February 23, 2012
In light of Black History month, this week I want to explore Baltimore’s involvement with the Underground Railroad – a pre-Civil War network that guided tens of thousands of slaves to freedom.
The Underground Railroad in Baltimore
“Shut off the drill!” the construction worker shouted as he dropped his shovel, “Call Foreman Humphreys!”
In the curious new silence, he peered into the hole at the intersection of Camden and Hanover Streets. They had drilled only two feet into the earth when they hit, then broke through, a brick wall.
Beneath it, stretching endlessly, was darkness.
What’s down there? The man wondered.
The sun was bright and the air crisp that September morning in 1937. The construction worker was from the Bureau of Mechanical Electrical Engineering – they were installing underground transformers that would put Downtown Baltimore on a ‘modern electrical grid.’
But what they found instead was a section of a tunnel. A tunnel from another period of time.
That tunnel was part of the Underground Railroad.
On that morning in 1937, Foreman Frank Humphreys attempted to explore the tunnel, but, as the Baltimore American newspaper reported, cave-ins prevented him from getting very far.
It was later discovered that the tunnel led from Pratt and Howard Streets, the site of the original slave market, to the harbor.
The tunnel was only three feet wide – “so small a man could not walk upright, even in a stooping position,” the newspaper report continued.
“Slaves must have crawled their way to waiting boats.”
The discovery of this secret tunnel illustrates the important role Baltimore played in the Underground Railroad network.
Between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom through the Underground Railroad, which began in the slaveholding states of the Deep South, crossed through Washington DC and Maryland, then on to the Northern States like Pennsylvania, Delaware and even Canada.
It wasn’t so much a “Railroad” as a series of safe houses, churches, natural landmarks and river routes that runaway slaves, called “fugitives,” travelled under the cover of night. At any moment they could be captured, returned to slavery, or killed.
The Baltimore American’s newspaper report lives on yellowing pages right here at The Enoch Pratt Free Library; but it’s not the only example of the Underground Railroad in Baltimore.
The tunnel below the Orchard Street Church (Courtesy SoulofAmerica.com)
Three floors below the Orchard Street Church lies a sub-basement, cistern and tunnel. A former slave, Truman Pratt, founded the church in 1825, and it is widely believed to be a stop along the Underground Railroad. Today it’s the home of the Greater Baltimore Urban League. 512 Orchard Street.
Although Maryland was a slave state during the Civil War, “Baltimore had the largest number of free blacks of any city in the North or South,” writes Jacques Kelly in this article from the Baltimore Sun. “African-Americans freely mixed with whites on the streets and in public places. It would not have been unusual for free blacks to be seen on Pratt Street, the wharves or in the railway stations.”
“A runaway fugitive could go right down to Fells Point, mingle with the free blacks,” says Louis C. Fields, local director of the International Network of Freedom Associations. “Perhaps get taken in by one of them, and live in one of the alley houses down there, Dallas Street, Durham Street, and live like a free man, almost.”
The Maryland Historical Society currently has an exhibit called “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War” that features a section about the Underground Railroad. In addition, its online catalog displays rare items such as this ink drawing called “Escape By Night.” The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12pm-5pm. $6 donation suggested. 201 W. Monument Street. http://www.mdhs.org/
Even the Chesapeake Bay served an important role in the Underground Railroad. Sympathetic sea captains would hide fugitives aboard their boats and sail south around the Delmarva Peninsula. This map, beautifully prepared by The National Park Service, details the routes and the heroes responsible for paving ‘the path to freedom.‘
Other Baltimore landmarks have ties to the Abolitionist Movement.
Take for example, this familiar sight docked in the Inner Harbor:
Did you know, between 1859 and 1861, The USS Constellation was stationed off the coast of Africa?
Its mission was to find and divert slave trading ships. And it did – the Constellation captured and freed 705 men, women and children over a three-year period. You can tour it seven days a week between 10am and 4:30pm. http://www.historicships.org/
These are just a few examples of the Underground Railroad network in Baltimore – if you know of others, please let me know. The more I researched, the more excited I became – Baltimore is a bastion of living history.
As the saying goes, those who understand the past are best prepared for the future. So, I’m aiming to post a history-related article in our Charles Street Insider once a month. It’s a reminder of where our Charles Street community has been, but it’s also a testament to the heights we can reach when we all work together.
I hope you’ll look forward to it as much as I do, and I want to thank the excellent staff at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for their research assistance!
Now, on to a few items of present-day business…
Let’s Eat? Let’s Discuss!
Photo courtesy Baltimore21201.com
I got the permits, so now it’s official! We’re closing the entire 300 block of North Charles Street on Saturday, May 12, so we can have our Let’s Eat Charles Street block party.
Requests from our member restaurants and retailers have been pouring in – I’m so happy to see how many people want to participate this year!
We’ll have great food & beverages, clothing, jewelry and other vendors, music, and even a few surprises.
So if you’re interested in having a booth at our fun, free event, email me right away, and I’ll stop over with the paperwork.
And if all this talk about eating has gotten you hungry, may I suggest…
Mount Vernon’s Lunchtime Secret
Have you tried the crab cakes at George’s at Mount Vernon Square lately?
Located inside the Wyndham Baltimore Peabody Court Hotel, George’s has been a favorite happy hour destination for many corporate types in Mount Vernon.
But their lunch specials – including those crab cakes – are worth a trip in itself.
What’s your secret? I asked Tom, George’s Head Chef and Food and Beverage Manager. The crabs are perfectly spicy, lump crabby. That’s as much information as I could get outta him!
The crab cakes come with an Old-Bay infused remoulade, and the crispy waffle fries were great, too.
Seriously folks, why save your calories for dinner when you could feast at lunch on something like this?
Actually, George’s can satisfy any meal craving – they’re open three meals a day, seven days a week. And they have a popular Sunday brunch from 11am-3pm. Tell Tom I sent you. 612 Cathedral Street. Phone 410-727-1314. http://www.peabodycourthotel.com/dining.php
Fun Things To Do This Weekend
Tonight, Thursday, February 23 from 5:30-8pm, join the Baltimore National Heritage Area for a History Happy Hour at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel! You’ll get a sneak peek at “Anthem,” an independent documentary film about the story of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the music of The War of 1812. Historian Dr. Ralph Eshelman and musicologist Dr. David Hildebrand will be on-hand, along with specialty War of 1812 cocktails for $5. Located at 202 East Pratt Street.
On Saturday, February 25: ever wanted to crochet? The Woman’s Industrial Exchange has got the hook up from 12pm-2pm. This introductory series teaches you the basics of crochet – from picking the right yarn and hooks for your projects to basic stitches (including single, double and half-double crochet), and putting them all together to create a rectangular motif.
I have a lopsided scarf I’ve been meaning to finish for the past 15 years, but you don’t need a stitch of experience to attend this class. $20 per student plus a $4 materials fee. 333. North Charles Street. Phone 410-244-6450. Website:
Also opening on Saturday: a new, beautiful watercolor exhibit at The Walters Art Museum. “Near Paris: The Watercolors of Léon Bonvin” showcases flowers, landscapes and moonlit scenes that were part of the Realist Movement in mid-19th century France. Bonvin was a self-taught painter who died tragically by suicide in 1866. The exhibit is free, and The Walters is located at 600 N Charles Street. Phone 410-947-5000. For exhibit details, visit: http://thewalters.org/eventscalendar/eventdetails.aspx?e=2491
On Sunday, February 26 from 2pm-3pm at The Enoch Pratt Free Library, James Harp, the Artistic Director of Lyric Opera Baltimore previews Mozart’s sparkling farce, The Marriage of Figaro! Free. 400 Cathedral Street. Phone 410-396-5480. Website: http://www.prattlibrary.org.
Also on Sunday, check out the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at An Die Musik at 5pm. Join Kahil El’ Zabar (drums, voice, kalimba), Ernest Kahbeer Dawkins (reeds), and Corey Wilkes (trumpet) in a fanfare of colors, sounds, and ‘rhythmical hipness!’ Tickets $15. An Die Musik is located at 409 North Charles Street. Phone 410-385-2638. http://andiemusiklive.com/
Do you know someone who might like a copy of The Charles Street Insider? Send them this link:
(I built it myself), and they can join our mailing list!
Thanks everyone who sent in answers to last week’s question! Lombard Street used to be called Corned Beef Row. Today, all that’s left of that delicious heritage is Attman’s Deli.
I’d like to thank Marc Sklar of Gian Marco Menswear for this week’s challenging question, as we continue with our theme of street trivia:
What was the original name of Redwood Street?
Email me your answer, and you too, could win a prize!
Until next week,
Executive Director, The Historic Charles Street Association
The Historic Charles Street Association (HCSA) is a non-profit organization, 501 (c)(3),whose mission is to support and promote the businesses, cultural attractions, entertainment venues, restaurants and retail establishments along the Charles Street corridor. HCSA serves as a problem solving and information resource for its members, as well as provides a forum for networking, communication and collaboration.