/clarence-m-mitchell-jr-baltimore-city-courthouse.

[9] Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar,” 27.2 U. Balt L. F. 8.

[10] Morris L. Radoff, The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland, Part One: The Courthouses (Annapolis: The State of Maryland Hall of Records Commission, 1960), 25, https://archive.org/details/countycourthouse00rado.

[11] Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar,” 27.2 U. Balt L. F. 15.

[12] Jones, Birthright Citizens, 66.

[13] The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, “Battle Monument Conservation,” City of Baltimore, June 15, 2018, https://chap.baltimorecity.gov/monuments-and-conservation/battle-monument.

[14] Rice, Maryland History in Prints, 46-47.

[15] Rice, Maryland History in Prints, 97.

[16] Radoff, The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland, Part One, 17.

[17] Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar,” 27.2 U. Balt L. F. 15.

[18] Jones, Birthright Citizens, 10.

[19] Michael A. Schoeppner, Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 9, Kindle edition.

[20] Jones, Birthright Citizens, 65-66.

[21] Gordon H. Shufelt, The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown: How a White Police Officer Was Convicted of Killing a Black Citizen, Baltimore, 1875 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2021), 12-13, Kindle edition.

[22] Shufelt, The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown, 173.

[23] For example, see Kim Barker, Mike Baker, and Ali Watkins, “In City After City, Police Mishandled Black Lives Matter Protests,” New York Times, June 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/us/protests-policing-george-floyd.html.

[24] Shufelt, The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown, 165.

[25] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 10, Kindle edition.

[26] T. Stephen Whitman, Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 96, Kindle edition.

[27] Jones, Birthright Citizens, 116.

[28] Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar,” 27.2 U. Balt L. F. 15.

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