Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Commentary: How we got to be who we are

When he left The Sun five years ago, he admitted to a certain loss of enthusiasm.

The “Hey, Martha!” reflex had gone a’ glimmering. (This refers to the idea that a newspaper reader or reporter, learning something new, calls out to his wife with a measure of excitement.)

It happens in many careers. Antero Pietila, my friend and colleague at The Sun, had been there and done that.

He’d always been an adventurer, coming to the United States from Finland on a freighter and enrolling in college, then looking for a newspaper that might send him to exotic places. He reported from Johannesburg, Moscow, Afghanistan and many other cities and countries.

Yet nothing held his imagination and kindled his curiosity more deeply than Baltimore — its people, its history, its politics.

Turns out he had an antidote to his malaise.

He had a book in progress, a project with some of what he had been missing, some of the wonder of discovery, a feeling he was on to something important, something incompletely understood.

Recently, he published “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.” (Ivan R. Dee, publisher)

It is a brave and masterful exploration of the forces that make an American city — not just Baltimore — what it is. The narrative varies, but the dynamic is widely observable.

How were attitudes shaped, reinforced and expressed? What sustained and ratified them? Who led us toward what the legal historian Garrett Power of Baltimore called “Apartheid Baltimore Style.”

Baltimore’s segregation

Pietila’s book plumbs the developing soul of a place in which Baltimoreans lived in clear-cut separation from each other. The city’s racial history has been etched into the streetscape. This tracery remains, though it is not impermeable. Blacks and whites do live together in many neighborhoods.

It is the history, though, that Pietila’s book examines. And the examination goes directly to those political, professional social leaders who endorsed and sometimes tried to enforce separation.

Primary among these, Pietila writes, were three men: William L. Marbury, a Confederate “nostalgic” who was a pre-eminent city father. What the Baltimore lawyer thought of black people was clear enough.

“It is an anomalous condition that an inferior race should share the government with a superior one,” he said. Marbury and other Progressives thought science supported their belief in white supremacy. Along with many others in the United States, Pietila writes, Marbury was taken with eugenics, a system of human classification by race and ethnicity. “Not In My Neighborhood” also recounts American attitudes toward Jews and other minorities.

Pietila offers a searching, revelatory examination of thought predominating in the early 1900s. It lays bare the roots of thinking the way Robert Caro excavated the world of New York’s Robert Moses in “The Power Broker,” a book about how that city came to be what it is. Pietila’s book helps us understand how toxic racial attitudes were championed by its leaders.

Family’s influence

Marbury’s family history is part of the story. His father was a planter, a lawyer and a member of the General Assembly. The family house was then in Prince George’s County.

In a telling passage, Pietila writes: “The family’s big, white frame house overlooked a scenic valley of ancient Piscataway hunting grounds where trees burst into a riot of color each autumn. Next to the house, ringed by some of the first boxwoods planted in North America, mossy headstones marked the graves of ancestors who had mercifully been spared from the humiliation of the War of Northern Aggression (a description of the Civil War still heard in the land). At the outbreak of hostilities the Marburys owned 62 slaves …”

Marbury was joined enthusiastically in his views by William Cabell Bruce, his classmate at the Johns Hopkins University. Bruce was a historian who would become at U.S. senator. A third opinion leader was Charles H. Grasty, editor and publisher of The Sun. Under his leadership, the newspaper became a strong advocate of residential segregation.

These were but three men of power and influence in a position to keep black people “in their place.” By their lights, by the ethos of the time, they were defending American democracy aggressively and unapologetically.

Pietila must have had many “Hey, Martha” moments as he worked on this fine book.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.