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Editorial Advisory Board: Making Baltimore ‘The Monumental City’

Most people going about their daily lives in downtown Baltimore have no idea that the entertainment venue now known as Market Place or Power Plant Live Plaza was once a small corner of hell. There, in the 18th and 19th centuries, enslaved Black people, including small children, were sold regularly in market stalls, alongside livestock, fish and other commodities.

Most baseball fans on their way to a game at Camden Yards are blissfully ignorant of the fact that just along their walking path, near the Babe Ruth statue and also near the corner of Pratt and Howard streets among other places, once stood squalid slave pens.

Few of those who have enjoyed the ballpark know that in the 18th and early 19th centuries ships sailing up the Chesapeake Bay laden with people kidnapped or purchased from Africa and the Caribbean routinely unloaded their human cargo at the Baltimore harbor. The enslaved people were then deposited into the pens near Camden Yards like cattle, awaiting their transfer in iron shackles to other ships destined for ports as far south as New Orleans.

Even after the importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed in 1808, the interstate slave trade still persisted in Baltimore. Slave market and holding pen operations continued uninterrupted for more than 50 years, until a Union army unit finally put a stop to it by force during the Civil War. Up to that point, Baltimore literally was built on the backs of the enslaved Black people who were used to construct buildings and ships.

Enslaved men also were forced to lay the infrastructure for one of the nation’s first commercial railroad companies, the Baltimore & Ohio, whose initial rail lines ran west and south, starting at the harbor. Black lives did not matter in the least to the generations of Baltimoreans who benefited handsomely from this hideous, sordid business, stretching back in time to the city’s founding and possibly earlier.

Baltimore was once dubbed “The Monumental City,” perhaps due to one of our most recognizable local landmarks, the memorial column to George Washington at Mount Vernon Place. On Calvert Street stands another prominent 19th century stone column commemorating the soldiers who fought the British invaders and died defending Baltimore in 1814.

The modern gilt fountain that graces the traffic circle at Harbor East is a spectacular reminder of the Baltimore Polish community’s reverence for the victims of the Katyn massacre of Polish prisoners by the Soviets in 1940. Until just a few years ago, we had a park and prominent bronze statutes honoring Confederate leaders who betrayed our country by waging a failed insurrection to perpetuate slavery, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And a statue dedicated by the local Italian community to Christopher Columbus stood for many years in Harbor East, until it was destroyed in an act of recent protest.  The monuments to the Confederates and Columbus generated heated debate in our community about which figures from our history are, and are not, worthy subjects who should be honored with monuments in the public space.

But with the exception of a small historical marker outside of the Reginald Lewis Museum, which easily could be missed, no public monument records the unspeakable horror and suffering visited by Baltimoreans on the countless innocent people whose identities are lost to time, but who were bought, sold and confined here over the course of the slave trade that existed for so long with grim normalcy.

That lengthy chapter is inextricably woven into the fabric of our history, but it is invisible.  Acknowledging and paying tribute to the enslaved people who built and suffered in Baltimore is a small step that might help truly to make Baltimore The Monumental City, where the past is confronted openly and where Black lives really do matter.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.


James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.