Learning about Lexington: Whose Market? Why Change?

With so many functions, meanings, and users, many of them at odds, the market was a contested space and a microcosm of the city and its people: diverse and vibrant, growing and changing, and buffeted by the convulsive forces of slavery, capitalism, and democracy.

— Robert Gamble, “The City That Eats: Food and Power in Baltimore’s Early Public Markets”


Looking through the Baltimore Heritage list of articles on the Lexington Market (LM) published in the Baltimore Sun from 1878 until 1990 (over a century) shows how impending changes to the historic market has long caused controversy. As a society, we are apprehensive about change. And for good reason. Change produces discomfort and fear.

Stall owners fear for their livelihood. Customers fear a hike in prices or a shift in products they depend on or places they frequent with ease and familiarity. Politicians fear chaos… rats, trash, crime, and always an image problem. However, change is going to continue to happen… always, until humanity is destroyed. We must deal with that. What we should fight is change where we lose control, lose something valuable and irreplaceable, like a truly democratic public space that sustains the culture and the distinct identity of a city, or when the change is based in consolidating power or oppressing people.

For the second week of class, I hope we can begin to articulate the goals of our projects, which will change as we better understand what people are thinking on the ground and in the market and environs. While we are partnering with the Lexington Market and Baltimore Heritage, public humanities programming is really for the public. In our case, the amalgamation of people on the street surrounding the market. Who is this city-owned public market for if not the residents of this city? The city runs on taxpayer dollars, so the real owner of the market are the residents of Baltimore city.

For my contribution to our collective research endeavors for this week, I read articles on the LM from Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper. I limited my search to articles (always losing something, like fascinating ads, etc. … 272 total hits) and sorted the 67 result from oldest to the most recent (1908-1985) because I like to read through history, and occasionally look at the page view in the pdf options for larger context of the historical period I am reading about.

In the early 20th century the articles mention the LM as a spot on Lexington Street between Eutaw and Pearl Strs. visit, shop, or been seen. A 1928 “Around Town” column describes a Saturday at the LM that could be today: “As many come to see old friends and strut on parade, as to fill empty baskets with the weekly pay envelope.” A brief 1913 article “Ladies are Now Out to Land Good Fish” jokes that the women of the Auxiliary Rod and Gun Club have tea rather than “likker” in their flasks while fishing, perhaps leading to the fact that no woman needs to stop by the LM to buy fish as fishermen “are said to do.”

The Afro presents a picture of the ways of everyday life for African Americans living in Baltimore during the early 20th century, from produce dealers to hucksters and to the “old-timers” shopping in the market as much for socializing as for food. There’s even a recurring column on a nameless “Old-Timer” O.T. as he shops and talks politics and gives no-nonsense advice. There are also columns like “Judge, Good Morning!” covering petty crime, which the bustling LM is host to from its inception to today. From stealing chickens, oranges, or a beating from a man to a woman who asked him to marry her, crime reports at the LM are common.

There’s also a host of article on African American entrepreneurs ranging from artisans and artists (the itinerant card writer and philosopher from South Carolina) to the hucksters (the liniment faker with rattlesnake oil) during the early 20th century. There’s also portraits of figure like Dr. James E. Herdon a produce stall owner who is also “one of the city’s most successful citizens. Herdon’s death is reported in the Afro in 1961 and he ran a produce stand in the market since 1903, which is 57 years–the same amount of time he was married to his wife Eliza Burwell. I want to know more about this man and his life. The James and Eliza Herdons of the past are the reason I am interested in social history… and the stories places hold. [Also, Earl Bernard Green “Papa Earl” who was a founder of the Arch Social Club, the second oldest social club for African Americans, who also operated a produce stall at the LM.]

There are accidents from a man cut by a meat cutting machine to someone slipping on a banana peal to fancy ladies who had their fur coat and dresses sliced as they walked through the stalls. Many people are jailed for begging or tragically frozen to death while trying to stay warm in the outdoor stalls during the great depression. And there’s always the characters, like the legless dancer who works in a butcher shop (the big time) in the market but aspires for fame and fortune based on his dancing abilities despite losing both his legs in the great blizzard of 1898 to frostbite. Humanity, in all its vast forms, is on display at the Lexington Market in addition to the produce, meats, and sweets.

Racial, ethnic, gender, and class conflicts abound like the great-grandmother who read the Afro diligently for over 45 years who told a reporter in 1936 that she “traced her dislike for Italians to an experience at the Lexington Market some years ago when a fruit dealer tried to stab a boy who was loitering near his stall.” An article reporting that Blumberg’s Department store opened in 1928 and caters especially to “race women” shows the segregated nature of downtown. However, the LM also blurred the lines of race in some ways. This challenge to the segregation and apartheid in Baltimore is illustrated by Acorn Manuel (aged 113 in 1984) who told a Afro reporter: “Everybody did their shopping there [LM]. That was downtown and black and white …anybody who could afford to had a stall.”

Yet the final article in the database on the LM shows the intensification of racial segregation during the 1980s when Baltimore was bleeding industry and manufacturing jobs and white and middle class African American residents migrated to the suburbs. Even the city’s football team, the Baltimore Colts, left in the cover of night in 1984. In a 1985 column by Elizabeth M. Oliver “The devil wears a white jumpsuit” the author criticizes the “nasty, sneaky ways” whites avoid civil rights legislation as put all in on maintaining white supremacy. The LM offers a prime example of such social evils in the fact that the “so-called World Famous Lexington Market has but one black merchant, a tiny one, among over 300. The market has an enormous black trade amounting to millions of dollars. Some years ago the AFRO helped a black merchant get started in there…” The man’s stall was vandalized not once but three times. Oliver writes: “Later we learned that there is a certain circle of merchants, vendors who have been in the market for over 100 years, Italians, Germans, Greeks, etc. who band together to keep out ‘invaders’ and those persons include black merchants.”

In these trouble times we should remember that economics cannot be detangles from racial injustice in this city. This was true when the Lexington Market was built over 200 years ago. It is true today. It will probably be true for the next generation, unless something seriously changes. That is the kind of change I can get behind.

Next week’s blog: Fun with Sanborn maps

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