A perpetual boomtown from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, Baltimore was a hotbed of industry and innovations that made it the fastest growing city in the United States. Its shipyards built the fastest ships, known as “Baltimore Clippers,” that helped win the War of 1812. These yards were famous the world over and attracted business for ship construction and repairs.
The story of Baltimore’s free Black ship caulkers is one of accomplishment in the face of adversity. In the years before the Civil War, before Black people were considered citizens and systematic racism afforded few (if any) rights, free Black ship caulkers built a community that promoted education and a trade that allowed for steady wages.
Fell’s Point’s Black ship caulkers were critical to the shipbuilding industry, ensuring that the ships were water-tight as they traveled to the farthest reaches of the world. The caulking process sealed gaps between the planks of a ship, by filling joints or gaps with oakum (loosely twisted fibers made by unraveling old ropes) using irons and caulking mallets and sealing the joints with pitch (pine tar).
From roughly 1838-1858 Black caulkers held a near monopoly on the caulking trade in Baltimore. This achievement provided them with opportunities unavailable to most Black people in pre-Civil War America. These skilled laborers formed their own trade association, negotiating wages with shipbuilders and restricting hiring to its association members only. The association formed a beneficial society, which provided financial assistance to members who became ill or injured.
Though the City’s Black ship caulkers earned less than white workers in any of the shipbuilding trades, their wages greatly exceeded the average Black Baltimorean. In 1860, caulkers owned an average $182 in personal property, while other free Blacks averaged $17-worth of personal property.
Frederick Douglass, Baltimore’s most famous ship caulker, wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom about the strength of his ties with the Black community in Fell’s Point as he contemplated his escape from enslavement:
“I had the painful sensation of being about to separate from a circle of honest and warm hearted friends, in Baltimore. The thought of such a separation, where the hope of ever meeting again is excluded, and where there can be no correspondence, is very painful…. I had no relations in Baltimore, and I saw no probability of ever living in the neighborhood of sisters and brothers; but the thought of leaving my friends, was among the strongest obstacles to my running away.”
Frederick Douglass also wrote about attending the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a debating and literary society. The society met throughout Fell’s Point in the homes of its members and was where Douglass met his future wife, Anna Murray. Many of the Black ship caulkers could read and write and valued the importance of these skills. Though the society was intended only for free Blacks, Douglass was admitted and allowed to play a prominent part in several of its debates. Douglass’s oratory skills had their origin in Fell’s Point, which he acknowledged when he wrote, “I owe much to the society of these young men.”
The humble dwellings at 612 and 614 S. Wolfe Street present a picture of how Fell’s Point’s working class lived during the nineteenth century. As an entry point to the city, these houses were home to a varied cast of occupants throughout the century and reflect the neighborhood’s ever-changing demographics. Most importantly, during the 1840s and 1850s the houses were occupied by Black ship caulkers and their families.
Virtually forgotten, the Black ship caulkers who lived in the houses during this period were part of the fabric of this vibrant community. Four caulkers and their families who have been identified as having lived in the houses during this period are John Offer, Henry Scott, Richard Jones, and John Whittington.
Although few written records remain about these men and their families, through careful research and archaeological investigations we are uncovering the details of what life was like for the occupants of these houses and for Fell’s Point’s Black community in the decades before the Civil War.
The Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses and the Living Classrooms Foundation are excited to work collaboratively to preserve the history and tell the story of Fell’s Point’s maritime legacy.
The Living Classrooms Foundation commissioned a powerful documentary on the Ship Caulkers’ Houses. Click the link below to watch the video.
Please reach out with any questions or comments, press inquiries, or volunteering opportunities.