by Amy Davis
May 5, 2022
Permission from Baltimore Sun Media. All Rights Reserved.

Seeing what is no longer there is a daunting task. Footprints once left on the dirt streets by coffles — mournful processions of enslaved men in chains, followed by women and children — are gone. Only a ghostly footprint remains etched in the ground we traverse today.

There is no evidence at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that people were sold at the site. In 1858, Joseph S. Donovan, one of Baltimore’s major slave dealers, built a slave pen near the southwest corner of Eutaw and Camden streets. It was one of about a dozen private slave jails downtown, according to a 1936 Sun article, that held enslaved people, suspected runaways and kidnapped free Black people. Many, ultimately, were forced onto ships for final passage to the Deep South.

The United States banned the importation of enslaved African people in 1808, but domestic sales of human beings grew after the War of 1812. Baltimore, a major port and shipbuilding center, was a pioneer in the coastal trade of human chattel. As Maryland farmers transitioned from labor-intensive tobacco to wheat, corn, oats and other grains, they realized their surplus workers were a valuable commodity. At the same time, cotton, sugar cane and rice plantations expanded in the lower South. Traders operated near Baltimore’s harbor, dispatching their human cargo to large markets in places such as New Orleans.

Seeing what is no longer there is a daunting task. Footprints once left on the dirt streets by coffles — mournful processions of enslaved men in chains, followed by women and children — are gone. Only a ghostly footprint remains etched in the ground we traverse today.

Beyond the Babe Ruth statue at what is today Oriole Park at Camden Yards, slave trader Joseph S. Donovan opened his final slave jail in 1858, at the southwest corner of Eutaw and Camden streets. 
(Amy Davis/Amy Davis)

The only official state historical marker in the city noting the major domestic slave trade active throughout downtown Baltimore is on East Pratt Street outside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.
(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

One of Baltimore’s most notorious slave jails opened in 1838 on West Pratt Street, just east of Howard Street. Hope Hull Slatter built a high-walled pen with barred cells in the rear of his mansion. The abysmal conditions contributed to a brief revolt in 1862, injuring Slatter’s successor, Bernard Moore Campbell. On July 27, 1863, Union troops freed the enslaved prisoners, and the male occupants followed the troops to enlist in the Union Army. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Moses Sheppard, a Quaker merchant, philanthropist and abolitionist, resided at 200 W. Pratt St. on the same block as the Slatter/Campbell slave jail. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Lady Baltimore, a replica of the original, tops the Battle Monument, which honors soldiers who died in the War of 1812 and gave Monument Square its name. When the first public war memorial was completed in 1825, Barnum’s City Hotel opened on the site, which is now occupied by the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Transactions between slave traders, their agents, and slaveholders took place at this and other hotels and taverns downtown. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In 1846, Joseph S. Donovan built a slave pen at 13 Camden St., roughly where the Hyatt Regency Baltimore stands on Light Street. While Donovan was a city councilman from 1843 to 1852, he made 65 shipments of enslaved people to New Orleans. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Joseph S. Donovan sent more than 2,200 enslaved people to New Orleans. He died in 1861 in the same month that the Civil War started, at age 60. His widow, Caroline, continued the operation of a slave jail behind their home at Eutaw and Camden streets until the Civil War. Their family mausoleum is at Green Mount Cemetery in the city. (Amy Davis/Amy Davis)

The commercial wharves that once rimmed the waterfront from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point were the hub of a coastal slave trade that helped fuel Baltimore’s prosperous antebellum economy. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The wharves at the Basin, the original name for the Inner Harbor, were used in the domestic slave trade. Bowly’s Wharf at the foot of South Street, facing today’s Pratt Street Pavilion, was one of the embarkation points. The USS Constellation, at right, a sloop-of-war built in 1854, captured slave ships off Africa and saw duty during the Civil War. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A runner’s shadow falls on the Residences at Henderson’s Wharf in Fells Point, Baltimore’s first deepwater port. A short jog around the Fells Point waterfront passes roughly 20 former wharves that were active in the coastal slave trade between Baltimore and New Orleans. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A bronze head of abolitionist Frederick Douglass by Marc Andre Robinson dominates Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, near where Douglass lived as a child. In his 1852 speech, “What, To the Slave, is the Fourth of July,” Douglass recalls, “the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake … In the deep, still darkness of midnight I have been often aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door.” (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Near the National Aquarium, lines secure the USCG Lightship Chesapeake at the Gay Street dock, along what was once called Spear’s Wharf. In the first half of the 19th century, ships unloaded barrels of liquor, pig iron, food and other goods, and for the return voyage, packed their holds with enslaved people and more cargo. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The house at 1225 Harford Ave., now missing its third floor, marks the site of a long-gone 1830s home and slave jail of trader James Franklin Purvis. Purvis once bragged that his pen, “in one of the highest and most healthy parts of the city, having a free circulation of air, and a yard for exercise throughout the day must necessarily be more healthy than in the center of the city, especially in hot weather.” (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Warden’s House, part of the Gothic Maryland Penitentiary, dates to 1859. An earlier jail was erected in this area in 1800. The old city jail imprisoned more than 3,500 suspected runaways between 1827 and the emancipation of enslaved people in Maryland in 1864. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

John N. Denning placed ads in The Sun in the 1840s, boasting, “The highest prices, in cash, for … Negroes.” One of his slave jails, on North Exeter Street near Low Street in Jonestown, is today in the vicinity of the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training complex. The nonprofit organization offers transitional housing, training and jobs for veterans. Resident Charles Irving, 74, at right, has a security job with MCVET. When told that a slave jail had existed nearby, Irving said, “I’d like to do more research myself on my family history.” (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The historic Fish Market on Market Place, home of Port Discovery Children’s Museum, is the only surviving structure from the large Center Market complex (also known as Marsh Market Center) that operated west of the Jones Falls. The swarm of activity around the market sheds included slave auctions held at Garland Burnett’s Tavern, near the head of the market, and at other stalls and taverns. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Auctions of enslaved people were held dockside and at slave pens, markets, taverns, hotels, warehouses and on the steps of the courthouse and jail. One location was Vendue Warehouse on South Frederick Street, near Water Street. These auctions took place in the vicinity of the present-day Holocaust Memorial. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Austin Woolfolk established a base for his slave trading operation in 1821 on the north side of West Pratt Street, just west of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A pretty, white frame house belied what was in the rear — a slave prison. As the most prominent local slave dealer in the 1820s, Woolfolk was targeted by abolitionist publisher Benjamin Lundy. When Lundy called him a “monster in human shape,” Woolfolk viciously attacked him. Though the slave trader was found guilty of assault, he was only assessed a $1 fine. The site of Woolfolk’s slave jail is now a small park, scattered with the tents of people living there. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Darcel Donofrio, front, and her husband, Romeo Donofrio, of Pikesville, bring weekly meals to people at an encampment near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Darcel Donofrio observed that the homeless “need to be reminded that they have character and dignity, and that they are people of value like everyone else.” (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Jamie House, 38, from Camden, New Jersey, came to Baltimore with his wife, Evie, a Baltimore native. After living together in a tent near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for three years, his wife recently entered a residential methadone treatment program. House expressed hope that they will be accepted into an addiction treatment program for couples. Two centuries ago, a slave jail was operated at this location by Austin Woolfolk. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Today’s recreational waterfront rimming Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Fells Point was composed of commercial wharves 200 years ago. Usually under cover of darkness, Black people were marched from the pens to the docks, where they were crammed into the holds of brigs with the cargo. Historian Jennie K. Williams estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people were sold in the coastal domestic slave trade between Baltimore and New Orleans from 1818 to the Civil War, based on her analysis of inward-bound slave manifests to the port of New Orleans and other records.

The trade was integral to the thriving economy of the antebellum South. “Cash for Negroes!” proclaimed ads in newspapers, including The Sun. The average price for an enslaved person during the antebellum period was approximately $400, according to “Historical Statistics of the United States.” The equivalent in today’s dollars is roughly $14,500, although Williams cautions against viewing enslaved people as slave traders did: “Human beings should never have had prices in the first place.”

Austin Woolfolk, the first large-scale coastal slave trader in the Chesapeake region, purchased a white frame house in 1821 on the north side of Pratt Street, just west of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. An account published in Genius of Universal Emancipation, an abolitionist newspaper, described, “The small grated windows of his prison in the rear — the chains, fetters, and miserable objects of suffering there concealed, chilled the blood with horror.” By building the first private slave jail in the city, Woolfolk created the business model of warehousing human property before shipment.

Woolfolk made at least 71 human shipments between 1818 to 1846, delivering more than 2,600 enslaved people to New Orleans, according to available manifests analyzed by historian Ralph Clayton in his 2002 book, “Cash for Blood: The Baltimore to New Orleans Domestic Slave Trade.” In 1843, Joseph Donovan bought Woolfolk’s pen and operated there before building new slave pens on Camden Street near Light Street, roughly where the Hyatt Regency stands today, and later at Camden and Eutaw streets. The site of Woolfolk’s slave jail is now a small park with several homeless tent encampments.

Another slave dealer, Hope Hull Slatter, boasted in Sun advertisements about his “light and airy” slave jail when it opened in 1838 on the north side of West Pratt Street, just east of Howard Street. Other traders could board their enslaved people in his “establishment” for 25 cents a day. In the rear of the high-walled prison, a bloodhound chained near an iron gate helped deter escapes, according to accounts in “Cash for Blood.” Before selling his jail to Bernard Moore Campbell in 1848, Slatter sold more than 2,500 enslaved people. The Pratt Street slave pen was liberated by Union troops in 1863. A blacksmith released the ankle shackles that connected pairs of men.

The house at 1225 Harford Ave., now missing its third floor, marks the site of a long-gone 1830s home and slave jail of trader James Franklin Purvis. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Other successful local traders included John N. Denning and James Franklin Purvis. Denning operated a pen from 104 N. Exeter St., behind what is today the main U.S. Post Office on Fayette Street in Jonestown, and at 18 S. Frederick St., just north of the present-day Holocaust Memorial. Purvis’ slave jail, behind his residence at 1225 Harford Ave. in what’s now the Oliver neighborhood, was farther afield. Like the other private slave jail sites in Baltimore, no trace remains of Purvis’ house and pen. Purvis is an example of a slave dealer who used his profits to transition to a respectable business, becoming the president of Howard Bank of Baltimore in the mid-1850s. It’s not connected to the Howard Bank founded in Ellicott City in 2004.

The biggest coastal traders in Baltimore — Woolfolk, Slatter, Donovan and Campbell — together owned seven of every 10 enslaved people transported from Baltimore to New Orleans, according to Williams. They were not above kidnapping free Black people, who by 1830 made up four-fifths of Baltimore’s Black population. Traders also frequented the city jail, on the lookout for unclaimed captured runaways or free Black people who had been arrested.

A 1841 “Manifest of Negroes, Mulattos, and persons of Color, taken on board the Brig Splendid” records the transport to New Orleans of 26 enslaved people by Hope Hull Slatter. Men, women and children are listed by name, age, height and skin color. Courtesy of the National Archives, Department of the Treasury, Customs Service.

The business underpinned every aspect of Baltimore’s economy and society, yet the history of the local slave trade was largely erased. The wealth accumulated by Donovan, who sold more than 2,200 enslaved people, funded the philanthropy of his widow, Caroline Donovan. She donated $100,000 — more than $3 million in today’s dollars — to Johns Hopkins University in 1885. The first endowed chair at the university is the Caroline Donovan Professorship in English Literature. An imposing mausoleum for the Donovans sits on a hill in Green Mount Cemetery.

While few physical signs of the slave trade remain where it was carried out, there is one official state historical marker, placed by the Maryland Historical Trust outside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in 2009.

A $20,000 grant from the Baltimore National Heritage Area, managed by the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage Area Association Inc., is funding the development of a mobile app and touch-screen kiosk at Historic President Street Station that will include slave trade sites. Robert Reyes, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of President Street Station, hopes this tour highlighting abolition and Underground Railroad sites and opening in midsummer, will be “a bridge builder for relationships today.”

At Camden Yards, Maryland Stadium Authority Executive Director Michael Frenz said the authority has not been approached about adding a historical sign.

“It is horrifying to learn that chapters of the dark part of our nation’s history took place on the complex, a place you associate with more lighthearted types of entertainment. There are several historic plaques in and around the complex,” Frenz said. “Marking the history of the complex before the stadium was here is certainly something that we are in favor of. We’d probably consult with the Orioles, because they are our partners.”

The baseball team’s senior vice president for community development and communications, Jennifer Grondahl, concurred, saying that the O’s look forward to “leading the conversation” with the “hope that this and other historical themes will be incorporated into the design and development of the future improvements.”

Joseph S. Donovan sent more than 2,200 enslaved people to New Orleans. He died in 1861 in the same month that the Civil War started, at age 60. His widow, Caroline, continued the operation of a slave jail behind their home at Eutaw and Camden streets until the Civil War. Their family mausoleum is at Green Mount Cemetery in the city. (Amy Davis/Amy Davis)

Another destination known more for entertainment than history lessons is Harborplace, which was acquired in April by Baltimore-based MCB Real Estate. Managing Partner P. David Bramble expressed surprise that Baltimore was one of the most significant ports for the slave trade.

Bramble, who is Black, said that it was too early to say how this could be addressed at Harborplace.

“Our goal is to put in something that is authentically Baltimore, and I don’t think you can be authentic without pulling in history. We are very intent on having a significant engagement process with the community and stakeholders to see how they want to see the history represented in the redevelopment.” Bramble added, “You have to understand what was behind you, but equally important is what we do going forward. I’m an optimist. How do we look toward the future?”

Philip J. Merrill, a Baltimore historian and CEO and founder of Nanny Jack & Co., an African American heritage consulting firm, said the city’s slave trading past is “a touchy subject,” but one that could inform the future. With few visible, official guideposts to the slave trade, he said, some of this history has been taught informally, with stories passed down through the generations.

If “we could look at our enslavement from a different lens … we could be filled with perseverance and a sense of pride. Slavery, which is in our ancestors’ DNA, is something that should give us strength, determination and the ability to know we can survive anything.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.