William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’…
These are the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” written in 1963 to pay homage to this 51-year-old mother of 10 children killed by a wealthy plantation owner at the Emerson Hotel in downtown Baltimore. February 9 marks the 60th anniversary of Hattie Carroll’s death.
Carroll was serving drinks at the Spinster’s Ball, an annual event attended by Maryland’s white old-family elites, when one of the party’s drunken revelers, Billy Zantzinger, decided she was being disrespectful. He called her a racial epithet then struck her with his cane. Zantzinger also hit two other Black employees that night—a bellhop named George Gessell, whom he hit on the arm, and waitress Ethel Hill, whom he hit on the buttocks when she argued with him over his mistreatment.
Carroll died the next day at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital, from a stroke brought on by the attack.
That is just the song, the story’s surface. In 1963 Maryland’s civil rights struggle was at its zenith, with sit-ins protesting segregation, voter registration drives, and hundreds of arrests of civil rights workers in Baltimore and Cambridge, Md., myself among them. At 16, I became the youngest person ever arrested for civil rights in Maryland. Nationally, this was also the year of Bull Conner, Medgar Evers’s murder, and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls.
The Black community was outraged. Hattie Carroll could have been anyone’s auntie, mother, or sister, murdered at the hands of a tobacco plantation owner from southern Maryland.
Zantzinger was charged with murder. However, Maryland is the South, and rural Maryland was the Deep South. On August 28, the day of the March on Washington, he was sentenced to six months for manslaughter, which he would serve in a mostly white county jail. Because he owned a 644-acre tobacco plantation in southern Maryland, the court delayed his jail time until after he got his tobacco crop in. His wife, surprised at the sentence, said, “Nobody treats his niggers as well as Billy does around here.”
Hattie Carroll was a working-class woman who lived in Cherry Hill, a Black Baltimore community founded by returning World War II vets. She was beloved. She sang in the choir and ran the flower committee at Gillis Memorial Church. A peaceful, reserved woman who loved and nurtured her children, she was always well-dressed and was known for her hats. After her death, her family struggled to survive.
On the day of Zantzinger’s sentencing, I was on a bus with the Civic Interest Group (Baltimore’s SNCC) headed for the March on Washington. Someone had a transistor radio and called out the news that the killer had been sentenced to only six months. The bus riders erupted in angry incredulity. Then someone began singing, “Which side are you on, boy, which side are you on…?” Everyone joined in as we called out her name. Hattie Carroll was not a civil rights activist or leader or icon. She was one more Black human being killed by racists, killed by what racism gave birth to in our country. Carroll’s name became a battle cry for civil rights workers. She was in our hearts and minds and became a driving spirit in the fight to end legal segregation in Maryland. Those efforts ultimately led to the overturning of segregation in public accommodations in Maryland, in 1964.
After serving his sentence, Zantzinger continued in his racist ways. He owned a property called Patuxent Woods, where Black residents lived in wooden shacks with no running water or toilets or even outhouses. In 1986, the property was seized for back taxes but he continued to collect rent and raised the rent on this property until he was exposed by the Independent, a small rural paper. Housing activists organized and went after him. In 1991, Zantzinger was sentenced to 18 months plus steep fines. His world cried foul for their jovial friend. Our society has ended legal segregation. Black folks have moved into certain positions of power, the Black middle and upper middle classes have grown, and some folks think we have arrived. We haven’t. Deindustrialization caused mass poverty in Black neighborhoods that has never been addressed. Communities arose from the ashes of that reality, with no stability—families broken by destitution.
The Cherry Hill community where Hattie Carroll lived and raised a loving, stable family was devastated. It now has a violent crime rate that is 729 percent higher than the national average. From Hattie Carroll to Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo to Freddie Gray to Breonna Taylor to Tyre Nichols—senseless deaths caused by the racism embedded in the DNA of our country have not ended. The struggle for justice continues 60 years later. Yet hope is never lost. Hattie Carroll should always be remembered. People are still organizing against the degradation of poverty, working with creative resilience to rebuild and create a just future in Cherry Hill, the community that was her home.