On the steps of the city courthouse, a monument to equality and the rule of law, Baltimore residents have learned how dreams can be brutally deferred.
There, the property of the city’s poor and working families has been, by order of the court, auctioned to the highest bidder.
When examining the tensions that erupted in Baltimore in the last two weeks, the consequences of losing homes should not be minimized as a factor in the sense of outrage and injustice.
Foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage scandal of 2008 have been the end game in predatory lending schemes that plundered the single modest asset held by many black Baltimoreans: their homes.
In a 2012 settlement reached with one lender, Wells Fargo, some 1,000 black and Latino residents of Baltimore received $2.5 million in restitution for having been charged higher fees and interest rates than those assessed to their counterparts in predominantly white communities. The University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance research has found that, between 2008 and 2009, foreclosure filings in Baltimore increased by over 38%. Between 2009 and 2012, more than 14,000 such proceedings were brought against the city’s homeowners.
Past as prologue: What has happened on the steps of the halls of justice
Could the columned memorial that overlooks Monument Square talk, it would tell how too much of what happens on the courthouse steps today is not new.
The courthouse’s 19th century records evidence how, for more then 150 years, justice has been denied those seeking that most of American of dreams: to own a home.
Two centuries ago, Maryland was a slave state. Still, by the 1850s there were fewer enslaved people living in Baltimore, no more than 1,000. Instead, the city was home to the largest community of free African Americans in the nation. Some 25,000 black Baltimoreans made their homes in what was the nation’s third largest city.
Activities at the courthouse suggest how their lives were framed by grim facts. Many watched as their loved ones and neighbors were auctioned off as human chattel, before the abolition of slavery finally ended such sales. My own research into the period’s court dockets and newspapers found how Baltimore’s judges sentenced free black men and women to enslavement, selling them to bidders who gathered at the courthouse door. It was nothing out of the ordinary when, for example, a city sheriff sold William Manorkey and Ellen Sey out of the state as slaves after each was convicted of larceny in July 1858.
In the decades before the Civil War, home ownership was rare among black Baltimoreans, as reflected in US Census data. Wages were too low and work too unsteady to enable most families to purchase even a small alley house.
The story of Jonathan Trusty resonates through the decades
Jonathan Trusty defied the odds. The record of his story can be found in filings from the Baltimore city courthouse, held in the state archives in Annapolis. The 55-year-old dockworker amassed just enough to buy “a two-story and attic Brick dwelling, with a Back Building” on Bethel Street. The tiny property was home to Trusty, his wife, their eight children, and two grandchildren.
In 1854, Trusty fell on hard times. It is hard to determine what precisely happened. His petition for debt relief suggests that Trusty slowly incurred a bundle of small obligations, a total of $133.87½ to 36 creditors. He aimed to use a state bankruptcy law to set things straight. The court would inventory his property and satisfy creditors to the extent possible. Trusty had but one asset, his home.
Trusty’s creditors were an organized group that acted together to ensure his home was sold. There is the distinct sense from the records that they pressed Trusty to file for insolvency. And they kept pressure on the court. A court-appointed trustee took control of Trusty’s house and land. An auction was set for the afternoon of January 14, 1855, just six weeks after his initial filing. That day, the family’s Bethel Street home sold for $460, more than enough to make Trusty’s creditors whole. Proceedings in the city courthouse wiped out Trusty’s debts and restored some fraction of his reputation. (I will be telling the story of Trusty in my book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum American, now under contract with Cambridge University Press.)
But the loss of his family home certainly felt less than just. Trusty’s story reminds us that today’s Baltimore is shaped, in part, by nearly two centuries of policy and custom that have kept too many black residents on the city’s economic margins.
Today, the organized actions of creditors still animate the Baltimore city courthouse as many African-American families lose their main assets—their homes—through predatory lending practices that end in foreclosures.
This drama still begins with notices published in local newspapers, such as the Daily Record, and on the internet.
At the announced day and time, an auctioneer positions himself at the top of the courthouse steps. At his feet sit milk crates filled with files. In his arms is a clipboard stacked with documents. Sometimes a small crowd gathers around. Other times, only an interested few. The song of the auctioneer—staccato words strung together in a distinct cadence—ends as the word “sold” punctuates the refrain.
Homes are for sale on the courthouse steps. Insolvent debtors, today’s defaulted mortgage holders, can watch as their homes are sold to the highest bidder. Dreams are deferred. In April we watched them explode.