Fell’s Point, the Clipper ships and slavery; Sharp-Leadenhall Freedmen the Quakers, and Elisha Tyson. Stop the Road fills in many gaps in Baltimore’s history, documenting the stunning events that saved the historic waterfront but left behind the Highway to Nowhere as the most visible reminder of the City’s unfair treatment of its African American population. But we also dig a little deeper to find issues that will change your understanding of Baltimore. Below are two examples. The first: our beloved Clipper Ships, which played a starring role as privateers in the War of 1812, were also heavily involved in the illegal slave trade. The following is a brief excerpt from the book:
Fell’s Point and slavery – the dark side of the heroic clipper ships
In 2012 Fell’s Point was chosen as the inaugural site for the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP), a non-profit organization “established… to honor the two million captive Africans who perished during the transatlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage and the ten million who survived to build the Americas.”
The slave trade is barely mentioned in historical accounts of Fell’s Point, so it may have surprised many Baltimoreans when MPCPMP chose Fell’s Point to launch their national campaign. Why was Fell’s Point a major center for slavery commerce? Of course, there is the obvious: Baltimore and Maryland were southern-leaning in numerous matters from slavery to commerce; however, Baltimore’s heroic Clipper ships were also, as Wikipedia’s authors indelicately phrased it, “especially suited to moving low-density, high value perishable cargoes such as slaves” [emphasis added].
In 1808 the U.S. banned the transatlantic slave trade, but the illegal slave trade continued. The fast and maneuverable Clippers were preferred by slave traders because they were superior vessels for evading the authorities. Further, Baltimore’s sailors were adept at taking full advantage of the Clippers’ swift but somewhat unstable handling. It was another high risk/high reward business, much like privateering—the residents of this “seafaring frontier” [Fell’s Point] understood and perhaps reveled in that exact equation.
Slaves were often held in downtown slave jails and then transported to Fell’s Point. As one author phrased it:
A routine spectacle was the dreary procession of Black men, women and children in chains along Pratt Street to Fell’s Point, where ships waited to carry them south to New Orleans for auction. Weeping family members would follow their loved ones along the route; they knew their parting might be forever, as there would be no way to know where slaves shipped south would end up.336F[i]
[i] Scott Shane, The Baltimore Sun, “The Baltimore Slave Trade,” June 1999, copied to the website: https://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/08/baltimore-city-slave-trade.html. (accessed 7.19.22)
Sharp-Leadenhall Freedman, the Quakers, and Elisha Tyson
A second topic where Stop the Road reveals little-known but important Baltimore history is in our historical background for Sharp-Leadenhall. Sharp-Leadenhall (almost obliterated in the 1960s and 1970s by two highway plans and one urban renewal plan) housed Baltimore’s largest concentration of African American Freedmen in the 19th century. Stop the Road answers the question as to why that was the case:
Figure 2. Elisha Tyson by Robert Street, National Portrait Gallery
The origins of Sharp Leadenhall lie in a late eighteenth-century neighborhood on the southwest side of downtown near Pratt, Charles, Eutaw, and Lee Street—a diverse mix of African-American Freedmen, Germans, and Quakers, all attracted by jobs in nearby industries. The Quakers were fierce abolitionists, and many were active in the Underground Railroad. It is not coincidental that African American Freedmen settled in a corridor where their presence was accepted by Whites who rejected slavery.
Much of the Quaker-African American Freedmen link revolves around one man: Elisha Tyson (whom Tyson Street is named for—see Chapter 3). Tyson was not just an abolitionist and participant in the Underground Railroad, he also challenged and thwarted dozens, perhaps hundreds, of attempted kidnappings intended to return slaves and former slaves to the South. He even employed a vigilante group to hunt down kidnappers. He further aided more than a thousand African Americans to gain Freedman status by filing lawsuits on their behalf. Sharp Leadenhall housed the largest enclave of Freedmen in Baltimore, with many, perhaps most, of those Freedmen gaining legal status as a result of Tyson’s lawsuits.
It was Tyson and other Quakers, working in concert with African Americans, who founded the Baltimore Abolitionist Society (at Sharp and Pratt Streets) in 1789, the first such society below the Mason-Dixon line. Together with African American Methodists and German Baptists, the Quakers also helped establish the first school for African Americans (the African Academy of Baltimore) at that same location in 1797. The school site later became the Sharp Street United Methodist Church, the first Baltimore City church with a predominantly Black congregation. The church proudly retains its Sharp Street name even though it has relocated to the Madison Park neighborhood.
When Tyson died in 1824, his funeral was attended by ten thousand African Americans, more than two-thirds of the city’s African American population.
More reading about the Clipper ships and the slave trade:
More reading about Sharp-Leadenhall, Freedmen, the Quakers, and Elisha Tyson
Baltimore City Department of Planning and Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, “Sharp Leadenhall Historic Resources Survey,” 2004.