ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The end of the slave jails in Baltimore was on July 24, 1863
Colonel Birney . . . proceeded to Slatter’s jail . . . enlisted the male Negroes
in the army and liberated the female slaves.
Baltimore’s Old Slave Markets
In 1835 The city Boasted a Dozen Well-Established Dealers
By Stanton Tierman
of The Baltimore Sun
In the year 1835 there were at least a dozen well-established slave dealers in the city of Baltimore, not counting petty agents and visiting traders.
In 1840 the Maryland census showed 89,737 slaves in the State, about 5,000 of whom were in Baltimore.
Among some of the regular slave dealers of this period were Austin Woolfolk, pioneer in the traffic (for he dated back to 1824) and self-styled “The Justly Celebrated.” He was located on the north side of Pratt street, west of Cove (now Fremont avenue) near the Three Tuns Tavern [See also Frederick Douglass’ July 4th Oration and his reference to Woolfolk’s slave trade business at the “head of Pratt Street.”]
James Purvis, whose business address was Sinner’s Hotel, southwest corner Albermarle and Water streets, and his residence on Gallows Hill between Eden and Aisquith streets, near Missionary Church.
Jospeh S. Donovan, on the east side of Light street, four doors south of Montgomery.
Moody & Downs, 37 South street. Nathaniel Austin, 24 South street.
James Bates, Barnum’s City Hotel.
B.M. Campbell, whose address was at first 26 Conway street.
There were still others, but the main slave dealer of them all was Hope H. Slatter, originally from Clinton, a small town about fifteen miles northeast of Macon, Ga.
Slatter was in the slave business in Baltimore at least as early as 1835. An advertisement of his on February 2 of that year in the Baltimore Republican and Commercial Advertiser shows that at that time he wished “particularly to purchase several seamtresses and small fancy girls for nurses.”
During July, August and September of 1838 Slatter ran a series of twenty-seven lengthy advertisements to The Sun. The wording in several of these notices varied slightly, but they all referred to the new building which he had just erected. In general they read somewhat as follows:
CASH FOR NEGROES
The subscriber has built a large and extensive establishment and private jail for the keeping of SLAVES. This new building located on Pratt street, one door from Howard and opposite the Circus or Repository, is not surpassed by any establishment of the kind in the United States. All rooms above ground Office in basement story.
N.B.–I can always be found there, or a line left at the bar of the Owings Globe Inn, corner of Howard and Market streets, will be attended to in my absence.
Having as a wish to accommodate my Southern friends and others in the trade, I am determined to pay the highest prices with good and sufficient titles. Persons having such property to dispose of would do well to see me before they sell, as I am always purchasing for the New Orleans market.
Likely fellows, aged 13 to 23 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $500 to $650
Women of same age and quality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $300 to $500
The best field hands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $300 to $400
According to the few existing descriptions of the unsurpassed building referred to, it was a two-story brick affair with barred windows. Back of it and along its western side was a brick-paved yard about forty-feet wide and seventy-five feet deep. It contained few benches, a hydrant, numerous wash tubs and clothes lines. Within the courtyard the Negroes spent the daylight hours.
During the time of the awaiting purchase by a new owner, they were required to do but little work and were allowed to while away the time by playing cards or by dancing to the tune of fiddles and banjos played by some of their companions. By means of the latter mode of entertainment they were enabled occasionally to earn a few pennies, tossed to them by spectators who could look from the street through a tall stockade gate, into the enclosure.
On the west side of the open year was the auction block. Against the east wall of the building there is still to be seen the brick fireplace that was used for cooking and warmth.
There are two descriptions of Slatter extant, both of them very meager. One writer of the times says that he was a man of much intelligence and tact, of good address and public spirit, although because of his business he was a social outcast. Another chronicler of that era, Daniel Drayton, an ardent abolitionist, in his “personal memoir,” upon observing Slatter at the railway station in Washington April 22, 1848, when the trader was about to board the train with a consignment of Negroes to Georgia, described him, as he stood chatting with the chaplain of the Senate, a Methodist brother, as an “old gray-haired villain.”
On May 28, 1841, Slatter was visited by the poet Whittier, who was accompanied by Joseph Surge, an English fellow Quaker. The two callers were making a tour of inspection of this part of the country at the time in the interests of the anti-slavery movement.
Slatter told these visitors that his mother had for fifty years been a member of the Methodist Church and that he had been reared accordingly, that although he himself was not an active member of the church, he had never sworn an oath nor committed an immoral act in his life.
His own head slave, whose wife he had voluntarily set free, was so reliable, he informed them, that he often left him in charge of the business and of the jail for weeks.
His custom, he stated, was always to supply his slaves with good whole-hearted food, and to furnish them with a new suit of clothes if they needed it, when they were sold. He was in favor, so he told these gentlemen, of compensated emancipation and utterly opposed to the sale of children.
He is said to have impressed the delegates favorably. But as a later commentator remarks, they might not have been inclined to put so much in his self praise if they had chanced to see one of his advertisements that was running about this time, in which he waxed quite enthusiastic over a “sprightly bright mulatto girl only seven years old, as fine a servant as I ever saw, who can intelligently run errands and market for small articles by herself.” His price for her was $250.
Matchetts’s Baltimore directory of 1847-48 still lists Hope H. Slatter as being located at 244 West Pratt street. No occupation is given.
On November 20, 1852, B.M. & W.L. Campbell advertised in The Sun that they have just moved from their former location at 26 Conway street to Slatter’s old stand at 242 West Pratt street.
The end of the slave jails in Baltimore was on July 24, 1863. On that day, which was shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Birney, accompanied only by Lieutenant Sykes and Sergeant Southworth, proceeded to Slatter’s jail, now Campbell’s, where by virtue of an order from General Schenck, he enlisted the male Negroes in the army and liberated the female slaves.
In his report to the adjutant-general, Birney says: “In this place I found 26 men, 1 boy, 29 women and 3 infants. Sixteen of the men were shackled together by couples at the ankles by heavy irons. I sent for a blacksmith and had the shackles and chains removed.”
Birney next visited the slave jails of Wilson, Hines, Fairbanks, Donovan and others, and did the same thing. At Donovan’s jail, which was located then at the southwest corner of Camden and Eutaw streets, he established the office of the provost marshal.
Tradition says that several of these last-mentioned jails had underground passage-ways and dungeons. Certainly the boasts in Slatter’s advertisements that all of his rooms were above ground would tend to encourage this suspicion of the others. In any event, so confident was Slatter that his own inmates could not, or would not, escape, that along with his charge for holding transient slaves, which was only 25 cents a day, including “plenty of good and wholesome provisions,” he bound himself to make good the price of any slave who got away.
In the course of time part of Slatter’s jail yard, or as seen, subsequently, Campbell’s, was occupied by a wholesale liquor house which was built on the corner. Adjoining it was a flop house, run by a Frenchman named de Atlee. The jail building became a poultry, butter and cheese commission house.
Years later the corner building was razed and still later the one next to it and most of the remaining slave-jail walls were torn down. At the time portions of old chains and wrought iron rings were brought to the surface by the steam shovel at work there. But whether these were part of Slatter’s old equipment or were the remains of a scrap metal yard that for some time occupied the corner after the tearing down of the whiskey house is not known.
A gasoline station now stands on the corner. The slave yard itself is used as an automobile parking space.
Source: The Baltimore Sun
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated !9 March 2010