Social history looks at the alliances built in Depression-era Baltimore

A New Deal For All?

Andor Skotnes

Duke University Press

On Oct. 28, 1933, 10 days after the lynching of 22-year-old George Armwood, Donald Smith published his revised version of the state's anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland," in the Baltimore Afro-American. "Lynchland, My Maryland" can be read as a bitter parody ("Where law has crumbled, died, and failed") or even a violent call to arms ("Our race must now retaliate") in the wake of two lynchings on the Eastern Shore. Andor Skotnes, in his social history A New Deal For All? (Duke University Press), gives us an idea of what Smith was responding to.

One of the victims was a 35-year-old black laborer named Matthew Williams, accused (on spurious evidence) of murdering his white employer. "[The mob] dragged Williams from his hospital bed and through the streets; stabbed him with an ice pick; and then hoisted his body up and down from a tree on the courthouse green several times before leaving it there to hang. . . . Williams' body was finally cut down, carried by a procession to a vacant lot in the Black community, soaked with gasoline, and burned. Still not satisfied, the mob later carried Williams' charred corpse back to the center of town and hanged it again."

Skotnes' view of Baltimore's civil rights struggle in the 1930s isn't chronological. Rather, it's composed of moments like this, where a mixture of outrage and hope catalyzed unlikely coalitions for change. As Skotnes shows us, the 1930s African-American community of Baltimore-and the working class community here in general-had reasons to be pissed off and reasons to believe that they could do something to change things.

Along with Antero Pietila's Not in My Neighborhood and Deborah Rudacille's Roots of Steel, Skotnes' New Deal for All? investigates the complex history of Baltimore's neighborhoods, focusing specifically on the struggle for economic and racial equality. It's an absorbing read but not an easy one. Skotnes, a professor at the Sage Colleges and self-described former activist, has written an academic book with 310 pages of text, 90 pages of footnotes, and a mess of acronyms that can be tough to organize-but the book is well worth the reader's effort.

Baltimoreans will emerge from this sometimes labyrinthine account with a serious understanding of the richness and complexity of their city's history. Skotnes remains meticulously local, introducing the reader to a slew of characters, including Northern-educated progressives, communist revolutionaries, labor organizers, journalists, unemployed laborers, and even a faith healer. Since many of these characters are unknown, Skotnes relies extensively on oral testimony, reminding us that not everything can be Googled.

Our lack of historical perspective has caused us to isolate the struggles for black freedom, civil rights, and economic rights, but Skotnes sets out to remind us that social movements are "deeply, complexly, and subtly interconnected, and that these movements are best examined together." He does that within the context of the city itself, mining its complex weave of racial and ethnic and economic tensions.

Unlike many Baltimore historians, Skotnes is not a local. So, why Baltimore? And why the Great Depression? Baltimore, he writes, was the "middle ground," between the North and South. "The region had a dual nature, an in-betweenness" that makes it both unique and exemplary.

Jim Crow was alive and well in Charm City. By the late 1920s, the movement for integration had stagnated. In the '20s, the Baltimore NAACP itself had become ineffective as an agent for change. Baltimore itself was heavily segregated: ethnic neighborhoods to the east, wealthy neighborhoods in the north, and black communities in West Baltimore and Old Town. It was, as Thurgood Marshall put it, "way up South."

But there were forces for change: a booming industrial base, with alliances of workers, and more liberal cities (Philadelphia and New York) a few hours north. Baltimore didn't have the strict, legally enforced segregation of the South. And Baltimore's culturally rich African-American community worked as an important force: a strong newspaper (the Afro-American), a network of social clubs and fraternal organizations, and a rapid decline in illiteracy from 25.7 percent in 1900 to 7 percent in 1930.

The Great Depression brought that conflict to a head. For many radicals, crisis on Wall Street presaged the imminent collapse of capitalism. An invigorated socialist movement, imbued with confidence, began to step up, determined to seize the moment. The Communist Party, having adopted an anti-racist platform, began to add a radical call for widespread change to the neighborhood-based civil rights movements.

According to Skotnes, it was moments like the Williams and Armwood lynchings that brought the storm to a head. In 1933, workplace discontent, an increasingly vocal People's Unemployment League, and an emerging and united African-American community created a popular front that included social and church organizers, local coalitions, politicians, labor unions, young people's forums, the unemployed, and New Deal figures.

In 1934, after a series of 50 strikes in the Baltimore harbor, the Marine Workers Industrial Union-an integrated maritime union started by the Communist Party-managed to challenge both Jim Crow and the shipping companies, winning the right to control workers' relief. That moment, known at the time as "Baltimore Soviet," represents Skotnes' dream coalition for social and economic change.

While acknowledging the high points of urban, working-class neighborhood coalitions, Skotnes meticulously chronicles the inevitable splits that developed. The uneasy relationship between labor organizers and progressives as well as the sometimes strong racial divisions within organized labor become clear. Roosevelt's New Deal was a catalyzing force for change, but actual implementation of the policies, as Skotnes' title hints, was very uneven and eventually halted by an obstructionist Supreme Court.

Divisions and power struggles within the African-American community took their toll. Church leaders and Communist Party atheists didn't always see eye to eye. In one interesting footnote, the Afro-American, a strong voice for integration of workers' unions, resisted unionization of its employee base.

The book ends with World War II, which effectively brought an end to this chapter in labor and civil rights history. The Cold War and Red Scare that followed squashed the hopes of any further socialist alliances. White flight and blockbusting destroyed the neighborhood-based solidarity of '30s Baltimore. Coalitions-especially forums and the notable City-Wide Young People's forums-ceased to bond the community.

A New Deal for All? allows us to see the social history of Baltimore from the ground up. The book can be a tough slog, but then again, as Skotnes reminds us, so is the history of the city.

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