(Full disclosure: David Bramble is the son of Baltimore Times publisher, Joy Bramble)
“I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the basin, anchored from the shore. With their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake…in the deep still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door.”
Frederick Douglass was describing the palpable terror he experienced whenever hearing the weary trudging of the weeping enslaved shackled men, women and children absconded from the cluster of slave jails (or pens) that warehoused them in the Inner Harbor until transported on bare feet along Pratt Street to waiting cargo ships headed south, under cover of darkness.
At its height, between 1820 and 1860, Baltimore City’s slavery industry was the robust economic engine that drove commerce in the region. Its Inner Harbor-based economic and logistical infrastructure was primarily comprised of an estimated fourteen taverns and inns, six auction houses, three municipal general intelligence offices, four municipal-owned public marketplace and thirteen slave pens. The unacknowledged marketing, advertising, and promotional driver of slavery was the Baltimore Sun.
There was also a brigade of ancillary businesses located in the vicinity of the Inner Harbor that serviced slavery. Purveyors of restraints and shackles, legal and insurance services, vendors of provisions required to sustain the slaves, medical services, slave police and their related administrative bureaucracies. Commerce flourished in Baltimore’s Central Business District, driven by activity in the Inner Harbor district much as it does today except that African slaves were the principal commodity.
Roughly six generations later, 163 years, most engage the Inner Harbor for food and fun, relaxation, entertainment, or conduct personal or professional business downtown, having no idea of the horrors and inhumanity that took place there for nearly a century of Baltimore’s recent history. In that span of time, however, a Black man has gone from being the Inner Harbor’s featured currency, to the Inner Harbor’s owner.
David Bramble’s acquisition is at once a tremendous entrepreneurial accomplishment for a real estate developer of any race, which must also be recognized for its unbridled historic significance. Looked at through the prism of Baltimore’s experience relative to the Black man and the Inner Harbor, Mr. Bramble’s recent assumption of control over the property where Black men were once routinely bought and sold is truly remarkable.
While it is true that the United States government suspended the Atlantic Slave Trade between America and Africa in 1808, that act did not end the slave trade altogether. Of course, there continued to be surreptitious smuggling of African slaves, but the main business of slavers became brokering existing slaves for shipment to states where there was demand and breeding slaves.
Black people were bred, housed and sold like farm animals in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. In 1829, Baltimore editor of The Weekly Register, Hezekiah Niles, wrote: “Dealing in slaves has become a large business; establishments [exist] in several places in Maryland and Virginia at which they are sold like cattle.”
According to the 1860 Slave Schedule for Baltimore City, reporting on one of the Inner Harbor’s most notorious slavers, Bernard Campbell, of the 50 slaves registered to him that year, one was a female mulatto six months old, another female was eight months old and two slaves were one-year-old males. Campbell, whose office was on Conway Street, operated a slave jail at 224 W. Pratt Street, that he had purchased from another notorious slave broker, Hope Hall Slatter, who would become his partner.
One of the Inner Harbor’s most successful, and depraved, slave brokers was Austin Woolfolk, a Louisiana dealer who reestablished himself in Baltimore after getting his Maryland start on the Eastern Shore. After the War of 1812, he operated out of a Pratt Street address west of Cove Street (near what is now the American Visionary Museum). Woolfolk is famous for, and his success is attributed to, an innovative business model that was imitated for 40 years. Dealers who succeeded Woolfolk used his targeted ad marketing scheme, which he developed with the enthusiastic support of the Baltimore Sun, to both acquire and sell slaves.
If it appears that David Bramble’s ascension to become the Inner Harbor’s owner, achieved by the content of his character, business acumen, and astute legal maneuvering, took 160 years too long to achieve, considering that slavery lasted 250 years, officially abolished in Maryland in 1864, and Jim Crow another 100 years before his opportunity came.
Kudos to Mr. Bramble for literally breaking those shackles.