Beverly Bickel is a clinical associate professor of language, literacy and culture at UMBC.
Louisville, Kentucky: home of Muhammad Ali, Helen Hume, the Louisville Slugger, Diane Sawyer, the Kentucky Derby, and craft brews of bourbon and beer. But what does it have to do with Baltimore? After being in Louisville with a delegation of 18 people from UMBC attending the annual conference of the American Democracy Project, I think there are some similarities worth considering. An obvious similarity is that like Baltimore’s inner harbor development, Louisville has a developing waterfront edged with parks, museums, tour boats, industry, and city buildings extending along the Ohio River. Across the river is Indiana, now connected by a lovely converted railway bridge for pedestrians and bikers. Like in Baltimore, these enjoyable attractions are part of the latest city revival, but they are not the full story of this city on the river.
Perhaps my recent reading of Baltimore’s native son Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” and my Louisville encounters of street side historical markers about slavery in Kentucky combined with a visit to the Muhammad Ali Center documenting the subsequent brutalities of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were resonating early on Saturday morning as I ran across the Ohio River on the newly renovated pedestrian and bike bridge. I found myself thinking about the stories I had just read of slaves escaping across the river from the stubborn slave state of Kentucky to Indiana in the north. And I remembered Coates’ words about how we understand and work within a country shaped fundamentally by slavery: ” What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Some of the families and folks I encountered on the bridge strolling hand-in-hand, riding bikes, listening to music early on this warm weekend morning could have been descendants of slaves and escaped slaves. After all, in the time frame of family stories, it was not really very long ago; stories of slavery and its violent aftermath still resonate in the hearts and souls of those whose families and communities were once enslaved in the very places they now call home. This Ohio River we were crossing once served as a powerful borderland, a waterway to deliver slaves to southern plantations and a potent crossing point for escaped slaves fleeing north.
And no thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act, the river was also the means by which slave traders returned terrorized ex-slaves (and some free men and women) to bondage after violently chasing them down in the illusory free lands of northern states. Not unlike Baltimore, Louisville hosted a busy slave market and inhumane slave pens, and is haunted by horrific stories of brutality now told on brass markers on city streets near the water’s edge along with markers for Underground Railroad stops and a Freedom Trail.
And here we are, nearly 150 years after the Civil War and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in a time when the citizenship, voting and equal protection goals are still contested and incomplete. In spite of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, the schools in Louisville that Muhammad Ali attended before the ruling are, like the schools in Baltimore, now more deeply segregated than ever while African American families, who bore the brunt of recent mortgage foreclosures, continue to face dream-shattering housing discrimination. In both cities many African American youth continue to attend under-resourced schools and live with the daily prospect of joining the hugely disproportionate number of their peers in prisons. Like Baltimore, slavery in Louisville, subsequent Jim Crow violence and segregation, and more recent discriminatory federal, state and local housing and schooling policies have shaped the city around deep inequalities of living conditions and opportunities. Perhaps the notion of trickle down economics reflects reality in the case of the family trees of former slaves, through which there has been a steady economic trickle down of inequality, discrimination and injustice.
Conference participants from around the country talked about the important work of democracy and engagement that they are doing on their campuses and in their communities. Inspired by some of the conference themes, I reflected with a colleague about how we might locate such national conversations in the particular places, problems and historical struggles for enfranchisement and democratic inclusion. So what could we do in cities like Louisville or Baltimore where African Americans have not been able to safely or, until quite recently, legally participate in the democratic practices of agency and engagement?
First, when there are conferences and meetings in Baltimore with engagement themes, we could find ways to include place-based work about the contested and complex histories and current experiences of a city that is considered one of the birthplaces of U.S. democracy, a city that knows there is still democratic work to be done.
Second, we could look to Louisville’s example of informative historical markers and public stories as one of the ways we might publicly reveal key places in Baltimore that hold the memories of slavery and Jim Crow and tell the stories of ongoing struggles against housing foreclosures, de-industrialization, and the school-to-prison pipeline, while also sharing stories of work for community-led and sustainable development, economic justice, and community schools.
Third, in our community and classroom work to build civic engagement that aims to awaken personal agency and enliven democratic communities here at UMBC and beyond, we can reconsider how slavery, Jim Crow and continuing structural inequalities have served as the foundation for the emergent and still incomplete U.S. democracy.
As several BreakingGround and other projects are already doing, we can find ways to share and teach ourselves the stories of our pasts and present places as essential to understanding the policies and practices that stand in the way of our unfinished democracy.
Contact the author, Beverly Bickel, at firstname.lastname@example.org.