Publication Date

July 1, 2015


African American, Current Events in Historical Context

In the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray, numerous commentators labeled participants in the 2015 Baltimore uprising as “thugs.” The use of this racialized language—even when done unknowingly—draws on the fraught historical relationship between the criminal justice system and African Americans. As the nation became more urban in the 1890s and early 1900s, white criminologists, the press, and social scientists increasingly forged links between race and crime.1 In Baltimore, white citizens, judges, Democratic Party officials, and the press fashioned their own popular conceptions of an innate black criminality. The trope of the “negro rowdy” or “negro tough,” as Baltimoreans often termed it, was an antecedent to today’s conception of the “thug.” All three phrases function as shorthand to single out African Americans as exceptionally violent, intractable, and/or menacing. More than mere rhetoric, these charges have had important repercussions in city governance, politics, and race relations. Baltimore’s criminal justice system responded by disproportionately targeting African Americans for arrest and meting out more severe punishments. This dubious but pernicious association of race with crime has left a lasting impact on perceptions of criminality and continues to influence law enforcement strategies.

The public rhetoric connecting race and crime became more vitriolic in the pages of Baltimore’s newspapers in 1898. Prior to that year, the phrases “negro rowdyism” and “negro disorder” had never appeared in the Baltimore Sun. This changed in March when police arrested two African American males for allegedly accosting white women. The next morning, the magistrate of Baltimore’s Western Police District, Eugene E. Grannan, informed the Sun that black criminals proliferated in sections of the city. The justice’s comments ignited a firestorm, especially after the Sun and fellow police magistrates bolstered Grannan’s contentions.2 With stunning rapidity, “negro rowdyism” and “negro disorder” became watchwords used by the Sun, magistrates, and citizens to connect a wide array of unrelated misdemeanors, including nonviolent offenses such as swearing in public or disturbing the peace, as well as assaults.

The rhetoric of black criminality became more entrenched as it intersected with politics. At the end of the 19th century, Maryland’s Democratic Party was in dire straits. A Democratic machine had dominated state politics from 1871 to 1894, but Republicans triumphed in the 1895 and 1897 elections. In 1899, Democrats exploited the intersection of race and crime in their quest to regain power. Throughout the municipal campaign, Democrats contended that they could maintain order by reigning in the “growing lawlessness and insolence of negroes under republican rule.”3 Stereotypical images of black criminals—“tough looking” African Americans, in the words of Democratic supporters—illustrated rally signs that read “No Coons for Me.”4 The election of 1899 ultimately proved the power inherent in this racialized rhetoric: the Democrats won majorities in both city and statewide offices.

The extant evidence indicates that the conflation of race and crime was more rhetorical than real. Speeches and editorials peddled observations and anecdotes as evidence for a rise in black crime. Statistics disproved this narrative to black leaders and some white journalists. The Baltimore American established that arrests in the city dropped on a year-to-year basis beginning in 1894.5 The Baltimore World found that although the arrest rate of African Americans was higher than that of whites in 1898, the crime rate among the latter was growing at a faster pace.6 W.E.B. DuBois demonstrated that Baltimore’s arrest rate of African Americans slightly decreased after 1896 and remained steady between 1897 and 1899.7 While many white Baltimoreans believed the rhetoric and feared growing black criminality in the declining years of the 1890s, their worries were baseless.

Part of the ongoing series entitled "The Americans," this work, "The Americans V," was created in response to the brutal killings of African American men by police officers in many US cities. In memory of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, and, most recently, Freddie Gray, this piece responds to the poem "The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy" by Nikky Finney. Artist Cheryl D. Edwards is based in Washington, DC. Her website is at This work is on exhibit at the Brentwood Arts Center from May 18 to July 18. It was photographed by Ed Savwoir.“Nevertheless, popular ideas of black criminality reshaped the ways African Americans encountered, and were treated by, the criminal justice system. As early as 1902, the Afro-American Ledger remarked on the broken relationship between the police and some black Baltimoreans when it noted that it “is not at all strange that ignorant and vicious Negroes should view the police force as already prejudiced, in advance, against them.”8 The police’s relationship with the African American community would continue to sour throughout the decade. In 1906, J.H.N. Waring, the principal of Baltimore’s Colored High School, contended that the police overzealously arrested young African Americans for minor offenses.9 The Ledger also alleged that the police enforced laws disproportionately against black Baltimoreans: “Whenever a new law is passed or some incident happens whereby some person must be made an example of, it always happens that it is a poor Negro that is the first to get into the toils.”10 Conditions in Baltimore were indicative of wider problems. According to the Ledger, blacks across the South encountered a criminal justice system in which, “For the slightest infraction of the law, no mercy is shown, but off to the chain gang or the stockade, or workhouse they are sent for not less than thirty days, while white men and boys are given a chance to recover themselves, if possible, and are let out on a very light fine or possibly a reprimand.” The Ledger concluded that the South’s criminal justice system engaged in the “wholesale manufacturing of Negro criminals.”11 In this, the newspaper was partially correct. As W.E.B. Dubois demonstrated in his landmark study The Philadelphia Negro, African Americans in the North were also subjected to disproportionate arrests and longer terms of incarceration.12

Unlike white Baltimoreans’ baseless fantasies of increased black criminality, there is evidence for Waring’s and the Afro-American Ledger’s observations about a racially biased criminal justice system. In public statements, police magistrates promised that they would more heavily punish African Americans. Justice Lindley M. Huggins stated that he would levy harsher sentences on blacks arrested for insulting white women. Justice W. B. Schoen proclaimed that if “any [African Americans] are brought before me they will get the fullest penalty that I am permitted under the law to impose.” Justice Daniel J. Loden also promised longer prison terms and steeper fines for African American offenders.13 African Americans faced similar problems when standing before a jury. The rhetorical creation of the black criminal became a turn-of-the-century version of racial profiling. As the Ledger pointed out, “Every crime committed by a member of the Negro race, is by concurrent action, upon the part of the white press, so pictured and paraded, as to make the whole race partakers of the shortcomings of one member of the race.” Because of this, the paper surmised, black Baltimoreans stood before juries composed not of their peers, but of men who considered themselves superiors.14

Baltimore’s troubled history of race and criminal justice should give pause to those who have fallen back on another oft-repeated explanation of the 2015 unrest: a degenerative African American culture. White Baltimoreans, especially politicians and the press, created this idea in their minds, and then found examples in observations viewed through a lens compromised by racism. This trope has elided the larger issue of how a long-standing culture of racism shaped the criminal justice system and informed policing strategies. It has also served to discredit black communities’ real grievances with racial profiling and other policing tactics. African Americans have been aware of these injustices from the outset, articulating a version of “Black Lives Matter” long before the 2015 uprising.

Dennis P. Halpin is an assistant professor of 19th- and 20th-century United States history at Virginia Tech. He is currently revising a book on Baltimore between 1877 and 1920 entitled Confronting the Progressive Order: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Baltimore, 1877–1920. He tweets @dennisphalpin.


1. For a great overview of these debates, see Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

2. “Negro Rowdyism,” Baltimore Sun, March 31, 1898, 4.

3. “Negro Domination,” Baltimore Sun, April 20, 1899, 10.

4. “A Great Meeting,” Baltimore Sun, April 14, 1899, 10.

5. “An Inquiry into Negro Rowdyism,” Baltimore American, April 16, 1898.

6. “The Race Cry,” Baltimore World, April 13, 1899.

7. W.E.B. DuBois, Some Notes on Negro Crime, Particularly in Georgia (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1904), 23–25.

8. “The Police Department and the Negroes,” Afro-American Ledger, May 31, 1902, 4.

9. J.H.N. Waring, “Some Causes of Criminality among Colored People,” Charities, October 7, 1905, 47.

10. “White Gentleman—Black Criminal,” Afro-American Ledger, November 10, 1906, 4.

11. “Manufacturing Criminals,” Afro-American Ledger, September 23, 1906, 4.

12. W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Schocken Books, 1899).

13. “A Negro Insults Miss Sarah Owens,” Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1898, 12; “Negro Rowdyism Again,” Baltimore Sun, April 14, 1898, 4; “Agree with Justice Grannan,” Baltimore Sun, April 14, 1898, 7; “Adopts Sterner Method,” Baltimore Sun, November 18, 1907, 14.

14. “The Police Department and Negroes,” Afro-American Ledger, May 31, 1902, 4.

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