Author Dr. Lawrence Brown, who wrote “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” spoke to Middle and Upper School students on Friday, November 18. (The title of his book is a reference to the butterfly shape created by the majority-Black neighborhoods on a Baltimore map.) The city of Baltimore played a leading role in the national topics he discussed, including the Civil War, segregation, and redlining.
“You can’t tell the story of American history without Baltimore City,” Brown said. “Baltimore is at the center of our story as a nation.” The audience learned that the first bloodshed of the Civil War took place in Baltimore on Pratt Street.
A theme woven through Brown’s presentation was how “young people are the ones who effectuate change in the nation.” He spoke about how after the Civil War, groups of young African Americans in Baltimore pushed for equity and equality in education and transportation.
Brown went on to tell the students that in 1910, Baltimore became the first city in America to pass a residential racial zoning law. “That makes Baltimore ground zero for urban apartheid in America,” he said.
“The Roland Park Company played a role as well,” he said. The real estate development company, responsible for developing Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland, was, infamously, a pioneer in racially restrictive covenants, one of which had home buyers agree to not sell their homes to Black people. Brown noted that the company also excluded Jewish Americans from living in Roland Park by hiring private investigators to find out if potential buyers were Jewish before selling to them.
In 1937, the federal government began to draw color-coded maps to determine which communities could receive loans from banks. Brown explained that communities coded in green could get the biggest loans at the lowest interest rate. Blue communities could get slightly smaller loans at a slightly higher interest rate. Yellow communities, which typically included Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants, could get smaller loans with an even higher interest rate. Finally, red communities — the ones that form a butterfly shape on a map of Baltimore and which were made up of majority-Black populations — could not get loans at all. “What happens to communities that don’t get any capital?” Brown asked the audience. Students called out answers: They don’t grow. Poverty. Crime.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Black college students from Morgan State University (called Morgan College at the time) as well as white students from Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University advocated, protested, and sometimes were arrested and went to jail, in an effort to desegregate Northwood Plaza. It took years of them “standing up for what they believed in,” but in 1963, they won the fight, and the Northeast Baltimore City movie theater became open to all.
Despite progress, Brown said, “Today, Baltimore remains a category-five hyper-segregated city,” which causes the most harm to our communities. He posed a question to the Gilman students in the room: What can you do to help? He encouraged the boys to read up on the history of our city and our country and to write a letter to city council representatives asking what they are doing to make Baltimore more equitable. “You can’t do anything about an issue until you become knowledgeable about that issue.”
And then he reminded them: “Young people can make a difference.”