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Avoidance over Confrontation: Racial Politics in Baltimore

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Matthew Crenson

As a young child in Baltimore in the 1940s and ’50s, Matthew Crenson didn’t think or talk much about race. Throughout elementary school, all of his friends were white. But in 1954, after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Crenson for the first time shared his school bus and classrooms at Robert E. Lee Junior High with black students.

Though monumental in its significance, the desegregation of the school was not a topic for discussion in or out of the classroom.

“No one in that school—no teacher, counselor, or principal—ever said a word about what was going on,” recalls Crenson, professor and chair of the Political Science Department. “They never explained it to us, told us what was going on. It was just complete silence.”

Crenson says even he and his new African-American friends did not bring up their racial differences at the time. More than 50 years later, he has a theory about that silence: Baltimore has a long history of unspoken, accepted avoidance of race relations as a political topic.

That notion hit home, he said, during the 1983 Baltimore mayoral campaign, when incumbent William Donald Schaefer faced Billy Murphy, an African-American Circuit Court judge.

“There had been other inter-racial contests in the country,” Crenson says. “What struck me about this campaign is that race didn’t seem to be an issue.” (The candidates argued other topics, primarily education, and Schaefer easily won his fourth term.)

Kurt L. Schmoke became Baltimore’s first elected black mayor in 1987, and after serving 12 years he described the city as a place where nobody talked about race, Crenson says.

“I’d like to ask him, ‘Why didn’t he bring it up?’” Crenson says.

The professor believes people in Baltimore learned not to bring it up, even though the behavior was never formally taught. He thinks the city’s history fostered its residents’ attitudes and behaviors regarding race.

Before the Civil War, more than 90 percent of the African-Americans who lived in Baltimore were free, a concentration far higher than in any other U.S. city at that time. The first black church in Baltimore was established sometime in the early 1800s, Crenson says, one of many organizations and institutions—including schools—founded and maintained independently of whites.

Freed blacks who traveled to other metropolitan areas after the war did not find schools or organizations already established for them, Crenson says. Through the mid-1900s, he says, blacks who migrated to cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago had little in common but race, so would-be leaders looking to mobilize them appealed to race.

“People who grew up in other climates practiced the politics of confrontation and demonstration,” Crenson says. “In Baltimore, there were certain ways you did things. You didn’t demonstrate; you didn’t use violence.” (Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Baltimore erupted in riots, as did just about every major city in the country. But Crenson says such chaos was an exception to the city’s generally nonviolent racial history.)

“Some people say I’m all wrong,” Crenson says. “Some people will argue that they experience racial conflict every day, which is probably true. My question is, ‘Does it break through to politics?’”

To explore and expose other examples, Crenson plans to delve into the records and archives of some of Baltimore’s African-American churches and private schools. He is hoping that family records, lesson plans, journals, and church documents will offer a glimpse of how racial issues were regarded and handled as the city was emerging. He recently teamed with Hopkins’ Center for Educational Resources to apply for a grant from the American Council for Learned Societies that would finance the research and ultimately make the archived material available online.

As that project gets under way, Crenson will celebrate the publication of his latest book, How Presidents Seize Power: Motive, Means, and Opportunity, co-written with David Bernstein Professor of Political Science Benjamin Ginsberg. W.W. Norton is scheduled to publish the book this fall, before the mid-term elections.

—Christine A. Rowett



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