It’s not just recent history that has given Baltimore a reputation for social and political revolt. “Mobtown,” Maryland has a long history of both peaceful protests and violent riots.

So where does the name Mobtown come from?

Baltimore goes by many names. The quaint: “Charm City,” “Smalltimore” and the not-so-quaint: “Harm City,” “BodyMore, Murdaland."

The sad reality of Baltimore city is that both the quaint and the not-so-quaint nicknames ring true, depending on which block of the city you visit. The truth is that great economic and racial inequality divide Baltimore city. Individuals from across the country saw glimpses of this division in late April 2015 when Baltimore erupted into unrest after Freddie Carlos Gray died of a spinal injury sustained while in police custody. The events of April 2015 revealed the explosive power of the tension that had long been building in the city; distrust between police and communities of color, rampant poverty, and educational inequality are all important context for understanding what happened that week in Mobtown.   [caption id="attachment_1312" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Mobtown This now famous Time Magazine cover was shot by Baltimore photographer Devin Allen. It calls attention to the striking similarities between Baltimore '68 and Baltimore '15.[/caption]   Americans looking on from other parts of the country may not understand the many factors that contributed to the events of April 2015. Some may believe that Baltimore has a reputation of violence; however, Baltimore’s legacy as a Mobtown is far more complex than just a few angry locals being destructive.

Riot & The Revolution

The earliest print documentation of the term Mobtown occurs in a 1838 copy of The Baltimore Sun; yet, it is said that by that time the name was already well established. [caption id="attachment_1308" align="aligncenter" width="182"]Mobtown The Baltimore Sun, 1838[/caption] One of the earliest tales comes from the turmoil of the American revolution in 1777. A group of anti-British Baltimoreans called the Whig Club congregated outside the home of William Goddard. Goddard was the editor of the Maryland Journal who expressed pro-British sentiments. The mob forcefully removed him from his home and tarred and feathered him in the street. In response to the violence of the Whig Club, then Governor of Maryland stated the following on April 17, 1777 “all bodies of men associating together… for the purpose of usurping any of the powers of government, and presuming to exercise any powers over the persons or property of any subject of this State, or to carry into execution any of the laws thereof on their own authorities, unlawful assemblies.” Ironically, Baltimore would erupt in riot in protest again in 1812, 1835, 1839, 1856, and 1861, all connected with local and national political developments, some even with the Civil war. Thus, the nickname Mobtown was already well established.

The Great Railroad Strike

In 1877, the entire United States experienced a severe economic depression. The railroad industry, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was one of the city's and the nation’s most important industries. As the working class suffered, the B&O railroad became the target of many disadvantaged workers’ anger. [caption id="attachment_1310" align="aligncenter" width="298"]Mobtown The legacy of the Railroad strike of 1877, Photo courtesy of Red Emma's[/caption] As tensions continued to rise, the spark needed to ignite the workers into action came in July 1877 when John Garrett, president of the B&O, increased stockholders dividends by 10 percent while also decreasing workers’ already low wages by 10 percent. The strike began in West Virginia on July 16 and quickly spread, thanks to the efficiency of the rails the workers had built. The railroad strike remained peaceful in Baltimore until July 20th when the Governer, John Lee Carroll, called in the 5th and 6th regiments of Maryland’s National Guard. The soldiers clashed with strikers at Camden Station, known today as Camden Yards, and what resulted was two days of blood, violence, and fire.  [caption id="attachment_1309" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Mobtown A detailed engraving of the violence at Camden Rail Station[/caption]

Baltimore, 1968, A Nation in Revolt

The more commonly known history of unrest in Mobtown comes from the late 1960s. Following the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, Washington D.C. and Chicago had already erupted into protest. By the end of April over 125 cities across the country saw demonstrations of civil disobedience.  As of April 5th, Baltimore remained peaceful, but that changed on April 6th when violence broke out at a memorial service for King. What resulted was a week of violent clashes between civilians, business owners, police, and military personnel. That week then governor Spiro T. Agnew called in the National Guard as well as the Federal Army Reserve. There were six deaths, over 700 injuries, and nearly 6,000 arrests. More than 1,200 fires were set, and over 1,000 small businesses were robbed or destroyed. The damage was estimated at $12 million, much of which occurred in low income African American communities.

The Legacy of Mobtown: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, or a City in Need of Support?

Baltimore is famous, and notorious, for many things. It doesn’t always have the best reputation, but it's clear that Baltimoreans know when to take action. The most important thing to keep in mind is that, no matter the city, there is always a reason for a riot or a protest; understanding the context that motivates people to civilly disobey can help us, as a nation, prevent this history from repeating itself again. After all, protests and riots are often indicators of larger issues in our communities, and as Americans we have the right to express our dissent.

What do you think? Is Baltimore simply living up to its namesake? What do you believe the role of protest is in our communities? Drop a comment below.

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