Fells Point A Close-up Look At Baltimore's Oldest Working-class Community

November 24, 1991|By LINDA SHOPES | LINDA SHOPES,EXCERPTED FROM "THE BALITMORE BOOK."COPYRIGHT TEMPLE UNIVERSITY PRESS,1991.

Standing at the foot of Broadway, you sense immediately that you are in a historical area. The port alive with activity, the old houses, storefronts, and warehouses, the mix of people and land uses, the sheer density all suggest an earlier time, before automobiles and suburbs. Walk along Thames Street, turn into one of the narrow side streets, and imagine it lined with the homes and shops of tailors and blacksmiths and shoemakers, with small grocery and drygoods stores, with boardinghouses and taverns and coffeehouses.

Imagine the air filled with the sounds of a half-dozen different languages. Picture the streets filled with sailors and laborers looking for work along the waterfront, with housewives shopping for the day's food, with children seeking relief from crowded homes, with craftsmen and merchants going about their business. This was Fells Point until well into the twentieth century.

EARLY SETTLERS: LABORERS AND MARINERS

By 1880, the waterfront along Fells Point was restless with the business of shipbuilders and merchants. Here lived the men who actually built the ships, sailed them, and loaded and unloaded their cargo, along with the craftsmen and shopkeepers who supplied them and their families with their daily needs. The shipyard owners and merchants, however, chose to live in the more fashionable district just north of the basin, now known as the Inner Harbor.

Matthew Taylor, a grocer who lived on Thames Street in 1804, might well have been aware that Fells Point was downtown's poor relation. He might have observed that only about two-fifths of his neighbors owned their homes; that fully one-third of them owned nothing of value -- neither house, property, nor personal effects; and that only one-fifth were prosperous enough to own rental property.

And if Taylor needed further evidence of Fells Point's disadvantaged position in relation to the rest of the city, the 1800 yellow fever epidemic surely provided it. More than 400 of his neighbors died of the disease that summer, victims of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and weakened resistance. Unlike

more prosperous Baltimoreans, they were unable to flee the city for a healthier environment, nor were they able to afford what medical care was available.

Politics in Fells Point -- oppositional, fractious, at times militant -- reflected the interests and style of its residents. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Matthew Taylor and his neighbors elected fellow workingmen to represent them on both the City Council and in the state legislature. In doing so, they opposed the directives of party regulars, who generally cast their vote for the city's elite.

RACIAL TENSIONS:

FREE BLACKS AND SLAVES

In the years before the Civil War, free blacks and slaves played a significant role in the life of Fells Point. The majority were employed in the shipyards and along the docks where they joined whites as caulkers, stevedores, draymen, and laborers.

Slave labor was especially profitable to owners of larger establishments, such as David Stodder, who, with 17 slaves, was one of the largest slaveowners in Baltimore. Slaves not only worked without pay for their masters; owners like Stodder could also count on their wages when they were hired out to others.

The most famous slave to live in Fells Point -- perhaps the community's most famous resident ever -- was Frederick Douglass. Originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass lived in the 1820s as a servant with Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of his master, in a house located on the south side of the 1400 block of Philpot Street, currently vacant land owned by the Allied Chemical Company. After escaping from Fells Point into freedom in 1838, Douglass went on to become a famous abolitionist, author, orator, and ambassador to Haiti.

As a young man in the 1830s Douglass worked as a caulker, a trade virtually monopolized in Baltimore by African Americans at that time. He worked at William and George Gardner's shipyard on the north-east corner of Lancaster and Wolfe Streets, now the location of the Belford Instrument Company, where he experienced the mounting racial tensions of the pre-Civil War years. He was repeatedly harassed and beaten by white workers in the shipyard, who feared black workers' competition for jobs and resented having to work with them. After a particularly brutal beating, Auld wanted to have Douglass's assailants arrested. But nothing was done because no white witnesses would admit having seen the assault, and the testimony of African Americans was not admissible in the courts.

Racial tensions again surfaced in the shipyards in the 1850s and 1860s. As early as 1838, black caulkers had organized the Caulker's Association, which contracted wages and working conditions with the powerful shipwrights association. Though many shipbuilders were satisfied with this arrangement, others disliked the power of both the caulkers and their fellow shipwrights.

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