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Baltimore park recreates first black shipyard

The new Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park helps recreate the nation's first black shipyard.
The new Frederick Douglas-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, the nation's first black shipyard, complete with marine railway.
The new Frederick Douglas-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, the nation's first black shipyard, complete with marine railway.Gail Burton / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Railroad tracks dip into the harbor next to an old, square, brick building in this rapidly gentrifying post-industrial waterfront. The tracks enter the water by design, not decay.

As part of the new Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, which opened June 28, they help recreate the nation's first black shipyard, complete with a marine railway like those that once pulled ships from the harbor for repair in the days before modern drydocks.

Baltimore was home to one of the largest populations of free blacks before the Civil War, many of whom worked in shipbuilding but were systematically pushed out after the war to make room for growing numbers of white workers.

The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co. was founded in 1868 by Myers, with money from Douglass and others, to employ black shipbuilders who had lost their jobs, said Dianne Swann-Wright, the park's curator.

"It was, in a way, really a symbol of how African-Americans did not stand back and accept the fate they had been dealt," Swann-Wright said. "They were proactive and very aggressive in seeking business and doing a good job."

Near the acre-and-a-half waterfront park -- where townhomes, shops and restaurants are replacing warehouses and factories -- Douglass worked as a caulker in the 1830s. He used that trade to earn a living after escaping from slavery and before achieving fame as an abolitionist and speaker.

The park gives visitors a look back at that time through interactive displays that show what it was like to caulk the seams of a ship and operate a marine railway.

"What we want to show kids and others here in the Baltimore community and throughout the nation was that the free black population was very prominent in Baltimore. They were very instrumental in the trades on the waterfront, particularly the caulkers union," said Wilbert E. "Bill" Cunningham, vice president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit educational group that created the park.

The displays, which also include a dugout canoe believed to have been built by slaves in Maryland, are housed in the historic Sugar House, the oldest remaining industrial building in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

'Their ancestors played a role in building the city'
"What we're doing here is kind of recreating a bit of African-American maritime history, which means the history of the city and the state and the building of the economy here," Cunningham said.

In the 1830s and 1840s, German and Irish immigrants came to Baltimore looking for work. The two groups, particularly the German workers, did not want to work with blacks. That led to clashes that were, at times, violent, Swann-Wright said.

Following the Civil War, Irish and German workers banded together and told shipyard owners they would not work with blacks.

"The shipyard owners said 'We aren't going to have this trouble,' and they fired hundreds of black caulkers in one day," the curator said.

Myers headed a group of 15 black investors, including Douglass, many of whom attended two nearby churches on Bethel and Sharp streets, Cunningham said. Myers and his partners tried to buy a shipyard from white owners, but they refused to sell to blacks. The group eventually was able to obtain a yard with the help of a sympathetic white intermediary, Swann-Wright said.

"And they were just a tremendous success," the curator said.

Experienced labor, government contracts and the yard's growing reputation led to its success, not only in caulking, but also in repair. That led boat owners from throughout the region to send ships to the yard, which occupied a parcel just north of the park, she said.

"So, we have wonderful receipts listing all the work that was done," she said. "And that's going to be part of our exhibit as well."

The shipyard closed in 1884 when the lease on the property expired due to a misunderstanding, according to the state archives.

Cunningham said he hopes to open the eyes of students and others about the history behind the area. Children, he said, are often "not in touch with their history at all," Cunningham said. "So, I'm really just dying to see the kids come down here and see that through Bethel, through Sharp Street, and through Fells Point, their ancestors played a role in building the city and the state."