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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Race, Gender, and Class at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, 1803-2023

BHW 25: July 22, 2023

 

Black-and-white photograph showing Lexington Market, prominently featuring potted plants and stacked produce. Many people interact throughout the market scene.
Figure 1. Albertype Co. “[Lexington market, Baltimore, Maryland],” c. 1850-1900, Library of Congress, public domain [1].

 

When the planning committee for the creation of Baltimore’s Lexington Market first went to work in 1803, the city was booming. [2] In 1800, Baltimore was the third-most populous city in the United States with 26,514 residents. By 1810, its population reached 46,555 residents. In 1820, its 78,444 residents made it the second-largest city in the country. A century later, a Baltimore City government publication declared, “Lexington Market is the most noted and is, possibly, without a serious rival in the country.” [3] Seawall, the real estate development company selected to remodel the market in 2018, deems it the longest continuously operating public market in the country. [4] Lexington Market grew in tandem with Baltimore City itself. It also reflected and asserted the city’s power structures. This market provides a microcosm of race, gender, and class dynamics in Baltimore City history. The goal here is to amplify previously silenced voices of Black Baltimoreans, Baltimorean women, and the city’s working class through the lens of Lexington Market.


For Black Baltimoreans living in the antebellum years of the nineteenth century, the significance of Lexington Market paled in comparison to another major Baltimore market: the domestic slave trade. Importantly, there is not necessarily any separation between the two. It is unclear how many enslaved people were sold at Lexington Market itself. As historian Joshua D. Rothman shows, there was not significant social stigma or social separation between slave traders and the rest of society in this period. [5] It is likely the trafficking of enslaved people was interspersed with regular activities at this market. An enslaved young woman named Rosetta is one example of a person sold at Lexington Market. We know of her because her sale was advertised in the Baltimore Sun in 1838. She is one of two people represented in a new sculpture at Lexington Market called “Robert and Rosetta.” The other person in the sculpture, Robert’s story shows how Lexington Market also overlapped with the labor enslavers ordered the people they enslaved to do. He was enslaved by Maryland Governor George Howard, who ordered him to sell butter at Lexington Market. By sending Robert into this public marketplace under the terms of his enslavement, Howard publicly asserted his active role as an enslaver. Robert later fled this enslavement and we know of his story because of a newspaper advertisement seeking his recapture. [6]


Free Black Baltimoreans sought economic opportunities of their own in and around the early Lexington Market. Baltimore had the largest free Black population of any antebellum U.S. city. [7] In response to this Black presence, Baltimore City government exerted the powers of white supremacy to limit Black mobility around Lexington Market and other markets. Strict licensing laws required Black Baltimoreans to register for a license before trading any agricultural item. If they purchased anything from an unlicensed Black person over the course of their business activities, severe punishments followed. Applying for a license also required proving one’s freedom, since freedom was a prerequisite for a license. Additionally, licensing laws heavily governed many of the professions open to free Black people in antebellum Baltimore such as huckstering and chimney sweeping. [8] Huckstering itself, the act of peddling trade goods without having a fixed location, became deeply racialized. White Baltimoreans associated this work with Black people while stigmatizing and over-regulating it. [9] The similarities between this and how some Baltimoreans criminalize predominantly Black “squeegee kids” in the twenty-first century are striking. [10] Both forms of work are transient and independent, leading to legislation restricting Black mobility. American history is full of attempts to restrict the mobility of Black people, from slave patrols to the police.


For women, Lexington Market provided opportunities for increased social engagement and enabled transgression of patriarchal barriers. However, this space for self-assertion did not take away from the underappreciation of women’s labor involved with feeding and taking care of a family. As historian Katherine Leonard Turner writes in her work on the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States, “Food is an important part of women’s history, but food is not limited to women’s history. Although cooking was certainly considered ‘women’s work,’ food was a problem for the whole family. To be sure, the burden was not equally shared. Women bore the primary responsibility for finding, cooking, and serving food every day.” [11] This work required specific knowledge about acquiring and preparing food, as well as how much could be stored. [12] Applying this knowledge at Lexington Market or elsewhere, women navigated negotiations with food sellers. Each seller would try to maximize their profits and many were men. Women stood up for themselves and their families by not allowing these people to manipulate them in market interactions. [13] Historian Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger refers to this work as “women’s consumer labor” and writes that it “was consistently erased.” [14] Women have always worked laboriously in both public and private. Lack of recognition for this labor necessitates we amplify their contributions. [15]


Class is another impactful determinant of how Baltimoreans historically interacted with Lexington Market. Turner points out that budget fundamentally drove food shopping experiences. Indeed, she asserts that in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries food made up around fifty percent of the overall budget for working-class Americans. [16] There was also not much social mobility in this period, in contrast to the immense physical mobility of the time due to immigration and urbanization. [17] Prior to Turner’s period of focus, the antebellum United States had even less social mobility. In the early years of the American Republic almost everyone worked directly in agriculture. The gradual move away from this to a more diversified economy by the Civil War years is what some historians call the “market revolution.” [18] This revolution happened amidst chattel slavery and in a deeply patriarchal society. As a result, increased economic complexity led to social stratification that pushed privileged white men to the top of socio-economic relations. When women or Black people asserted themselves in Lexington Market and other public spaces, this provided vital everyday resistance to white supremacist, patriarchal power structures. This was especially true for members of the working class.


The so-called “moral economy” is one aspect of antebellum food market culture that persisted against purely capitalist interests in the postbellum era. The moral economy was essentially a joint effort by local government and the community itself to preserve the common welfare of the community. [19] City government regulated market affairs through legislation to ensure a functional place for city residents to purchase or sell food. This was considered a vital function of municipal government since food is a basic life necessity. [20] Meanwhile, community members ensured the practical functionality of Lexington or other markets by policing and regulating activities. A strong example of this community regulation relates to huckstering, mentioned earlier as a harmfully racialized form of work. One positive aspect of civic attitudes on huckstering was that some of these jobs were reserved for individuals facing unearned adversity like widowed mothers and people living with disabilities. The community felt a measure of responsibility for taking care of these community members, and some were treated relatively well as hucksters. [21] Any empathetic aspect of the moral economy requires the qualification that prejudice likely got in the way of helping some who needed it most. In tandem with this moral regulation, the Baltimore City ordinances introduced in 1805 exemplify local government market regulation. These ordinances ensured market vendors and products remained local. [22] They also delineated physical limits of each market to avoid over-competition. [23] The collaborative effort between local government and residents to ensure productive market spaces turned markets into places of civic pride. [24]


Lexington Market has played a prominent role in Baltimore community life for over two centuries. The city’s power dynamics of race, gender, and class are all reflected in the histories of this market. Black Baltimoreans engaged in market activities as free people or under terms of enslavement. These Black experiences happened in the shadow of the domestic slave trade, in which Baltimore was one of the most prominent ports. Freedom was tenuous in antebellum Baltimore and, by extension, in the early Lexington Market. In the postbellum era, women became increasingly involved in market activities and public life overall. Women’s consumer market expertise deserves extensive recognition, which it did not receive at the time. For working-class Baltimoreans, food was a primary expense. Since so much of a working-class family’s income was spent on food, market purchasing decisions carried high stakes. Black Baltimoreans, working-class residents, and women came together in the community that made Lexington Market. In collaboration with city government, this community greatly contributed to the market’s effectiveness and longevity. Lexington Market burned almost entirely to the ground in 1949. The Sun reported that, “Only the charred and battered skeleton of the wooden market building remained after it was swept from one end to the other by the swift-moving flames.” [25] But the fire far from destroyed its rich history for Baltimore communities. As Lexington Market continues to evolve, it is important to illuminate this history to better understand social dynamics of the city.

 

[1] Albertype Co. “[Lexington market, Baltimore, Maryland],” photograph (Baltimore, c. 1850-1900), Library of Congress, public domain, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006688001/.

[2] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 206-207, https://www.loc.gov/item/rc01003473/.

[3] City of Baltimore, The Baltimore Book: A Resume of the Commercial, Industrial and Financial Resources, Municipal Activities and General Development of the City of Baltimore (Baltimore: Summers Printing Co., 1912), 83, https://www.loc.gov/item/12004867/.

[4] Seawall, “Transforming Lexington Market: Baltimore City’s Public Market,” Seawall, May 18, 2023, https://www.seawall.com/stories/transforming-lexington-market-baltimore-citys-public-market/.

[5] Joshua D. Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 6.

[6] “Sculpture at Lexington Market Aims to Capture the History of Slavery,” CBS News Baltimore, December 4, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/baltimore/news/sculpture-lexington-market-aims-to-capture-the-history-of-slavery/; Lisa C. Bailey, “‘Robert and Rosetta’ Sculpture Honors History Hidden in Plain Sight,” The University of Vermont, January 11, 2023, https://www.uvm.edu/news/cas/robert-and-rosetta-sculpture-honors-history-hidden-plain-sight.

[7] 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.

[8] Robert J. Gamble, “Civic Economies: Commerce, Regulation, and Public Space in the Antebellum City” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2014), 83-84, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/60297/GAMBLE-DISSERTATION-2014.pdf.

[9] Robert J. Gamble, “The City That Eats: Food and Power in Baltimore’s Early Public Markets,” in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, ed. P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Clark Davis (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 17, Kindle edition.

[10] For more on Baltimore’s “squeegee kids,” see Ron Cassie, “Coming Clean: Baltimore’s ‘squeegee kids’ have been a source of hot debate and off-and-on concern for decades,” Baltimore Magazine, July 2019, https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/section/community/baltimore-squeegee-kids-traffic-debate-concern/.

[11] Katherine Leonard Turner, How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 16, https://archive.org/details/howotherhalfateh0000turn.

[12] Turner, How the Other Half Ate, 55-56.

[13] Gamble, “The City That Eats,” 15.

[14] Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger, “Out of the Shadows: Uncovering Women’s Productive and Consuming Labor in the Mid-Atlantic. 1750-1815” (PhD diss., University of Delaware, 2017), 4, https://udspace.udel.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/fc5ebc38-e113-470e-a700-7b4ad4d1dff2/content.

[15] Turner, How the Other Half Ate, 16.

[16] Turner, How the Other Half Ate, 1.

[17] Turner, How the Other Half Ate, 10.

[18] John Lauritz Larson, The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1, https://archive.org/details/marketrevolution0000lars.

[19] Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), xvii, https://archive.org/details/publicmarketsciv0000tang.

[20] Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture, 21.

[21] Gamble, “Civic Economies,” 198-199.

[22] Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture, 10-11.

[23] Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture, 14.

[24] Jon Stobart and Ilja van Damme, “Introduction: Markets in Modernization: Transformations in Urban Market Space and Practice, c. 1800 - c. 1970,” Urban History, archived preprint (2015): 3, https://repository.uantwerpen.be/docman/irua/3eee7b/4b1c4e86.pdf.

[25] “DAMAGE PUT AT 5 MILLION IN LEXINGTON MARKET FIRE,” Baltimore Evening Sun, March 25, 1949, 1, https://www.newspapers.com/image/370010094/.

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