Labor’s Role in Baltimore’s History Fondly Recalled

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On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, April 17, 2005, two tour buses, packed with mostly political activists, left the Progressive Action Center (PAC), located on Gorsuch Ave., just south of where the fabled, but now razed, Memorial Stadium once stood. (1) Its purpose: “Discover aspects of the social history of those that made Baltimore City… which was built by working people: women and men, black and white. There is more to the history of Baltimore than Harborplace and the Shot Tower…” (2)

Ironies abound, the first patent for land in Baltimore City went, in 1661, to Charles Gorsuch, a Quaker, for whom Gorsuch Ave. is named. He was granted “fifty acres at Whetstone Point, where Fort McHenry now stands.” (3) Today, Whetstone Point is called Locust Point. It was once a bastion of the working class. It was also home to 21 pubs and five union halls, It wasn’t unusual to see a photo of the magnificent labor leader, John L. Lewis, mounted on a pub wall. Locust Point is also the site of a huge facility built in 1849, by the Baltimore & Ohio R/R, with piers for ocean going freight vessels, a Grain Elevator, a coal pier and a ship repair yard that was once owned by the now-bankrupt Bethlehem Steel. (4) The docks have since been taken over the Maryland Port Administration. (5) The Grain Elevator is slated for transformation into loft apartments and the once mighty B&O has merged into the Chessie System. Locust Point is fast becoming yuppified.

The presenters for the “People’s History” tour were ex-labor organizer, Bill Barry (6); Bill Harvey, a local Labor historian (7); Neil Hertz of Johns Hopkins U.’s Humanity Center; Norman Yancy of the “Community Building in Partnership”; Linda Zeidman of the History Dept. of the Essex C.C. and Betty Robinson, a community organizer. Photos and drawings of what the city looked like when Gorsuch took out the first land patent up until the modern era can be found in Suzanne Ellery Greene’s excellent book, “An Illustrated History of Baltimore,” (4) and also in a very good tome, “Bygone Baltimore: A Historical Portrait,” authored by Jacques Kelly, a resident of Charles Village. (8)

The first stop on the tour was Federal Hill, overlooking the Inner Harbor and towndown Baltimore. There, among other things, Mr. Neil Hertz talked about how the city has grown over the years from its modest beginnings. He emphasized the effects that “deindustrialization” has had on the port, the maritime and manufacturing industries. Mr. Hertz also underscored the significant loss of middle class jobs as result of that process. Ms. Linda Zeidman added some brief remarks covering some of the past and recent labor history of the area as it related to the Garment industry. Mr. Bill Barry referred to his personal experiences attempting to organize workers in the local hotels surrounding the harbor. He also related a story about James “Jiggs” Flynn, a deceased member of the International Longshoremen’s Local 953 from Locust Point, and how his life was centered around his work, union, parish church, family and friends.

Our bus then headed for the Roundhouse at the B&O Museum, just a few miles west of the Inner Harbor. At that stop, Mr. Barry, who is also the Director of Labor Studies at the Dundalk Community College, discussed the historic 1877 labor strike against the B&O railroad which began at its Martinsburg, WVA terminal and spread quickly to Baltimore. Federal troops had to be called out to smash the strikers. To demonstrate the malicious anti-worker attitude of the Robber Barons of that bygone era, Barry reminded everyone about the cruel fate of the “Molly Maguirers.” They were 10 miners, in PA, who were wrongly hanged in 1877 for conspiring to commit murder. The special prosecutor in the case was the President of the Reading R/R, Franklin B. Gowen, a coal baron, with a direct conflict of interest. In my opinion, it was a disgraceful matter of mass judicial murder. It remains a stain on that state’s reputation. A guilt-ridden Gowen later shot himself to death.

When we got to the next stop in West Baltimore, Sandtown-Winchester, we heard from Mr. Norman Yancy. The bus parked in front of a hugh wall mural which was dedicated in part to the memory of the late James Wilson Rouse, the developer of Harborplace. Mr. Yancy praised Rouse’s contributions to the African-American neighborhoods, via his Enterprise Foundation. He also said the neighborhoods have had some measurable “success” in transforming themselves by providing low-cost housing, rehabbing older homes, securing access to health care, drug counseling and job training programs.

Bill Harvey was our presenter at the stop at Hampden-Woodberry, which is located near the Rotunda. Raised in Hampden, Mr. Harvey gave a historical overview of the area, relating how the neighborhood was “first developed in the 1830s around grist mills on the banks of the Jones Falls.” He said that by 1880, after the mills were converted to the production of cotton textiles, “nearly 3000 workers were employed there.” A strike in 1923, he added, caused the owners to “sell off some of their buildings” and begin moving parts of their operations to the South. By 1971, Hampden days as a mill town were over. Harvey lamented the fact that few people appreciate the “shaping force of the neighborhood’s mill town past.”

At Hoffman Park, in East Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins Hospital, we met presenter, Betty Robinson. She brought everyone up to date on Hopkins’ plans to build a biotech facility in the area, which will impact negatively on the neighborhoods adjacent to it. Robinson said the community is “fighting hard” to protect its interests against this powerful, grasping opponent.

Because of the lateness of the day, our journey eastward across town to the sprawling GM plant on Broening Highway had to be canceled. Also, as a result of space limitations, I was only able to touch on a few of the many interesting social issues and topics that were brought up by all of the splendid presenters. It is fair to say, however, that in my opinion, this “People’s History Bus Tour of Baltimore City” was a resounding success.

Finally, why study history? Mr. Harvey answered that question in his book. (7) He wrote, in part, “We are shaped by our circumstances as much as we shape our own lives. Our successes and failures are part of the successes and failures of the human race. That realization may help us to see our lives more clearly, and see the road to democratic change.”

Notes:

[1]. http://www.ballparks.com/baseball/american/memori.htm

[2]. Flyer, “People’s History Bus Tour of Baltimore.” The event was sponsored by the Contemporary Museum & the Progressive Action Center/RAF.

[3]. “An Illustrated History of Baltimore,” by Suzanne Ellery Greene.

[4]. ttp://www.mcall.com/news/specials/bethsteel/

[5]. http://www.mpa.state.md.us/

[6]. http://www.citizensforbillbarry.org/

[7]. Author, “The People is Grass: A History of Hampden-Woodberry, 1802-1945,” (1988), Della Press.

[8]. “Bygone Baltimore: A Historical Portrait,” by Jacques Kelly.

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