Friday, January 24, 2020

Reconstruction in Baltimore, 1861-1870

Reflections on Baltimore and Reconstruction, 1861-1870

Edward Papenfuse,

Maryland State Archivist, Retired

Maryland got a head start on “Reconstruction.” On April 19, 1861 the Baltimore mob assaulted the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers on their way to defend Washington and within a short time the city would be occupied by Union troops for the duration of a bloody Civil War in which there were at least 750,000 casualties. The best contemporary account of the confrontation and its consequences is by the Mayor, George William Brown, who with many of his city council, and his chief of Police, George Proctor Kane, were placed under military arrest and sent to prison first at Fort McHenry and the Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, without ever having the benefit of a court hearing or a trial.[1] Some would argue that because this suspension of Habeas Corpus (a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention) was first implemented by executive order of the President without Congressional approval, was an abuse of power. Even the Chief Justice of the United States ruled that the actions of the military were unconstitutional until Congress was persuaded to pass a law upholding the President’s action. By that time Mayor Brown and Marshall Kane were confined and an effective campaign of suppressing Southern support in the City was well underway. Those who expressed Union Sympathies were permitted to take economic and political control of the City, raising the hopes and expectations of the Black population of over 27,000 in the fourth largest city in America with a total population of 212, 418.[2] Fortunately for Baltimore and the Nation, this minority had struggled for years to establish its right to economic success and educational freedom through its private schools (mostly church based) and becoming the essential provider of laundry, barbering, caulking, catering and carting services, as well as the labor that extracted the city’s waste (the night soilers), and cared for the children of the wealthy. Most of the majority would have preferred that it remain that way without any further advancement, but the Black community did not see it that way and voiced its cry for publicly funded education and expansion of their civil rights. When it became clear by the fall of 1863 that the Union could not win the war against the South without the military assistance of the Black population, the door to constitutional reform opened. In Maryland a new State Constitution abolished slavery and provided the framework for public funding of Black education, while Congress under the leadership of Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner passed the trio of Amendments to the Constition that offered a legal and moral platform for the advancement of Civil Rights for all Americans.

As Professor Eric Foner has pointed out recently, Baltimore was a crucial intellectual center of the effort to advocate the full implementation of the intent of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It would be a long and tortuous struggle which many believe is not over.[3]

Historians have debated the causes of the Civil War at great length, but if Slavery was not the sole reason for the conflict, addressing the questions of the rights and the place of the black population in the life of the Republic was certainly the consequence. From March of 1865 until its dissolution in 1872 the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freemen’s Bureau), attempted with varying degrees of success to reconstruct the intellectual and political life of the residents of the former slave states, including those border states like Maryland that had been controlled by the military and where, after 1863, significant numbers of Black men were inducted into the United States Colored Troops. While its work in the rebelling states is well known, the contributions to the reconstruction of Baltimore are less well documented. In the city material supplies were provided to at least one orphanage for the support of orphans of Black soldiers, and the establishment of the Freedman’s bank.[4]

In Maryland nearly 8000 men joined 6 regiments of United States Colored Troops.[5] Those that survived the war and returned home, became an important component of the political pressure for educational and economic reconstruction as well as providing, with their pensions, the first Federally funded social security for their families.[6]

Unidentified soldier and family, discovered in Cecil County, MD. Photo from the Library of Congress.

To better understand the nature and extent of reconstruction policies in Maryland, Dennis Halpin provides an accurate and insightful narrative. As one favorable review explained:

In A Brotherhood of Liberty, Dennis Patrick Halpin shifts the focus of the black freedom struggle from the Deep South to argue that Baltimore is key to understanding the trajectory of civil rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1870s and early 1880s, a dynamic group of black political leaders migrated to Baltimore from rural Virginia and Maryland. These activists, mostly former slaves who subsequently trained in the ministry, pushed Baltimore to fulfill Reconstruction's promise of racial equality. In doing so, they were part of a larger effort among African Americans to create new forms of black politics by founding churches, starting businesses, establishing community centers, and creating newspapers. Black Baltimoreans successfully challenged Jim Crow regulations on public transit, in the courts, in the voting booth, and on the streets of residential neighborhoods. They formed some of the nation's earliest civil rights organizations, including the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty, to define their own freedom in the period after the Civil War.

Halpin shows how black Baltimoreans' successes prompted segregationists to reformulate their tactics. He examines how segregationists countered activists' victories by using Progressive Era concerns over urban order and corruption to criminalize and disenfranchise African Americans. Indeed, he argues the Progressive Era was crucial in establishing the racialized carceral [relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison] state of the twentieth-century United States. Tracing the civil rights victories scored by black Baltimoreans that inspired activists throughout the nation and subsequent generations, A Brotherhood of Liberty highlights the strategies that can continue to be useful today, as well as the challenges that may be faced.[7]

His work was preceded by two books which also help to illuminate the story of Reconstruction in Maryland, Richard Paul Fuke’s Imperfect Equality (1999), and Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (1985).

Privately owned

In the heat of the debates over Reconstruction and prior to the adoption of the 14th Amendment which he felt was not strong enough, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the principal advocates of reconstruction, deposited an 1860 pamphlet in the library of his alma mater, Harvard College. It was the printed version of a speech by Delegate Curtis M. Jacobs (d. 1884) from Worcester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in which Jacobs argued that all the free blacks in Maryland (nearly 84,000 of whom nearly 28,000 lived in Baltimore City) should be rounded up and sent off to Africa, thus removing the greatest threat to his revered institution of slavery. While Jacob’s proposed legislation was defeated in part by the lobbying in Annapolis by Free Blacks, the substance of his racist assumptions about the inferiority of the Black Population and the need to keep it in its place subservient to the servile needs of the rest of the population is telling and indicative of the pervasive opposition to the effective implementation of the 14th and 15th Amendment that would continue to confront the Black population well into the 20th century.[8]

In the 1880s, as the Halpin and Foner books make clear, the Black Community under the leadership of Reverend Harvey Johnson realized that a major path to success in the cause of Civil Rights would be the creation of a Black legal community that would carry the fight to the Courts. In the face of returning Southern and slavery sympathizers to power in Maryland (in 1877 Marshall Kane, who had worked in Richmond for the Confederacy after being paroled from Fort Warren, was elected Mayor of Baltimore City and the State General Assembly refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution in 1867 and 1870 respectively).[9]

May of 2020 will be the 150th anniversary of the largest celebration in the country of the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granting Black men the right to vote. On that occasion and also in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment that extended that right to women, Baltimore is planning a joint celebration.[10]

courtesy of the Library of Congress:

The Baltimore Parade was the largest parade in support of Civil Rights in the United States until the 1960s. Its story is ably documented in a web site created in 1996 by David Troy, then a student at Johns Hopkins University. It follows the reporting of the Parade detailing the route and the participants, and provides an analysis of the speech of the principal speaker, Frederick Douglass, which appeared as two slightly different accounts in the Sun and the American.[11]

David Troy based his analysis in part on a document packet for the use of teachers which was published on the Maryland State Archives website in 1996 and revised in 1998.[12]

Initially Frederick Douglass was to give his remarks from a stand built in front of the Battle Monument on Calvert Street, but when he started to mount the steps the stand collapsed. He brushed himself off, commented that it must have been built by a Democrat, and moved to the Balcony of the Gilmore house. A stereo view has survived of the large crowd (numbering as much 20,000 people) intently watching the speeches from the Balcony.


Douglass’s speech was apparently given without notes. The Reporter for the Sun which generally supported the Democrats and their return to power, provided this account of Douglass’s remarks:

As reported in the Baltimore Sun.


Frederick Douglass was introduced by Dr. Brown as the champion of liberty the first of American Orators and a son of Maryland. He is a resident of New York but he ought to be with them and work with them and they intended to have him back with them.

Mr. Douglass said he had often appeared before the American people as a slave and sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always as an advocate for the slave. To him this day was the day of all days. He was permitted to appear before them in the more dignified, the more elevated character of an American citizen. Thirty five years ago it was his lot to be a slave in Talbot county working side by side with slaves on a plantation. He remembered that he always looked forward with yearning to the time when Maryland should not contain a slave. Uneducated as he was he knew enough of logic of events, of the sense right and wrong that the day would come when not a chain should clank nor fetter gall, nor whip crack over a slave. The change is amazing, when he remembers how slavery was interwoven with everything civil, political social and ecclesiastical in this State. He remembers that he and his fellow slaves desired to talk about emancipation, but were prevented by the presence of the overseer. They invented a vocabulary of their own so that they would not be understood as saying anything but the most harmless things. They were talking of liberty, in fact they were the original abolitionists. The old aunty would ask a slave, "Sonny do you see anything of the pig's foot coming?" That was the way we talked about emancipation To-day we have but two of three chief things. The first thing the negro got was the cartridge box, next was the ballot-box. Some of our friends who now advocate it hardly saw it three years ago, but at last they were convinced. The next box, without which the cartridge-box and ballot-box is insufficient, is the jury box. We are in a country which, while the negro hating element sits in the jury box the negro is not protected. We want the jury box for ourselves and our white follow-citizens, for no one is hurt by justice. He then explained the purport of the fifteenth amendment, and said that here- after the black man will have no excuse, as formerly, for ignorance, or poverty or destitution. The fifteenth amendment has deprived them of all the apologies and excuses which formerly existed. We must stand up and be responsible to our fellow-citizens as independent men. We are to instruct ourselves as to men and measures and take nobody or thing on trust. Mr. Douglass asked them if they remembered which party emancipated them? [There were responses of "The republican party," and several persons responded "The democratic," which occasioned some amusement.] Mr. Douglass continued. The democratic party is the old party that for forty years stood between themselves and liberty.

He pleaded guilty to the charge of running away from Maryland but it was not from Maryland he ran away. He loved Maryland, its waters, its fertile fields in Talbot county its fishing grounds and everything in it except slavery. It was slavery he ran away from He felt a little mean about it to go away with out bidding them good bye. The truth was he was afraid aid to bid them good bye for fear they would not let him go. He had some religious scruples also. He used to pray that God would release him from slavery but God did not begin to hear his prayers until he began to run.

Forty years ago he saw Austin Woolfolk on horseback, with about forty negroes he was going to ship to the South. That made him hate slavery. When he went North he resolved that any power he possessed should be devoted to the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of his race, and he has endeavored to perform faith fully his pledge, and whatever that remains to him of life shall go in the same direction. They were not indebted to Maryland for their liberty, but to the United States. Will you be as good masters to yourselves as your old masters were? Will you get up as early in the morning? Will you work as hard for yourselves as you did for your masters? Will you dream as well and be as sober and as temperate?

Some people say the negroes will die out. He replies to them that if two hundred and fifty years of slavery could not kill them, liberty can not. It is argued against us that we are incapable of educating our minds. We have got the cartridge box and the ballot box but the knowledge box is wanting. Are you going to educate your sons and daughters? We want our children to do better than we do and have done. The Baltimore that he knew fifty years ago was a two-story Baltimore, now it is a five story Baltimore. We want our children to add a story to their height every generation.

Mr. Douglass said he was no orator or great champion of liberty as announced. It was only because it was unusual to hear a black man talk that they called him so. No one knew better than he that it was not so. But he did not "let on." He don't mind telling them so now. The orators that are to come after us in this country will do great things. We have now a future and everything is possible - now we have a future. You will never, any of you, be an independent voter in your life, until you get some money in your pocket. A colored man was once advised to "vote where he could get his potatoes." Colored men like other men are apt to be grateful and men will court you on the score of interest.

The Baltimore American, which generally supported the Republican Party reported Douglass’s remarks slightly differently:

As reported in the Baltimore American.


Mr. Creswell's speech, which was repeatedly cheered, was followed by music from the band. Frederick Douglass Esq, was then introduced by Dr. Brown, who spoke of him as a son of Maryland who should now be working among us, and he believed he soon would be.

Mr. Douglass said that during the last thirty years he had often appeared before the people as a slave, sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always in behalf of the slave. But to-day he was permitted to appear before them as an American citizen. How grea t the change. Thirty five years ago he was working as a slave in Talbot county, and looked forward even then that there would some time come a day when not a fetter should clank or a whip crack over the backs of his fellow men. That day has come at last. When we remember how slavery was interlinked with all our institutions, it is amazing that today we witness this demonstration. When toiling on the plantation we slaves desired to talk of emancipation, but there stood the overseer and a word would ensure a flogging. To talk about emancipation without being discovered we invented a vocabulary, and when the over seer thought we were talking of the most simple thing we were really speaking of emancipation, but in a way that was Greek to them. [Laughter and a pplause.] The negro has now got the three belongings of American freedom. First the cartridge box, for when he got the eagle on his button and the musket on his shoulder he was free. Next came the ballot box, some of its most earnest advocates now hardly saw it three years ago, but we'll forgive them now. Next we want the jury box. [Applause.] While the negro-hating element sits in the jury box the colored man's welfare is insecure and we demand that he be represented in the halls of justice. Nobody will be injured by justice. The Fifteenth Amendment means that hereafter the black man is to have no excuse for ignorance, poverty or destitution. Our excuse for such in the past is swept away from us by the Fifteenth Amendment. We are to stand up and be resp onsible for our own existence, we must be independent men and citizens - we are to know our friends and equally to know our enemies and take none in trust. When a friend performs a good act or an enemy a malicious act towards us are we not to remember the m? [Cries of "Yes!"] I love my friends and remember my enemies. I remember that party that for forty years has been endeavoring to enslave us and crush us and I want you to remember that party at the ballot box. [Applause.] What party is that? [Cries of " Democratic!"] Do you remember the party that, when the Democrats endeavored to overthrow the Government, stepped between the Government and its blows? Then let us give three cheers for the Republican party! [Enthusiastic Cheers.] I see you are all right h ere, and I am not afraid to have election day come around. [Applause.] I loved everything of Maryland except slavery -- it was that I ran away from thirty two years ago. I felt a little mean however, and only did not stop to tell them goodbye because I wa s afraid they would not let me go. I found that God never began to hear my prayers for liberty until I began to run. Then you ought to have seen the dust rise behind me in answer to prayer. [Applause.]

Forty years ago I sat on Kennard's wharf, at the foot of Philpot street and I saw men and women chained and put on ship to go to New Orleans. I then resolved that whatever power I had should be devoted to the freeing of my race. For thirty years in the midst of all opposition, I have endeavored to fulfil my pledge. I am here today to pledge myself that whatever remains to me of life shall go in the same direction. Possibly I ought to be in Maryland, but the time has come when the black man owes nothing to States. You are not indebted to Maryland for the fra nchise. The old ideas of State sovereignty have been abolished by the war. We have now a common country and a common legislature - there are no States but the United States. All that any man can ask of another is that he do his best for the whole country. Will you be as good masters to yourselves as your masters were to you? [Cries of better!] Will you work as hard for yourselves as you did for your masters? [Cries of yes!] Will you be as sober and temperate now as you were before? [Renewed cries of yes!] I believe you but some affect not to. They believe that you will die out like the Indian, that you cannot exist in competition with the white men. Well if two centuries and a half of slavery, the whip, prisons, and the abolition of the marriage relation could not kill you then liberty will not. [Applause.] Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school and show that besides the cartridge box, the ballot box, and the jury box, you have also the knowledge box. Build on for those who come after you. I am no orator. The orators who are to come up in the hereafter from the colored race will throw me and Langston far into the background. We have a future, everything is possible to us. Get education and get money in your pocket, and save it, for without it you will never be an independent voter.[13]

Douglass’s exhortation to “get education and get money in your pocket” was in fact the clarion call of Reconstruction in Maryland in the face of mounting opposition and two devastating economic downturns in the 1870s and 1890s that imperiled the ability of all but the richest Americans to get money in their pockets. From the earliest years of the 19th Century to the Civil War, the Free Black Community had been arming itself through its private schools and the opportunities it was permitted to exploit for a day of Reconstruction. Some of its leaders left in despair to seek their fortunes and intellectual freedom in California (Darius Stokes) and Canada (the parents of Harvey Johnson’s wife). Others like Douglass, who escaped as a slave from Baltimore in 1838, fought the good fight by raising monetary support from Ireland, Scotland, and England. Douglass returned freed with what he had raised abroad to found the leading black newspaper in Rochester New York.[14]

Hiram Revels (1827-1901)

Reverend Hiram Revels left his Baltimore congregation ultimately to become the first Black member of Congress under Reconstruction, but while in Baltimore he and his brother led African American Churches and participated in the Recruitment of Black soldiers.[15] As one biography put it: with regard to Revel’s appearance in the Senate:

Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. With his moderate political orientation and oratorical skills honed from years as a preacher, Revels filled a vacant seat in the United States Senate in 1870. Just before the Senate agreed to admit a black man to its ranks on February 25, [1867] Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sized up the importance of the moment: “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration,” Sumner roared, “and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality…. The Declaration was only half established by Independence. The greatest duty remained behind. In assuring the equal rights of all we complete the work.”[16]

Those who stayed behind in Baltimore to nurture and lead the community despite the rising tide of constriction and suppression that seemed to be the hallmark of the decade before the arrival of the Federal Troops to Baltimore, are not as well known as Darius Stokes and Hiram Revels, and their stories deserve to be told. Almost totally overlooked is the role of women in sustaining and advancing the cause of the Black Community before, during and after the Civil War. For example the life of artists and laundresses such as Charity Goviens stands as a symbol of the talent and hard work of Black Women, generally laundresses, seamstresses, and teachers.[17]

Another example is Samuel Ward Chase, one of the premier teachers and advocates for public support of Black education on an equal footing with white schools[18] In 1864 Reverend Chase would meet with Lincoln to present him with a bible for which the funds had been raised among the Baltimore Black community (over 600 individual donors) and two years before he would speak eloquently at the Israel Baptist Church in Washington D. C. His remarks as reported in the press are well worth repeating as both the voice of the Black Community of Reconstruction Baltimore, and as a plea for washing away the sins of racism that pervaded American Society and still haunt America today:

God's dealings with the children of Ham, and their future prospects," was the topic of a lecture delivered last night in the Israel (colored) church, by Rev Samuel Chase , a colored divine of Baltimore. The speaker went back to the earliest ages, quoted largely from Bible history, and maintained that God made of one flesh all the nations of the earth. But nations, for crimes committed, have been degraded, and fallen from the high estate wherein the Creator had placed them; as in the case of the Jews, who were despised until a few years ago. The speaker argued that it was the providence of God that brought the negro here, and the colored race has been benefited thereby. The colored race here have been educated like the American family; have imbibed their political principles, but do not dare to utter them; have imbibed the same religious principles, and them they dare utter; and if the religion of the black man is wild enthusiasm, then so is that of those who taught him.

The speaker argued that the negro had the same natural faculties as the whites, and quoted examples to show that the pure, unadulterated African may become educated and respected. The black man, beyond doubt, has the same natural qualities from Mason's to Dixon's line, and from that to Sabine.

He argued that the Legislature of Maryland believed in the quality of natural intelligence, or they never would have desired to get the blacks out of the country by spending $10,00 a year for colonization.

We must elevate the negro character, and that must be done by education. The pulpit is the highest position we can attain, and we must blame our white brethren for not having a more educated ministry. The Methodist Episcopal Church (white) had been particularly backward in extending education to the colored. They told us that if the Lord called us to preach, he would put words in our mouths, ad we were told to look only to Heaven and get knowledge, while the white preachers were looking all the time in the book. The speaker did not "see the point" that an uneducated negro could draw inspiration direct from Heaven, while educated white men get it from the books.

Mr. Chase urged the necessity of an educated ministry for the colored people. "I am," said he, "a black man, and I want to see the blacks educated. I love all men, but I love the black man best, and will advance his interests first and all the time. If any colored man won't endorse this, the sooner he makes peace with God and dies, the better for him and his people." The negro could and would rise, if properly educated, and they had as much right to do so as the whites. The speaker said it would cheer his heart as much as that of the white man to see his son pleading at the bar, or his daughter taking a seat to play on the forty piany.

In conclusion, his audience were urged to liberally educate and sustain their ministers, as the surest mode of bringing the colored nation to a position of equality with the whites.[19]

[2] From 1860 through 1930 the Black population of Baltimore remained fairly constant between13.1% and 14.8% with a peak of 16.2% in 1880.

[4] see Patrick Whang, "A Model Branch: The Freedman's Bank in Baltimore", an as yet unpublished paper , but available from the auithor. Patrick Whang is a Doctoral Student in Historical Studies at University of Cape Town, South Africa.

[5] L. Allison Wilmer, J. H. Jarrett and Geo. W. F. Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-5, Volume 2. (Baltimore: Guggenheimer, Weil, & Co., 1899). L20937-2,

[6] to date, no one has examined the extent to which Civil War Soldier and Widows pensions helped support the Black Community in Maryland, and particularly Baltimore where many of the aging population of Black veterans came to reside. By 1890 there were 483 USCT veterans living in Baltimore. See:

[9] Ratification by Maryland of the 14th Amendment took place finally on April 4, 1959[29] (after rejection – March 23, 1867), while the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote was not ratified until May 7, 1973 (After rejection: February 4/26, 1870).

[19]THE CHRISTIAN RECORDER, May 31, 1862, WASHINGTON, MAY 26, 1862, text provided by

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

African American Morticians



Donna Tyler Hollie

The General Assembly of Maryland enacted legislation in 1902 which established the Maryland State Board of Undertakers. The Board was formally organized on May 22, 1902 at 413 E. Fayette Street and was composed of five undertakers, the Secretary of the Board of Health and the Health Commissioner, all of whom were appointed by the governor and charged with registering, certifying, licensing and monitoring all funeral directors and embalmers in Maryland.[1]

The intent of this article is to offer an overview of African American funeral directors and embalmers as reflected in the minutes of the Maryland State Board of Undertakers.

All of the members of the Board were white men. Three classes of licenses were issued: one to Undertakers who were authorized to embalm and conduct funerals, one to Funeral Directors who could only conduct funerals and a third to Assistant Undertakers who could conduct funerals only under the supervision of a licensed undertaker.[2] The Board administered written and oral examinations in which applicants were required to demonstrate their knowledge of human anatomy and sanitary practices. In the first decades of the Board’s existence there was a $20.00 fee for the examination, which was refunded if the applicant failed.

Upon successful completion of these tests, applicants for the undertakers’ license were required to demonstrate their ability to embalm, using unclaimed cadavers supplied by the Baltimore City Health Department.[3] License renewal was required every two years, with a $5.00 renewal fee.[4] The Board had the power to suspend or revoke licenses for acts contrary to State regulations and for “conduct unbecoming an Undertaker and Embalmer.”[5] Conducting funerals and/or embalming without a license were illegal and the offender was subject to financial and/or criminal penalties. For example, Edward Bryan and George Snowden, of Montgomery County, were reprimanded by the Board for transporting and burying cadavers without obtaining the necessary permits from the Commissioner of Health.[6] Leonard Whalen received a much harsher penalty, revocation of his license, for not burying until April 26, 1929 a man who died on January 21, 1929.[7]

Baltimore’s African American community at the time the Maryland State Board of Undertakers began operation was unique in several ways. First, there was the legacy of the antebellum era when Baltimore was home to the largest population of free Blacks in the nation. In 1830, for example, there were 4,120 slaves and 14,790 free Blacks in the city.[8] In addition, Baltimore’s free Blacks had been relatively prosperous and extremely pro-active in their efforts to improve the quality of life for the entire African American community. Compared to New Orleans, which also had a substantial free Black population, Blacks in Baltimore were much less socially stratified. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction and cooperation between slaves and free Blacks in the areas of religion, education and business. Also, free Blacks and slaves worked in concert in the Underground Railroad and other anti-slavery efforts. These collaborative efforts were both the result of and a stimulus for unity and strength within the antebellum African American community. After Emancipation, racial segregation fostered a degree of independence from the white community and a continuation of interdependence among people of color.

This spirit of unity was prevalent in June 1902 when Alexander Hemsley, Charles G. Bailey, Felix Pye of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and John H. Toadvine became the first African American funeral directors/embalmers licensed by the State of Maryland. A week later, licenses were granted to Clarence E. Wright, Robert A. Elliott, Isaac Brown and Joseph Locks.[9] Prior to licensure, most of these men had worked cooperatively in the funeral industry for several years, their businesses having evolved from cabinet/coffin making and from driving carriages. For example, Hemsley, a cabinet maker, practiced as an undertaker at 116 Orchard Street in Baltimore as early as 1881 and in 1884 he conducted the funeral of his friend and fellow undertaker, John W. Locks.[10]

Locks, who owned a fleet of hacks or carriages, worked in conjunction with Hemsley to provide burial services to the African American community. Neither had ever been enslaved and both were financially successful and active participants in religious, fraternal, political and civic organizations before the Civil War. Locks, who had been involved in labor unions, was a co-founder of The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.[11] Additionally, he was a leader of Bethel A.M.E. church and served on the board of trustees of the Howard Normal School, which was founded in 1867 for the education of African Americans.[12] Hemsley rose to a position of power as the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Following his death in 1912, his son, Samuel, inherited the business which remained in operation for many years.[13]

Many widows also inherited funeral businesses. In the era before public welfare, Social Security and other governmental programs designed to aid the indigent were established, widowed women faced tremendous economic obstacles. Those of African descent were particularly disadvantaged and had limited occupational choices. Apparently, the Board recognized the economic difficulty confronting women, as they were extremely liberal in granting licenses, doing so without requiring examinations as they did for men. Mrs. Joseph G. Locks, the former Edna Francis, was the first African American woman granted a license in Maryland. Her husband’s license had been renewed in April 1911 but by July of that year he was dead from appendicitis.[14] Edna Francis Locks continued the business, more than likely with the assistance of her husband’s friends and fellow undertakers, Hemsley, Samuel Chase and Willis Madden. On 23 April, 1912, the Board granted her a license in her own name.[15] For more than twenty years she operated a funeral business which evolved from the hack service established by her husband’s grandfather in 1865.[16]

In a similar manner, Mrs. Robert Elliott (Zorah) entered the funeral business. In 1913, Samuel Hemsley appeared before the Board and reported that Mrs. Elliott was conducting funerals without a license. (Additional research is necessary in order to clearly define his motivation in making this report.) Summoned before the Board, she admitted that she had violated the regulations out of economic necessity. Her husband had passed away and she had no other means of support. The Board’s decision was to invite her to apply for a license which was promptly approved. She was required, however, to hire licensed undertakers to embalm for her.[17] Since that time, women have been continuously involved in the operation of this establishment. The Elliott Funeral Home, at the corner of Caroline and Biddle Streets, was subsequently operated by Ida Elliott Jones Snowden, who was the daughter of Robert Elliott and the widow of two undertakers, Charles Jones and George Snowden. Mrs. Patricia Betts, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, operated a business at the same location until her death in December 2010, thus ending almost one hundred years of female entrepreneurship.

Gender equality and transgenerational support were hallmarks of the African American funeral directors’ community. While women inherited businesses from men, men were often beneficiaries of the knowledge, skill and business acumen of women. For example, Mrs. George A. Holland (Helen) and Mrs. James H. Dennis (Elizabeth) were both widowed and subsequently licensed to continue businesses operated by their husbands. Mrs. Holland, a childless woman, nurtured and trained a non-related neighborhood youth who worked at her establishment after school and during summer vacations. She bequeathed it to Herbert Nutter who operated it with his sons until his retirement.[18] Thomas E. Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under Mrs. Dennis, continued to operate the business after her death. The Board approved his request to advertise as “Thomas E. Kelson, successor to Mrs. James H. Dennis.[19] George Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under his brother, Thomas, inherited the business. Like Helen Holland, George Kelson trained a non-related neighborhood youth, Vernon Bailey, who operated the establishment after his mentor’s death.

Katie Ringgold Williams stands in contrast to other women in the funeral industry in that she was the first to obtain a license without inheriting a business from her deceased husband. While employed as a waitress in a hotel, Williams may have worked in or served an apprenticeship with a local mortician. In March 1920, she was one of seventeen people---eleven white men, two white women and three African American men---who passed the licensing examinations.[20] Probably the most financially successful female to engage in Baltimore’s funeral business, Williams buried between 10,000-13,000 people during her forty year career.[21] The Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers reported in the January 19, 1963 issue that more than 1,500 people attended the funeral services for the Baltimore native and that twelve clergymen participated, praising Williams for her charitable acts.

According to her nephew, Charles Powell, Williams was trained in anatomy at Johns Hopkins Hospital and received a diploma in 1920.[22] No documentation supporting this statement has been uncovered, however, Joseph G. Locks, Jr.’s assertion that his father was employed in the Johns Hopkins Hospital morgue gives credence to the theory that some informal education in anatomy may have been obtained by African Americans at Hopkins.[23] While adhering to the restrictions of a racially segregated society, the Board recognized the need for formal training for African Americans and, in 1910, voted to inquire of “Dr. Winsey (colored) or any other reputable colored practitioners of medicine as to the possibility of getting them to establish a School of Instruction in Embalming for colored applicants.”[24] The Board’s minutes do not reflect that such a school was ever established. However, the fact that the Harvard educated Whitfield Winsey was a faculty member at Provident Hospital, Baltimore’s teaching hospital established by and for African Americans, suggests the possibility that some training of embalmers may have occurred there.[25]

In matters of race, the Board’s behavior varied. Throughout the minutes, women of both races, who were either in the funeral business or applicants for licenses were consistently referred to by their husband’s first and last names. For example, Edna Francis Locks was referred to in the Board’s minutes as Mrs. Joseph Locks, a courtesy usually extended only to white women. Perhaps the fact that these women operated businesses gave them elevated status in the eyes of the members of the Board. It was not until 1920 that the Board consistently used racial designations when referring to undertakers, most often by inserting the word “colored” in parenthesis after the person’s name. In 1935 Sol Levinson became the first Jewish President of the Board and at that time the practice of identifying people by race ceased. In 1936, the practice was resumed but on an inconsistent basis. In 1924, white applicants were tested in the mornings and Blacks in the afternoon. In subsequent years, both races were tested together.

The passing grade for examinations was seventy-five and few applicants passed at the first attempt. Why then, did so many come to Maryland from Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Colombia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois to be licensed?[26] Joseph Locks, Jr. who passed on his first attempt, theorizes that the examination, although difficult, was easier and more objectively administered than in other states. In states where licensing was not mandatory, some undertakers viewed the acquisition of a license as good for business in that they could advertise themselves as being better qualified than unlicensed individuals. For example, in 1926 John Edward Thomas of Accomack, Virginia applied for licensure in Maryland. Days before the scheduled examination he withdrew his application, indicating that he was too busy burying victims of a mill explosion to come to Baltimore to take the test. The Board voted to refund his application fee. He subsequently reapplied and was successful in passing the examinations.[27] The minutes of the Board do not reveal any bias toward African Americans in the administration of the examination. Baltimore , a city with a history of de facto and de jure segregation in all areas of life--housing, education, religious and social activities and medical care--had a need for African American embalmers, in order to maintain racial segregation even in death.

Again, due to racial segregation, African Americans were unable to join professional organizations established by whites. They therefore formed the Colored Funeral Directors Association in 1904. Among the men who held leadership positions in the organization were Bernard P. Hemsley, Samuel T. Hemsley and John M. Johnson. The first mention of this organization in the minutes of the Board was in 1935. While the group had no official decision making capability, the Board frequently contacted them and took their opinions into consideration before announcing their rulings. As an example, when Adolphus Halstead, who operated an establishment at 904 N. Eutaw St., applied for a license to open a branch office on Brantly Ave., the Board requested the officers of the CFDA to appear in case they wanted to oppose his application. Following their testimony, Halstead withdrew his application.[28] Officers of the CFDA also appeared before the Board to support and defend members charged with inappropriate conduct. In addition, the CFDA policed its members and referred those who did not adhere to State regulations to the Board for censure. The group may have acted out of economic necessity, fearing that all might have suffered for the negative actions of one funeral director. Such actions were common among oppressed people who seek the approval of the majority culture as a means of demonstrating and validating their own worth.[29]

African Americans were also oppressed in terms of access to burial insurance. White companies frequently refused to insure or severely limited the amount and type of insurance available to people of color, claiming that they were poor risks. To meet the need for burial funds, many African Americans turned to fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, The Order of Good Hopes and the Galilean Fishermen. Social organizations provided the same benefits. For example, one of the incentives for joining The Arch Social Club, which was founded in 1912, was the fact that members were entitled to sick benefits and burial funds. Included in this club’s membership were morticians George Kelson, Elroy Wilson, George Holland and George Bailey who served as president[30]

Another response to the racism rampant in the insurance industry was the formation of The Burial Association of Baltimore in which mortician Charles H. Alexander, Addison D. Owens and George P. Bailey held positions of leadership. In addition to selling insurance to those considered poor risks, this group applied, as a corporation for an undertaker’s license. On at least one occasion, the Burial Association had been accused of failing to pay a claim to the survivors of a policy holder. Perhaps this was the reason why, after hearing testimony from the survivor and from the officers of The Colored Funeral Directors’ Association, the Board denied the license.

African American morticians have a long and productive history in the State of Maryland. Even prior to the period when licenses were required and a formal organizational structure existed, they functioned with a spirit of cooperation, placing the interests of the group above those of individuals. Through the years they supported needy members such as widows and provided both employment and opportunities for ownership to the younger members of the community. While other professions have sometimes denigrated the abilities of female members, morticians have, historically, supported, respected and learned from them. Currently, African Americans have a wider variety of career choices and opportunities than did the pioneers in the funeral industry. Consequently, there are fewer businesses being passed from parent to child than in years past. Other traditions, however---those which insured the survival and prosperity of African Americans---continue among members of the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association of Maryland, Incorporated.

African American Undertakers in Baltimore, 1920

Charles G. Bailey

John A. Bishop

Isaiah Brown & Son

Wilbert Brown

Samuel W. Chase & Son

James H. Dennis

Mrs. Robert A. Elliott

Joseph A. Farrell

Alfred J. Freeland

Samuel T. Hemsley

John W. Henderson

George H. Holland

George H. Hooper

John M. Johnson

Mrs. Joseph G. Locks

John H. Owens

Felix B. Pye, Sr

Edward Ringgold

John H. Toadvine

Theodore White

Clarence C. Wright

1421 Jefferson St.

1107 Druid Hill Ave.

108 W. Montgomery St

114 N. Schroeder St.

1400 Mosher St., Corner Calhoun St.

1303 Presstman St.

1725 Ashland Ave.

2319 Division St.

114 N. Schroeder St.

578 W. Biddle St.

31 N. Caroline St.

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

606 Little Paca St.

1234 Etting St.

618 N. Bond St.

1222 Division St.

102 E. Mulberry St.

1463 Carey St.

142 W. Hill St.

1702 Gough St.

1364 N. Carey St.[31]

1921 Advertisements in the Afro:

Afro-American (1893-1988); Aug 5, 1921; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, pg. 4

A Woman’s Touch

In a home disrupted by bereavement there are innumerable ways in which a lady assistant lends a helping hand. By her kindly manner and diligent application, order is brought out of chaos. Her womanly intuition adds warmth and understanding to the simplest detail. She anticipates every need in the household and is, by nature, able to sympathize perfectly with every member of the family. Such an assistant is part of our service.

Madison 0692

Mrs. George H. Holland

Funeral Directress and Embalmer

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

Baltimore Md.

Moncure A. Brown, Manager

Source: The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932, p. 11.


Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives. http://www.mdarchives.state/

“Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.” State Agency Histories.

Certificate of Death #73820. Baltimore City. March 9, 1884.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Gaines, Kevin K. Uplifting The Race. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Locks, Joseph G. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

_________. Interview by author. 2 September 2000

Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, 1902-1939.

Nutter, Herbert. Interview by author. 21 January 1995.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Powell, Charles. Interview by author. 19 September 1994.

The Baltimore Morning Herald. March 10, 1884

The Baltimore Sun. March 11, 1884.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1921.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1932.

Walker, Juliet E.K. The History of Black Business in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.


[1] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. 1902-1908.

[2] Ibid., June 18, 1902.

[3] Ibid., May 25, 1928.

[4] By 1924 the fee had increased to $20.00. African Americans Eugene Waters, Byron Wright and Edward Graham were among those licensed that year with their fees paid by the United States Veteran’s Bureau.

[5] Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[6] Ibid., February 27, 1925.

[7] Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[8] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 62.

[9] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. June 18-24, 1902.

[10] Baltimore City Certificate of Death # 73820, March 9, 1884.

[11] The Baltimore Morning Herald, 10 March 1884. P.4.

[12] Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 263.

[13] Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives

[14] Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

[15] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. April 23, 1912.

[16] Black Baltimore 1870-1920, John W. Locks.

[17] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. March 11, 1913.

[18] Herbert Nutter. Interview by author, 21 January 1995.

[19] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. May 25, 1928.

[20] Ibid, March 5, 1920. See also Minutes dated March 12, 1925 and March 6, 1928: Williams’ husband, Clarence, passed the funeral directors’ examination in 1925. In 1928, the Board requested that he submit proof of graduation from high school in order to take the embalmer’s examination, however, there is no evidence that he ever did so.

[21] Charles Powell. Interview by author, 19 September 1994.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author, 2 September 2000.

[24] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. September 23, 1910.

[25] Efforts to obtain early records of Provident Hospital have not been fruitful. Inquiries made at the John Mason Chesney Archives, which houses the records of the Johns Hopkins medical institutions, yielded no evidence of courses being offered to African Americans.

[26] In 1921, Robert Edward Williams and Daniel E. Smith of Philadelphia, Pa. applied. In 1927 John E. Ridgley of Washington D.C. and Henry G. Reynolds of Chicago, Ill were tested. In 1928 John Thomas of Accomac, Va. and Willie Staley of Pittsburg were tested.

[27]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, March 9, 1926.

[28] Ibid. , May 10-June 19, 1929.

[29] For a comprehensive account of the effects of racism on the self-perception and behavior of African Americans see Uplifting The Race by Kevin K. Gaines.

[30] The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921.

[31] Ibid.

Note: This article first appeared in Flower of the Forest; Black Genealogical Journal Vol. II No. 7. 2000.