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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Reckoning with Baltimore's Role in the Domestic Slave Trade

BHW 15: May 13, 2023

 

A “BALTIMORE SLAVE TRADE” historic marker standing alongside a street, with trees and traffic in the background. The marker reads: “ALTHOUGH THE UNITED STATES BANNED THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE IN 1808, A DOMESTIC TRADE FROM THE UPPER SOUTH TO THE EMERGING COTTON-GROWING REGIONS OF THE DEEP SOUTH THRIVED UNTIL THE 1860s. BALTIMORE-BASED DEALERS SUPPLIED THE TRADE, OPERATING SLAVE PENS AT THE INNER HARBOR, ON FELL’S POINT, AND ACROSS THE CITY, INCLUDING NEAR THIS LOCATION. BETWEEN 1808 AND THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN MARYLAND IN 1864, AN ESTIMATED THIRTY THOUSAND PEOPLE WERE ‘SOLD SOUTH’ FROM BALTIMORE.”
Figure 1. “Baltimore Slave Trade historic marker,” photo by author, April 2023.

 

Today, a “Baltimore Slave Trade” historic marker stands on East Pratt Street between the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (Figure 1). Just off the Inner Harbor, it marks the landscape with Baltimore’s role in the domestic trade in enslaved people during the antebellum portion of the nineteenth century. For the people forcibly relocated by this trade, sale was a traumatic process of often violent separation from family, friends, and community. This human element is notably missing from the historic marker. To counteract such silencing of historically oppressed voices, this article will focus on the perspectives of the enslaved individuals harmed by the domestic slave trade. When the operations of slave traders and their involvement in local and national economies are overemphasized, experiences of trafficked people are silenced. To counteract this, let us focus is on these enslaved human experiences in and involving Baltimore City.


Black Baltimoreans who at any point lived as enslaved people found ways to resist their enslavement. This was true even within a system of American slavery that sought to extract as much capital from them as possible with as little investment in their humanity as possible. It also applies to both the domestic slave trade and American slavery as a whole. Historian Stephanie M. H. Camp provides brilliant historical analysis of this enslaved resistance. Camp argues that slavery denied enslaved people “a medley of freedoms.” This variant combination of freedoms denied also meant the presence of an array of fronts on which the enslaved could resist. [1] This was true of both the small-scale enslavement typical of Baltimore history and the large-scale enslavement of plantations. Anywhere humanity was denied was also a space for humanity to be asserted and reclaimed. For historians, it is difficult to uncover small acts of resistance in the archive. These often leave no trace, but that does not make the freedom claims underlying actions any less significant. Camp makes the excellent point that the historical focus on “‘revolutions’ and ‘transformations’” exacerbates power-based silencing in the archive. [2] A focus on monumental events also draws attention away from the everyday resistance crucial to the achievement of social change over time. There are certainly examples of revolutionary Black freedom-seeking, such as the Black people who joined the Union cause to earn their freedom during the Civil War. Yet, not only are the small-scale freedom acts the vital foundation for freedom gains, but they are also more relatable to most readers of history.


One of the largest Baltimore-related acts of enslaved resistance happened on a domestic slave trade ship that started its journey in Baltimore and was on its way to the Deep South. In 1826, the enslaved captives aboard the Decatur threw the captain and first mate into the sea. [3] They then controlled the ship for five days, a significant period given the average slave ship journey from Baltimore to New Orleans took twenty-eight days. [4] The mutineers demanded that the crew take the ship to Saint-Domingue, which was liberated from French control through the Haitian Revolution twenty-two years earlier. [5] The Haitian Revolution was truly ground-breaking, some deem it “unthinkable.” It was the ultimate example of enslaved Black resistance and was successful, producing an independent state. [6] That one of Baltimore’s largest examples of enslaved resistance included demands to be taken to lands won through enslaved Black revolution illuminates global histories of Black resistance. On the sixth day of captive control, the crew of a whaling ship came aboard and took seventeen of the Decatur’s captives to Boston. This is where the story’s archival trail ends. As historian Jennie K. Williams argues, “Despite the mixed individual outcomes achieved by the Decatur uprising, this insurrection and others like it collectively generated significant results.” [7] The scale of this uprising greatly contributed to its preservation in the archival record and its noted significance. By contrast, enslaved people in antebellum Baltimore found ways to resist and step closer to freedom every day without leaving a trace. These acts together carried the broader collective movement towards freedom.


The strength and persistence of the Black freedom struggle in Baltimore motivated Baltimore enslavers to sell their enslaved assets via the domestic slave trade. Markets and agricultural factors also played a large role, but the human aspect is vital. Baltimore created lucrative ground for Black freedom assertions in two main ways. Firstly, as historian T. Stephen Whitman argues, enslaved people in Maryland could “propel themselves out of slavery through self-purchase or manumission granted after a further term of service.” [8] The opportunities to do so reflected Black freedom gains made within Maryland’s legal system since the late-eighteenth century. [9] Secondly, Baltimore’s immense free Black population provided ample ground for enslaved people to blend in and pass as free. [10] This large free Black population reflects the hard-fought transition to free Black labor in Baltimore history. By 1810, Maryland had the largest free Black population in the country. [11] This was concentrated in Baltimore, reflecting the great opportunities for the newly free typically available in urban settings. [12] Freedom opportunities were counterbalanced by the reliance of Baltimore City’s economy on the domestic slave trade. The urban vitality and growth of early-nineteenth century Baltimore made it a desirable destination for free Black people. Ironically, this desirable urban economy was built on dollars created significantly through the domestic trade of enslaved Black bodies. [13]


The scale of Baltimore’s role in the domestic slave trade related to its role as the center of the trade for all of Maryland. As historian Frederic Bancroft writes, this prominence was due to being “the State’s only large city and the focus of its commerce.” Baltimore Harbor developed infrastructure enabling efficiencies in the trade and business activity followed. Bancroft adds that the press carried Baltimore slave trade business around the state. Indeed, Baltimore’s dealers of enslaved people “daily advertised in one or more metropolitan newspapers which went to every part of the triangular little State. But that did not suffice; these advertisements were often reprinted at the countyseats [sic].” [14] If a person anywhere in Maryland desired to engage in the domestic slave trade, they would likely find the best conditions for this business in Baltimore. Relatedly, the bringing of a Maryland enslaved person to Baltimore for sale could lead to traumatic experiences. It is remarkable that while Baltimore was one of the parts of Maryland least reliant on slavery, it was also the center of the state’s slave trade activity. Historian Barbara Fields clarifies this with her “two Marylands” concept. She writes, “There were, in effect, two Marylands by 1850: one founded upon slavery and the other upon free labor.” [15] The prominence of free labor in Baltimore since the beginning of the nineteenth century suggests it was firmly in the latter category many years before Fields’s 1850 delineation. Baltimore was a hub for both Black freedom and the domestic slave trade, a city of contrasts for those with cause to reflect on or challenge their own status.


In the dealings and thus the archive of the domestic slave trade, enslaved people are discussed as commodities of national and global trade. This dehumanization makes it ever more important to amplify human experiences. However, it is also important to understand the historically significant role of agriculture in driving the domestic slave trade. A primary reason Maryland became less of an enslavement state and more of an exporter of enslaved people was the economic decline of tobacco production relative to the cotton boom. Tobacco grew well in Maryland, whereas cotton thrived in the Deep South. As historian Joshua D. Rothman writes, the “declining tobacco economy . . . yielded a ‘surplus’ of slaves in the Chesapeake states of Maryland and Virginia.” [16] Tobacco cultivation was never concentrated in Baltimore City itself, but rather in rural parts of Maryland. Baltimore’s role in the domestic slave trade was thus driven by agricultural developments elsewhere in the state, just as Maryland’s place in the agricultural trade was reshaped by external crop shifts. [17] Demand for crops also directly impacted demand for enslaved people given the prominence of enslaved labor in antebellum cotton production. As a major city, New Orleans was central to the domestic slave trade for similar reasons as Baltimore. It served as the urban nexus for regional agricultural interests to deal in enslaved laborers. Jennie K. Williams calculates that 88 percent of the trade in enslaved people between these two cities was conducted by established slave traders. [18] Some of the traders involved in the Baltimore to New Orleans trade established operations in both cities, further streamlining the business. [19]


Given the national significance of the domestic slave trade in the early-nineteenth century United States, its lack of attention in public memory is striking. Historian Stephen Deyle argues that “In many respects this historical amnesia has been a consequence of the effort to reunite the country after the Civil War, when the abolitionist critiques of the Old South were muted, and white southerners were allowed to define what life had been like [under slavery].” [20] Certainly, as the United States attempted postwar Reconstruction there was an emphasis on unity between the Union and the states of the former Confederacy. This explains some of the lack of attention to the domestic slave trade in the postbellum era, but is unsatisfactory for explaining the twenty-first century context. Current silencing likely relates to the shame attached to such a despicable business. Part of the role public historians and memory workers can play in raising awareness of the trade is emphasizing that slavery was despicable. While this may seem obvious, historian Stephanie E. Yuhl points out that “When the story of slavery begins in the usual historic sites—the plantation, small farm, or city mansion setting—it is too easily domesticated into a discourse about paternalism, relationships, community, homes, households, and intact families ‘white and black.’” [21] A focus on plantations and relationships fails to express slavery’s embeddedness in American economic activity.


Momentum for the long-overdue integration of the domestic slave trade into American public memory presents an opportunity to rectify the lack of emphasis on enslaved experiences. The aforementioned “Baltimore Slave Trade” marker exemplifies this predicament. Its emphasis on “dealers” and the “trade” overlooks traumatic human stories. As Yuhl writes, “the dearth of historic sites asserting the domestic trade’s importance risk reinforcing the slave owners’ interpretation of [slavery].” [22] Underemphasis on enslaved perspectives in public historical narratives serves to strengthen deeply problematic historical power dynamics. By not shifting power away from slaveholder viewpoints towards those of the enslaved, these power dynamics are perpetuated. Thus, people who encounter this historical content are more likely to think of the history from the perspectives of the enslavers. This needs to be stopped. Public history institutions should harness the power of inquiry-based interpretation to encourage identification with and questions about enslaved experiences of the trade. The last sentence on the Baltimore marker does this somewhat, stating, “Between 1808 and the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864, an estimated thirty thousand people were ‘sold South’ from Baltimore” (Figure 1). For starters, this should be moved from the end of the marker text to the beginning to center enslaved people in the narrative. It ideally would then be followed by an articulation of the traumatic human experiences at the core of the domestic slave trade.


The domestic slave trade was a vital part of Baltimore City’s economy in the antebellum portion of the nineteenth century. The havoc this trade wreaked on the lives of enslaved people must be featured prominently in historical narratives. Recent academic historical scholarship increasingly emphasizes these human aspects, but this must be carried over to the public history realm. If enslaved humanity in the trade remains largely within the confines of academic circles, its awareness levels and impacts will suffer. Hopefully, increased public awareness of the harsh lived realities of the domestic slave trade can encourage recognition of the business of slavery and its legacies. The deep integration of the domestic trade in the American economy during the first half of the nineteenth century demonstrates slavery’s vital role in the development of American capitalism. [23] Understanding these relationships is crucial for reckoning with the legacies of the past. For example, this greatly applies to ongoing discussions about reparations for Black Americans [24]. Telling these stories through a public historical focus on enslaved people encourages human connection with the harsh realities of American history. Whether at historic sites or near streetside markers, each public conversation about the enslaved people forcibly trafficked around the United States gives their stories long overdue attention.


 

[1] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 13.

[2] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 9.

[3] Jennie K. Williams, “Trouble the water: The Baltimore to New Orleans coastwise slave trade, 1820-1860,” Slavery & Abolition 41, no. 2 (June 2020): 287, https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2019.1660509.

[4] Williams, “Trouble the water,” 282.

[5] Anita Rupprecht, “‘All We Have Done, We Have Done for Freedom’: The Creole Slave-Ship Revolt (1841) and the Revolutionary Atlantic,” International Review of Social History 58 (September 2013): 253-277, https://cup.org/44sygcF.

[6] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “From Planters’ Journals to Academia: The Haitian Revolution as Unthinkable History,” Journal of Caribbean History 25, no. 1-2 (1991): 82, https://www.proquest.com/openview/8bc4f8c8db3c414d22aabac105888670.

[7] Williams, “Trouble the water,” 287.

[8] T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 1, Kindle edition.

[9] For more on these Black legal freedom gains, see our April 22, 2023 feature on “Intertwined Histories of Courthouses and Black Legal Rights in Baltimore, 1770-1900”:

Baltimore Histories Weekly Intertwined Histories of Courthouses and Black Legal Rights in Baltimore, 1770-1900 Read more 21 days ago · 2 likes · Emmanuel Mehr

[10] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 35, https://archive.org/details/scrapingbywagela0000rock.

[11] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 1, https://archive.org/details/slaveryfreedomon0000fiel.

[12] Rockman, Scraping By, 35.

[13] Joshua D. Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 14.

[14] Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959 [1931]), 37, https://archive.org/details/slavetradinginol0000banc.

[15] Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, 7.

[16] Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain, 4.

[17] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 6.

[18] Williams, “Trouble the water,” 277.

[19] Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South, 122.

[20] Stephen Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 11-12, https://archive.org/details/carrymebackdomes00deyl.

[21] Stephanie E. Yuhl, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Centering the Domestic Slave Trade in American Public History,” The Journal of Southern History 79, no. 3 (August 2013): 595, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23795089.

[22] Yuhl, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” 623.

[23] Calvin Schermerhorn, “Capitalism’s Captives: The Maritime United States Slave Trade, 1807-1850,” Journal of Social History 47, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 898, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43308821.

[24] See Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/; Nikole Hannah-Jones, “What is Owed,” New York Times Magazine, June 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html; Kurtis Lee, “California Panel Calls for Billions in Reparations for Black Residents,” New York Times, May 6, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/06/business/economy/california-reparations.html.

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