Can Cities Desegregate?
“Segregation,” the preacher paused to let his congregation absorb the full solemnity of his message, “is apparent everywhere.” It was December 4, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland. Members of the largely African American crowd that had gathered in the sanctuary and overflowed onto the steps of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church were grimly aware of what the Reverend Dr. Ernest Lyon was talking about, at least as far as the United States was concerned. The country’s black slaves had been emancipated less than a half century before. But now white people in Baltimore and elsewhere, even in cities outside the formerly slave-owning South, were clamoring for new ways to assert political supremacy. They had devised a new technique of racial control—segregation.
Since about 1900, whites across the United States had been outdoing each other shouting these four dread syllables from the political rooftops. In the name of segregation, they had passed laws that relegated blacks to inferior Jim Crow schools, train cars, railroad station platforms and waiting rooms, restaurants, theaters, public bathrooms, amusement parks, and even public water fountains. Employers and white workers imposed color bars that kept certain higher-prestige jobs off limits to blacks. Laws that prevented blacks from voting helped to reinforce the system. Earlier that year, on July 5, 1910, a group of angry whites in Baltimore decided it was time to take a step further and extend segregation to the city’s residential neighborhoods. As a result, Lyon reminded his congregation, “the city fathers of Baltimore are having under advisement at this time a measure which seeks to deprive free men … of their right to live and own property anywhere they can.” Two weeks after Lyon’s sermon, on December 20, 1910, Mayor J. Barry Mahool signed the city’s pathbreaking segregation ordinance into law. The ordinance divided every street in Baltimore into “white blocks” and “colored blocks” based on the race of the majority of their inhabitants at the time of the ordinance’s passage.
Segregation may have come to Baltimore, and it was definitely spreading across the United States, but it was also crisscrossing big expanses of the world beyond. It was not by any means limited to America and Africa—nor to the newly dawning twentieth century. Urban segregation designed to enhance elite groups’ power and wealth extends back to the most ancient of cities in Mesopotamia, and it was practiced in most other ancient civilizations as well. European colonial segregation dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when English colonists in Ireland and Italian merchants in the eastern Mediterranean reserved separate parts of overseas colonial towns for themselves.