Friday, March 22, 2013

Free & Slaves blacks have power in Baltimore's 1800 Produce Markets

1819 Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Detail Market Folks. Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore.

Without the garden produce grown & sold by the slaves in Virginia & Maryland throughout the 18th century, this particular path to some fleeting power & to some sense of real independence among them would not have been available.

And so, those interested in gardens, especially slave gardens & huck patches, also might be interested in where those gardening ventures led some African Americans in the Chesapeake by the last decade of the century.

By the end of the 18th century in Maryland, the economic center of the state had become Baltimore, the new nation’s 3rd largest city. In 1800, there were 26,514 inhabitants of the town. Historian T. Stephen Whitman reports that between 1700-1810, the city's slave population grew from 1,255 to 4,672, with the number of free persons of color outnumbering slaves only in 1810. Some of these African Americans banded together, seizing upon the critcal grocery needs for the town's exploding population of shopkeepers & artisans, to expand their sense of community, personal power, income, & freedom.

Brief History of Baltimore's Produce Markets

Truck farming from the gardens of both blacks & whites supplied many of the town markets in the Chesapeake region. Produce grown in the fields was sold fresh at the markets by local gardeners. Produce cooked into food to consume on the premisis or to take home was also available for purchase.

1811 John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821). Detail Pepper-Pot Woman at the Philadelphia Market.

In his 1803 Travels, John Davis wrote, "The negro-woman lamented the ravages of the fever, because it prevented the sale of her pepper-pot." Pepper pot was a thick, spicy soup which probably had its origins in the Caribbean. The Philadelphia version consisted of tripe, ox feet, or other inexpensive meats, cooked with herbs, onions, potatoes, & okra.

One of Baltimore's truck farmers was visiting English agricultural writer Richard Parkinson. He came to Maryland to farm experimentally near Baltimore for nearly 3 years in the late 1790s. His goal was to return to Britain and write a book about his experiences. He wrote, "I thought nothing in the farming line likely to be profitable, except...what in the country is called truck--which is garden produce, fruits, etc."

Poor Richard Parkinson will have to carry most of the narrative burden of this article, for it is he who so well described the market situation. Only the reactions of the whites in terms of legal mandates show how strongly they reacted to the growing, threatening power of Maryland's blacks at market. By the way, Parkinson would not mind in the least being the star reporter here, for he was always sure that his observations & his methods were simply the best.

18th Century English Woodcut "Off to Market"

Observers declared that the Chesapeake farmer's wagon was something like a "pedlar's pack," filled with butter, eggs, fruits, potatoes, turnips, cucumbers, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, wheat flour, Indian flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour, chopped straw, & more.

Produce markets had been operating in Baltimore for at least 50 years before Parkinson's visit to Maryland. Farmers' markets had dotted the meadows near Baltimore before 1747, when the Baltimore Town Commission was granted authority to hold & regulate fairs. A clerk was appointed in 1765, to oversee the monies charged for setting-up at the produce market.

Baltimore’s markets were small, dwarfed by the huge farmers' market at Philadelphia. Scotsman William Gregory had stopped at both Annapolis & Baltimore on a trip from Fredericksburg to Pennsylvania late in the summer of 1765. He declared that the Philadelphia market was "the best...I ever saw" noting for sale there...eggs, butter, onions, turnips, leeks, carrots, parsnips, Indian corn, Indian pepper, & cabbage. He estimated that 300 wagons were set up at that market on the day he visitied.

Johann David Schoepf reported in his 1783 Travels in the Confederation that the at the Philadelphia market "The products of the garden ...although plentiful is not of great variety, for divers of our better Europen cabbages and other vegetables are lacking; on the other hand all sorts of melons and many kinds of pumpkins are seen in great quantity." He reported that the produce was brought to the Philadelphia market especially by the Germans "in great covered wagons, loaded with all manner of provender, bringing with rations for themselves and feed for their horses--for they sleep in their wagons."

Virginian Mary Ambler had journeyed to Baltimore in 1770, writing, "Ladys here all go to market to supply their pantry." She also found the mix of races & nationalities at the town’s markets bewildering, "to us it seems like the confun of Babel from the difft Languages we hear." Ambler reported that on the traditional market days, Wednesdays & Saturdays, "nothing can be thought of which is not brought in plenty to Market as the Town People depend on the Market for their Stuff for there is not more than Seven Gardens in the Whole Town."

When Baltimore was finally chartered in 1796, the mayor & council were granted the power "to erect and regulate markets" keeping revenue & license records from 1797 until 1857. By the 1790s, there were three markets regularly operating in the town. The old Marsh Market began in 1773, the Hanover Market in 1785, & the Fell's Point Market in 1785.

By the time the Hanover Market was complete in the late summer of 1785, the commissioners charged with building the market house were eager to "ensure the Market-People a ready Sale for their Produce." They assured sellers that "The Building is constructed on the most convenient Plan, as both Purchaser and Seller will be protected from the Heat of the Sun, and their Situation will be perfectly dry and comfortable in the most severe Weather.--Stalls, or very large Benches, are provided, under Cover for the Country People to show the Articles they may have for Sale."

Apparently the market was financially successful for the produce sellers. In 1795, when John Dorsey had a 150 acre plantation near Baltimore to rent out for a year, he advertised, "There is a very large collection of the very best kind of Apple, Peach, Cherry, and other Fruit Trees...a great deal of money may be made by sending it to the Baltimore Market."

1797 Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Detail African Americans at Sunrise. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

In the late 1790s, when the always self-confident visiting Englishman Richard Parkinson began to truck farm in Baltimore, free white & African American truck farmers plus the slaves of the wealthy ventured to the Baltimore markets in the early morning hours.

African Americans at Baltimore's Produce Market

Proper Englishman Richard Parkinson was startled to find African Americans his staunchest competition in the produce market, where they joined forces to increase profit for themselves as well as their owners. He wrote of the slaves that the prosperous farmers sent to market to sell their produce and of the African Americans that he hired to assist him on market days. Parkinson stated that African Americans were better marketmen who could sell more garden produce at higher prices than whites.

One of the reasons there was an increase in African Americans at the Baltimore produce market was the result of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the long, slave-centered revolt against the powerful & brutal French slave regime in Saint Domingue. A flood of 1,500 French-speaking refugees, including many free & slave Africans, arriving in the town during that revolution enhanced black influence at market.

One 19th century observer reported the "imposing appearance in our market house of those tall, middle-aged quadroon women wearing in their ears immense golden hoops, with their heads elegantly decked in parti-colored bandana kerchiefs bearing a picturesque but unmistakable foreign stamp and looking in the vulgar crowd of hucksters surrounding them like choice flowers transplanted from the sunny tropics."

Woman Selling Fruits & Vegetables The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Male & female, local & Caribbean African Americans were able to affect the balance of economic power at Baltimore's farmers' markets, because they operated almost independently there representing both buyers & sellers. Gentlemen & merchants usually sent their African American servants to the pre-dawn markets to buy their needed provisions. Trade at town markets began at 2 in the morning.

There the African Americans, free & slave, consorted to trade exclusively with one another. Parkinson reported that the black marketman had 10 customers to the white man's one. It was a system that consistently benefited the African American agents. "I have stood to watch a Negro who was selling potatoes for me; and he has taken seven and sixpence per bushel for them, and accounted with me for six shillings per bushel. The negroes are very much employed in the sale of hay, and all farming produce in America... I have watched or listened; and the negro always agreed (to purchase the hay for his master from another African American) for a bottle of rum or whisky for himself."

Parkinson was not the only person to notice the growing power of the African Americans at the markets. The town fathers passed Baltimore City Ordinance No. 16 on April 11, 1797, in an effort to bring order to the markets. A $5 penalty was to be assessed of those caught selling provisions at the market sites outside of the authorized market times. The law specifically addressed at least one component of the growing problem of African American entrepreneurs by stating that if a slave illegally trading at a market site was apprehended & could not pay the fine, he was to be punished by a whipping not to exceed ten lashes for each offense.

Time & again Parkinson had to swallow his pride and resort to hiring an African American marketman to sell his produce at the Baltimore market. When it was time to sell his peach crop, Parkinson hired an African American; because he believed that an African American could sell more per day than Parkinson himself or any other white. His African American employee charged one dollar per day plus a pint of whiskey. "A black man is much better for this business than a white..they are impudent."

The visiting Englishman remained distrustful of the local blacks he hired, who, in fact, did consistently outsmart him. "Thinking our black fellow would do very well for selling the milk; as we could measure it, and then he could not cheat us. But in this I was very much disappointed: for he had so many tricks in mixing water with the milk, etc. that I was obliged to discharge him."

Parkinson reported observing the free & slave African Americans keeping part of the produce as well as the profits for themselves & their families. On the other hand, Parkinson wrote of the meager food allotments of the slaves & poor living conditions of the slaves he encountered during his travels throughout the Chesapeake. Other Baltimoreans were also concerned. Dr. George Buchanan, of Baltimore, a member of the American Philosophical Society, declared in an oration at Baltimore, July 4, 1791. "The slaves, naked and starved, often fall victims to the inclemencies of the weather.''

After visiting George Washington, Parkinson observed that he "regularly delivered weekly to every working negro two or three pounds of pork, and some salt herrings, often badly cured, and a small portion of Indian corn." In fact, the majority of slave owners, the English visitor also noted, "set victuals out in a sparing manner." In order to survive, most slaves had to supplement the sparse food allocations of their masters.

The Maryland Journal, and Baltimore Advertiser, May 30, 1788, reported, "A single peck of corn a week, or the like measure of rice, is the ordinary quantity of provision for a hard-working slave; to which a small quantity of meat is occasionally, though rarely, added."

Parkinson declared that although one owned the Maryland slave's labor during the day, the slave was his own man at night. He noted the evening journeys of his rented slave gardeners & marketmen were often undertaken to maintain family ties. "And it is an usual practice for the negroes to go to see their wives on Saturday night...and as they are at some distance from the negro men's place of abode...This is looked upon as so slight an offense, that I never heard of an instance of any of them being brought to justice for it."

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), Slaves preparing for Saturday Night, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

The Englishman's discussions with Americans during his visit left him with an unusual sort of respect for African Americans, "The negroes are not an innocent race; as some suppose; they commit theft as daringly, and with as much cunning, as any set of men."

African Americans were so important to the white mans' success at market during this period, that Maryland slaves were actively sought & sold as marketmen. In the Maryland Gazette on October 10, 1798, Philip Key advertised for sale his slave who was both a "good gardener" & a "trusty market man." A notice in the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer on January 29, 1794 offered a reward for a 20 year-old slave named Cato who was generally "employed in the summer season selling fruit" at the market in Baltimore. A Maryland landowner placed a help-wanted ad in the Baltimore Daily Repository in June of 1793, for a free African American who was capable of driving a cart to market as well as working in the garden.

One professional Baltimore gardener, John Mycroft, regularly sold seeds, vegetables, & plants at the Fell's Point & Center Markets in town from 1803 until the 1820s. Slaves operated his market stalls, while he tended the garden near the Marine Hospital. In 1816, Mycroft offered an unusually high reward for the return of one of his runaway marketmen. "Absconded...Negro JOHN BLAKE, my well known market man. He is about 5 feet 8 inches high; a broad well made man; about 28 years of age; has a serious countenance but very pleasant when spoken to." The loss of a well-established African American marketman could mean a severe reduction in sales to the professional gardener.

Englishman Parkinson seemed both threatened by & envious of the free African Americans' economic success at market, attributing it, at least in part, to thievery. "Some of them have a little patch of land, and raise truck; which gives them a sanction to sit in the market, and renders them less liable to be suspected for what they steal...these free negroes are stealing poultry and fruit in the season in the night, to sell in the market."

When Parkinson queried his African American competitors about the ownership of the produce, they responded that it was their labor that produced the harvest in the first place; and therefore, it was rightfully theirs. "We work and raise all, we ought to consume all...Massa does not work; therefore he has not equal right."

Theft of fruits & vegetables was common in the Chesapeake during this period. Whites stole from each other & from African Americans; as Isaac Miller depicted in a nearby York County, Pennsylvania, drawing from the period. The same was true for African Americans.

1807 Lewis Miller (1796-1882). Detail Whites Stealing from Blacks at York, Pennsylvania.

Thefts by free African Americans & unsupervised slaves caused concern among white lawmakers. It was one component that led to the passage of "An Act Relating to Negros" by the state legislature in 1796. Part of the act was ostensibly aimed at vagrants containing a provision "that any free negro, mulatto or other person" found living idle, without any visible means of maintenance, or going at large through the country, without any visible means of subsistence, would be required to give security. If the individual could not post bond, he would be ordered to depart. If found within the state again, the vagrant would be imprisoned and his services sold for a short term, if he was unable to pay prison charges.

Parkinson returned to England to farm & publish a book about his American experiences in 1800, while Maryland state legislators' fear that free African Americans had linked their commercial interests with slaves continued to grow. Lawmakers worried that free African Americans would provide outlets for goods stolen by slaves; and in 1805, the legislature required free African Americans to obtain an annual license from a justice of the peace attesting to their good character in order to be able to sell corn, wheat, or tobacco at market.

The statute was amended in 1825, to add that a free African American selling tobacco must obtain a certificate from a justice of the peace attesting to the lawful origin of the tobacco. The law was further strengthened in 1832, to prohibit the purchase from any "free negro or mulatto or slave any bacon, pork, beef, mutton, corn, wheat, tobacco, rye or oats;" unless the seller could produce a certificate from a justice of the peace or from "three respectable persons" that the seller did, in fact, come into the possession of the goods honestly.

Despite constant harassment by the law, the early morning hours at Maryland markets offered African Americans a sense of power & dignity that faded only as the sun rose, and the white man emerged from his evenings' rest to reclaim his dominant position. Parkinson reported that the African Americans he met at market paid each other the respect they were denied by white society and that the depth of their religious fervor influenced even the working man in white society. "When the negroes meet together they are all Mr. and Madam among themselves...The lower class of people, such as worked for me, said, that they had known a black fellow give a better sermon than they ever heard from a white man."

Such gatherings of African Americans & lower class whites spurred the legislature into additional restraints to quell growing camaraderie. The 18th century Maryland laws prohibiting "tumultuous meetings of negros and other slaves" were strengthened in 1806 by a statute specifying that it was a criminal act for a free negro or mulatto to be found in a "tumultuous meeting."

1797 Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Detail of A View of Locust Point, Maryland, showing an African American, his gun, and his dog. Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore.

Other sections of this statute forbade slave ownership of guns & dogs, which were used to hunt. It did permit free African Americans to own one dog, if they had a license from a justice of the peace. A visitor noted "when they are free, instead of working, they employ themselves in shooting squirrels, opossums, birds of different descriptions, and in trapping partridges, &c. To do this, they keep a number of dogs, which are a very great expense." The 1806 statute also permitted free African Americans to own a gun, if it was left at home or if the owner carried a certificate attesting to his orderly & peaceable character from a justice of the peace. This privilege was repealed by an increasingly worried legislature in 1824.

Thieves stealing vegetables & fruits from Maryland gardens were publicly discouraged. Baltimore gardener John Mycroft placed notice in the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, in May of 1805, "...informing those persons who are in the habit of paying nightly visits to his garden for the purpose of supplying themselves with vegetables at his expense, that on their next entrance, he will be prepared to salute them with the contents of a well charged musket." John B. Bastian, the gardener at the estate of "Harlem" in Baltimore, placed a similar notice in the same publication in November of 1802.

Theft of produce was not new to Maryland. Thirty years earlier Charles Carroll of Carrollton placed a notice in 1770 Maryland Gazette, "And whereas several idle disorderly Persons are continually forcing their Way into the Garden of the Subscriber, in this City, either by breaking down the Rails or leaping over them, in order to steal Fruit...they will be punished with the utmost Severity." It is impossible to know whether Carroll's midnight interlopers were white or black, simply hungry, or clever entrepeneurs.

But it is certain that Baltimore’s farmer's markets were the meeting place for slave & free African Americans as well as white townsfolk & farmers at the end of the 18th century. Through their daring, intentional alliances, blacks were able to manipulate many aspects of the local produce market institutions for the economic benefit of both their masters & themselves from the end of the 18th century through the first decades of the 19th century, when Maryland laws finally squelched the threatening collaborations of its clever African American market capitalists.

Note: Baltimore was not alone in the active participation of slaves in the market economy of not just their masters, but of the wider community as well. When they could participate as producers, sellers, & purchasers of property, they were acting as free agents, no longer simply chattle laborers. In his study of the rice economy of the Georgia & South Carolina low country, Philip Morgan shows that this allowed them to accumulate wealth, expand their autonomy, & strengthen the bonds of community among themselves.

Historian Alex Lichtenstein argued that theft of the property of their masters enabled them to better their economic position & their feeling of freedom, while damaging their masters. Lawrence McDonnell suggests the the very act of masters & slaves dealing with each other as bearers of commodities lessened the social impact of slavery.

John Campbell's study of market related slave activities in the South Carolina upcountry presents slaves who could "better themselves materially, posses and assert greater control and independence in their lives, create and strengthen social relationships among themselves as well as with nonslaveholding white people, and challenge the interests and power of slaveholders."

John T. Schlotterbeck traced a similar internal slave economy in rural piedmont Virginia, as did Roderick A. McDonald on Louisiana sugar plantations. In Richard Price's study of 18th century Suriname, he writes, "Wherever slaves...had the physical and psychological space to cultivate their own gardens without external interference, subsistence activities (and the beliefs and values associated with them) became central not only to the physical well-being of those Afro-Americans but to their spiritual and moral life as well." See: The Slaves' Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. Ira Berlin. 1995.