Black Rights and Black Citizenship in Antebellum Baltimore

By Adam McNeil | Black Perspectives

Throughout my life, I have grappled with the precarious and vulnerable nature of Black life in the United States and throughout the African Diaspora. In my suburban Orlando high school, I was hit over the head with the benevolence of America, yet, when I came home to my family, and I listened to the stories of my elders and of the ancestors, I came to know a different America. That is, the America where Black citizenship has never been protected, yet always demanded, ostensibly remaining illusive. Whether through scenes of slavery, subjection, Jane and Jim Crow, or the most recent events of Black bodies in public spaces being dubbed fugitive, I am always reminded that whatever occurs in our time, has a historical foundation embedded in the uniqueness of the moment.

In Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum Americaacclaimed historian Martha S. Jonesreconsiders the historical foundations of the embattled nature of Black citizenship. Jones further expands the scholarship on early African American history by recovering the voices and actions of African Americans who saw themselves as American because of their birth. Jones provides a clear understanding of why the history of African Americans rights in the United States was not just about constant struggle for recognition, but rooted in proving the actuality of their rights as citizens. Some important questions focus on the agency of Black Baltimoreans. While Baltimore felt the tentacles of slavery in the antebellum period, the nation’s largest free Black American population proved extremely influential in the legal, social, and religious traditions of the city.

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