826-830 Mechanics Court (18BC132)

826-830 Mechanics Court (18BC132) is the archaeological remains associated with three 19th-century African-American house foundations and associated backyard features in a neighborhood north of the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. At the beginning of the 19th century, Mechanics Court was known as Mechanical Street. Until 1812, most of the property in this area was owned by Jacob Stansbury who, together with his brother-in-law and business partner, John Edwards, controlled virtually all of the block bounded by Gay (or Bridge), High, Hillen, and Front streets. By 1824, the Stansbury heirs had begun to sell their Mechanics Court properties. A mixture of owner-occupied and tenant-occupied dwellings characterized the area. Ethnically, the number of African-Americans living in the block appears to have declined. The northern side of the Court was lined with four brick dwellings and one frame dwelling.

By 1837, the Stansbury family had divested itself of nearly all of its parcels along Mechanics Court. Three parcels were owned and occupied by African-Americans: Robert Murray a “colored musician”, John Bailey a “colored barber,” and Thomas Wilson a “colored man” identified as a laborer in the city directories. The remaining parcels along Mechanics Court belonged to absentee property owners and appeared to be vacant. During the next decade, development and population density within the Mechanics Court intensified. Many more properties were occupied, mostly by tenants, and the percentage of African American occupants more than doubled. The post-Civil War period showed a continuing trend towards increasing population density, with African Americans forming the majority of the Court’s residents. This trend was almost certainly due to the general post-bellum exodus of free blacks from Southern plantations, often to form their own communities and neighborhoods in urban areas.

Individual household listings of the 1880 and 1900 Federal population censuses documented the increasingly segregated nature of the residential patterns within the Court. Six of the 7 dwellings on the north side of Mechanics Court were occupied by African-Americans, while the 7th family was first-generation Irish. A significant change was the subdivision of the small dwellings into multiple-family housing. By the 1920s, expansion of the surrounding commercial enterprises, particularly the Rice Baking Company, had all but eliminated residential occupation on Mechanics Court.

The site was first investigated beginning in 1996 as part of a combined Phase I, II, and III archaeological investigation undertaken at the site of a new Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore, MD.

In order to locate sites, fieldwork initially employed the mechanical removal of overlying modern features or surfaces, followed by the excavation of 5 m long mechanized trenches to assess stratigraphy and site integrity of the underlying deposits. At 18BC132 a single mechanized trench revealed the intact remains of an articulated mortared brick foundation that corresponded roughly to the former location of the dwellings at 826-828 Mechanics Court. Test units were opened up over the two features identified: a 1.5 X 6 m trench/test unit over a portion of the exposed foundation complex (Feature 1) and a .5 X 1 m trench/test unit over an associated builder’s trench (Feature 2).

During Phase III investigation, a 45 X 60 ft area around the previously identified foundations was stripped mechanically. A number of features were exposed by the mechanized removal of the upper deposits including structural remains related to the brick walls found during the earlier phases of the study. The more fully exposed brick remnants revealed that they were the remains of foundations for two rowhouses and the eastern half of a third rowhouse. Additional features exposed included a trash midden under a compacted surface east of the easternmost rowhouse, several posthole/postmold features, a barrel privy and a brick-lined privy at the back of the rowhouse lots, a utility pipe trench running across the center of the site, and a hole along Mechanics Court filled with modern construction debris. The cleared area encompassed four lots: three with rowhouses or other connected structures, and one empty lot. The features and foundations were then cleared manually and a detailed map was made of all surface features and foundations within the exposed area. Selected features, deposits, and activity areas were then manually tested, either through bisection or through sampling of surface deposits. The two privy features were excavated completely. A limited number of samples of ethnobotanical and faunal remains from the privies encountered during Phase III work were subjected to macrobiotic analysis.

Comparison of the assemblage from 18BC132 to other African-American sites revealed that in most respects, the materials being used at Mechanics Court were similar to those being used by black households in other parts of Maryland. One notable difference was the greater variety of local goods used by the Mechanics Court residents compared to their counterparts in Annapolis, who preferred national or international brands. Baltimore’s more urbanized setting and wider variety of independent merchants appears to have given them more choice than their counterparts in Annapolis.

The site was a significant archaeological resource for understanding the lives of Baltimore’s 19th and early 20th century African-American inhabitants. Today, however, the site is the location of the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Facility and the site has been destroyed.

(Edited from the Maryland Historical Trust Synthesis Project)

References

  • Williams, Martha R., Nora Shennan, and Suzanne Sanders
  • 2000. Archeological Investigations at the Juvenile Justice Center, Baltimore, Maryland. 4 vols. R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc.

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