Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Class Consciousness is Everywhere!

Last summer I did some research in the Maryland Room of Hornbake Library on the campus of the University of Maryland-College Park. I discovered a treasure trove of photocopies of newspaper articles, all pertaining to organized labor activity in Baltimore, collected by a former graduate student in History at UM who had donated all of his photocopies to the library. I didn't get to spend nearly enough time there to go through all of the collection, but what I found in the clippings from the 1870s was very interesting indeed. But first, a preface:

In the mid-1870s, the nation was reeling from a deep economic depression that had struck in 1873. As usual, wage workers took the brunt of the impact, which didn't exactly make them feel to be on particularly stable ground when it came to providing for their families. Increasing tension between workers and corporations came to a head in the summer of 1877, and it all began in Baltimore. When the B&O RR cut wages yet again in mid-July, workers in Baltimore and Martinsburg, WV walked off the job. A riot at Camden Station on July 20 resulted in the deaths of several protesters when National Guard troops fired into the crowd. Martial law was established in Maryland the next day, but the fire of rebellion had already begun spreading to other industrial cities and small towns, primarily through the middle of the country. Cities that witnessed particularly violent confrontations included Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis (where a workers' committee actually established de facto control of the city for a whole week), and San Francisco (where the railroad riots were used as a pretext for anti-Chinese violence). By August 1, military and government forces had re-established control in most places, and the Great Strike of 1877, widely considered to be the first national uprising of workers against an unjust capitalist system, was over.

So what, you ask, does this have to do with Hampden? Two things, I say. First, as Bill Harvey has already told us in his book "The People Is Grass," employees of the Ma and Pa RR stationed in Hampden-Woodberry participated in the general strike. Perhaps more importantly, however, is what I found in the newspaper clippings in College Park: After the strike had ended, workers turned their efforts to a more socially acceptable form of political action--across the country, local "Workingmen's Parties" were established in an effort to give laborers a political voice in state and local government. As it turns out, Hampden was the epicenter of such activity in Baltimore County (it had not yet been incorprated into the city). Throughout the fall of 1877, Baltimore newspapers regularly reported on the organizational meetings of the Baltimore County Workingmen's Party that were held (most often) in Hare's Hall in Hampden. From what I understand, eventually control of the party moved to locales in the western part of the county. Unfortunately, most Workingmen's parties across the nation did not last very long, and I believe that Baltimore County's was no exception.

Clearly, however, these brief newspaper accounts provide a glimpse into a very interesting and largely hidden history of working-class activism in 1870s Hampden that deserves a much closer inspection. Thus, I will again end a post by calling for help: If you have any information about Hampden-Woodberry workers' participation in either the Great Strike or the formation of the Baltimore County Workingmen's Party, we'd love to hear from you. I can be reached by email at rchidest@umich.edu, or you can respond to this post.


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