Mondawmin in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries

August 30, 2017 at 12:18 pm Leave a comment

While researching James Rouse for a project I’m working on, I came across a remarkable fact about Mondawmin and one of Baltimore’s most famous companies…

Since the domestic terror attack in Charlottesville on August 12, Americans have been reconsidering the oppression behind some of the country’s historical sites and symbols. Many of these symbols are statues. One, as yet undiscussed, is a mall.

Mondawmin Mall is now famous as ground zero for the unrest in Baltimore on April 27, 2015, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. Citing rumors of a “purge,” police in riot gear arrived there as schools were releasing students.

You know what happened next. Few people know, however, Mondawmin’s connection to the extraction of wealth from enslaved people.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 11.44.51 AMLong before it was a mall, Mondawmin was the country estate of George Brown [1]. George Brown’s grandfather [1], Alexander Brown, founded the merchant banking firm Alexander Brown and Sons in 1800 [2]. When George Brown died in August 1859, the Baltimore Sun wrote that his firm had once “possessed almost a monopoly of the cotton trade” between America and England. [1] According to a 1977 article by University of Leeds economic historian John R. Killick, the Brown family “found themselves the somewhat unwilling owners of…several large plantations” in the South during the late 1830s and early 1840s [2]. Killick wrote that the Brown firm hired managers to undertake “the usual round of plantation duties, organizing slave labor to produce cotton and sugar.” In the 1850s, the firm moved out of the cotton trade and into investment banking.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 11.47.43 AMIn 1949, Alexander Brown—named after his great-grandfather, the firm’s founder—died at Mondawmin [3]. James Rouse—who would later go on to build the planned city of Columbia, help bring Harborplace to downtown Baltimore, and assist Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s administration with a comprehensive revitalization effort in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood—negotiated with Mondawmin heir Alexander Brown Griswold for the rights to develop the property.

Rouse commissioned several research reports to figure out how to best use the property, according to Paul Marx’s biography Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist. One report suggested a shopping center. Another report warned against developing housing there because of “encroachment from an advancing Negro settlement.” (According to one local resident, Black World War II veteran Isaac Joseph Bacon, an adjoining neighborhood turned over from mostly white to mostly black between 1950 and 1954.) Rouse tried to reassure Griswold about the viability of a shopping center in the changing area. The letter revealed Rouse the capitalist more than Rouse the idealist. To make his case, he drew on economic self-interest and a crude notion of respectability rather than any egalitarian ideal. The black families moving toward the development, he wrote to Griswold in 1950, “are largely home owners who have paid $7,500 and $15,000 and up for their houses. The noticeable improvement in recent years in the living habits of the higher-income Negroes and the strong trend against racial segregation may make this part of the walk-in market more acceptable.”

The shopping center experienced financial ups and downs over the next few decades, and its reputation suffered a blow in 1993 when close to 300 teenagers brawled in the mall parking lot. (The day after the brawl, according to the Baltimore Sun, “rumors of another eruption” swirled at Frederick Douglass High School, which “prompted the police to turn out in force.”) However, by the 2010s, Mondawmin Mall had attracted national chains like Target and Marshalls. In April 2015, of course, the mall attracted national media attention.

Since then, much of the controversy over historical symbols of exploitation and oppression has centered on Southern flags and statuary, not mid-Atlantic brands. But considering that the Brown family bought the Mondawmin estate around 1840 [4]—during what Killick’s article described as their plantation-owning period [2]—it’s possible that the site that kindled Baltimore’s most violent unrest since 1968 was once occupied by people who were actively extracting wealth from the labor of enslaved people.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 12.13.21 PM.png

“…a tradition of integrity…”

Alex. Brown and Sons is one of the most famous companies in Baltimore history. In the 1990s, it began to pass through various corporate hands, eventually losing the “Alex. Brown and Sons” moniker. But last year, financial services firm Raymond James of St. Petersburg, Florida, bought what had become the “US Private Client Services unit of Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management” and rebranded it “Alex. Brown” in honor of “the nation’s first investment bank.” On Tuesday, August 22 and Wednesday, August 23, I asked a Raymond James spokesperson for comment about Alexander Brown and Sons’ history of managing the forced and uncompensated labor of people in bondage.

The company has not replied.

–  Lawrence Lanahan

 

[1] “LOCAL MATTERS.” The Baltimore Sun. Aug 27, 1859, pg. 1.

[2] Killick, John R. “The Cotton Operations of Alexander Brown and Sons in the Deep South, 1820-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 169-194.

[3] “ALEX, BROWN, INVESTMENT BANKER, DIES: In Public Utility Field Succumbs At Estate, Mondawmin.” The Baltimore Sun. May 14, 1949, pg. 24.

[4] “Imminent Disappearance Of Another Great Estate.” The Baltimore Sun. Jun 3, 1951, pg. 14.

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Questions for David French on the travel ban

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NEWS
- A much prettier website with my journalistic highlights is at lawrencelanahan.com.
- Disappearing Ink released its first album, "There Is No Time and Nothing's Been," in December 2014. It's available on iTunes.
- After almost five years at WYPR, I'm back to freelancing. Editors can reach me at llanahan@gmail.com.
- The Art of Social Critique: Painting Mirrors of Social Life includes my chapter "New Possibilities and Old Limitations of Political Art in The Wire."
- You can still buy my 2004 self-titled EP.

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