A Complicated Homecoming: Lawrence Jackson Dissects Baltimore’s Racist Legacies in “Shelter”

Jackson’s Quest for Home in a Segregated City Offers Insights into Painful Racial Legacies and Opportunities for a More Hopeful Future.

By James Borchert

Shelter: A Black Tale of Homeland, Baltimore, by Lawrence Patrick Jackson. Gray Wolf Press, 2022. 329p, 9781644450833 $17.00

Book cover Shelter by Lawrence Jackson

Shelter is a collection of essays that trace the struggles of being Black and middle class in Baltimore through the experiences of the author and his family. In this illuminating text, Lawrence Jackson brings to bear his impressive academic record: he holds a PhD in English and American literature from Stanford University and is currently Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins University. His extensive publications include biographies of Ralph Ellison and Chester B. Himes and his book Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2011), which won the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize. Notably, Shelter is not the first of Jackson’s works to explore his family history or Baltimore’s contentious racial legacy. He first covered these topics in the book My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family After the Civil War (2012) and in his 2016 article in Harper’s Magazine on Freddie Gray, “The City That Bleeds.”

The book’s title cannot fully encapsulate the range of interrelated and intertwined topics covered in the six essays, which are partly personal and family remembrances and partly Black history and social geography of Baltimore, particularly the Homeland neighborhood where Jackson purchased a home upon returning to the city in 2016. Across the essays, Jackson traces his family’s history and the multigenerational efforts to attain a middle-class life as people of color in the context of a racist society. While elucidating how racism specifically manifests in Maryland and Baltimore, the author provides racialized histories of several major Baltimore institutions. His interest in Baltimore’s physical city and landscape offers another lens for understanding the city. Dispersed throughout are ruminations on other topics that deviate somewhat from the narrative yet are valuable in their own right.

In detailing his family history, Jackson conveys meaningful insights, broadly applicable, into the problems facing African Americans in pursuit of middle-class status. His ancestors were strivers: after the Civil War, they established themselves as landowners and acquired education and professional standing. Five generations lived in Baltimore and joined the African Episcopal Church, whose members, Jackson notes, are “readers and people of reason” (p. 107). His parents graduated from college and became professionals and homeowners, but the American dream did not work out for them as it did for many white Americans. Several factors converged to pull Black residents into a pernicious undertow. Banks’ predatory practice of redlining—refusing loans for purchase or improvement to individuals living in areas deemed risky—caused depreciating home values, and urban renewal (effectively Black removal) organizations declared eminent domain to claim Black-owned homes at cheap prices so developers could renew the land for profit. In 1965, redevelopment efforts forced Jackson’s grandparents out of their home with little remuneration. Segregation ordinances, formally effective in Baltimore from 1911 to 1917 and informally well after, restricted where Black residents could live. Restrictive covenants, used by Homeland developers and others, prohibited Black Baltimoreans from renting or owning homes in white residential areas unless they were servants.

Jackson’s decision to move [to Homeland, Baltimore] was not without internal conflict: the area came with heavy baggage and a history steeped in slavery.

Having grown up in an urban row house in the Black neighborhood of Park Heights, Jackson later tried to create a new start for himself and his family in Atlanta, where he taught at Emory University. However, after fifteen years of hard struggle there, he returned to Baltimore in 2016—now divorced—for a position at Johns Hopkins University with one of his two sons. His hunt for “shelter” in Baltimore led him to Homeland, an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood within Baltimore about five miles away from Park Heights. Jackson’s decision to move there was not without internal conflict: the area came with heavy baggage and a history steeped in slavery. In 1832, David Perine, a wealthy white slaveowner, purchased the 238 acres for his country estate. Further, Perine’s close friend was Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that Blacks had no rights that whites need honor.

In the 1920s, the Roland Park Company acquired the land for its Homeland development, hiring Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to lay out the new neighborhood. To attract prosperous white buyers, the developers established a homeowners’ association and restrictive covenants that kept out Black residents. Curvilinear streets; large, heavily treed lots; and architect-designed houses provided the amenities well-to-do buyers sought.

Jackson found Homeland’s design and ambience to his liking, describing it as “a well-tended stately village” (p. 16) and “like a cathedral of redemption” (p. 143). Strongly identifying as middle-class, he felt something heroic in living with his class as a Black person, and Homeland certainly fit that requirement. He also hoped to break the deadly undertow of Black urban economics by transmitting some generational wealth to his children through home ownership. He admitted to some economic anxiety, however, by confessing that upon retiring, he would have to move into a very small house, reducing the likelihood of that transmission.

With a sense of irony, Jackson also found that Homeland’s pastoral ideal had many machines in its garden. He effectively describes the neighborhood’s street life as one of “bruising unquiet during three of the four seasons” as leaf blowers whined and HVACs drowned out the birds (p. 284). In keeping with his neighborhood, Jackson took pride in maintaining his grounds but did so through his own labor, unlike his neighbors, who hired out this work. Despite questioning his motives for choosing Homeland, the author was clearly at home there, as was his son.

He concludes that ‘systemic racism is the obvious culprit’ behind a long line of brutal acts and policies—from slavery to vagrancy laws, Black codes, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, rape, and lynching—and traces the complicity of several major Baltimore institutions.

(p. 260)

By combining both personal and group levels of narrative analysis, Jackson offers a different approach to understanding the difficulties facing the Black middle class. He concludes that “systemic racism is the obvious culprit” behind a long line of brutal acts and policies—from slavery to vagrancy laws, Black codes, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, rape, and lynching—and traces the complicity of several major Baltimore institutions (p. 260). During the early 1900s, Johns Hopkins medical scientists promoted eugenics, the hospital maintained segregated wards until 1973, and both the university and the medical school enrolled few Black students and hired few Black faculty. Although Baltimore public schools integrated more quickly than those in other southern cities, they also built prison-like school facilities, and school administrators presumed white teachers were the best promoters of middle-class behavior and attitudes.

Jackson tried to confront these racist traditions by bringing together members of the university community and Black residents. One such effort involved organizing a “Jazz in the Square” concert in a Black neighborhood. Billed as a memorial to Billie Holiday, the great American jazz singer who grew up in Baltimore, the event drew residents from the immediate area and around the city. The site was near where, several years earlier, a large-scale street disturbance had broken out to protest Freddie Gray’s killing in a police van.

Examining Baltimore’s physical and social layout, Jackson notes that it was “the experience of bus riding [that] made it possible for [him] to observe people and the built environment of the city” (p. 240). In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of Alfred Kazin, who, via foot, brilliantly described the physical and social worlds of his Brooklyn, NY, neighborhood in A Walker in the City (1951). Where Kazin moved more slowly and intimately through his neighborhood, Jackson is propelled more rapidly and less intimately but with a wider territorial range.

Dispersed throughout are digressions that can distract from the main narrative but often demonstrate the richness of Black life and culture.

The essay form Jackson adopts is both the strength and weakness of the book. These essays are thought pieces stitched together to ultimately make a book. Dispersed throughout are digressions that can distract from the main narrative but often demonstrate the richness of Black life and culture. They include brief discussions of such topics as Baltimore jazz; Black fraternities’ dance patterns at a Martin Luther King parade; squeegee boys, whom the author transforms into entrepreneurs, challenging the conventional view that they are annoyances or threats; and the African ethnicities of Black Baltimore. Whereas the main narratives are more developed, these asides are unconnected snapshots. There is no comprehensive argument about Black resistance, Black survival, or an alternative culture. The essays are not definitive; they are valuable more for their perspectives, insights, and suggestions than for their evidentiary base.

Shelter has received uniformly positive evaluations; Kirkus Review found it a “probing portrait” of Baltimore. Overall, these are excellent essays, though not without some challenge for readers. They provide good insight into the difficulties that Black middle-class Baltimoreans must contend with because of personal and institutional racism. To a lesser extent, they suggest the vibrancy and stamina of Black Baltimoreans’ efforts to create a viable culture and to resist that racism. Jackson writes for sophisticated readers, but the essays are accessible to a broad audience. This book is an excellent read for all, especially for those interested in urban, Black, and Baltimore history.

Summing Up: Recommended. All readers.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Urban Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

James Borchert is professor emeritus of history at Cleveland State University. He received his PhD in American studies from the University of Maryland and is the author of Alley Life in Washington (1980).