Sailors museum hits rough waters

Building: A 130-year-old warehouse's crumbling walls jeopardize plans for an attraction to chronicle black maritime history.

August 18, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A project to transform a 130-year-old coffee warehouse into the nation's first museum honoring black shipbuilders and sailors is in jeopardy because the relic of Baltimore's sailing era might soon collapse.

A nonprofit organization hoping to create the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park near Fells Point is trying to raise $600,000 to reinforce the waterfront building's teetering walls before winter storms knock them down.

"It's an emergency situation," said James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which owns the property. "Over the last six months, we have seen bricks come down, beams fall, and we fear the whole building might fall in upon itself."

The burned-out and roofless four-story warehouse at the foot of South Caroline Street is one of the most visible landmarks to boats entering the Inner Harbor, with its unusual rounded corners, graffiti-scarred walls and 100-yard pier.

The ruin is one of the last reminders of the city's once-thriving trade with South America, which was a cornerstone of wealth here in the 19th century, said William J. Pencek Jr., deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

The foundation, which has been running educational programs for city children for 14 years, hopes to turn the building into a 23,600-square-foot learning center featuring exhibits on black maritime history.

It would stand beside a working shipyard and marine railway where young people would help shipwrights repair and maintain vintage sailing ships, said Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, vice president of development for the organization.

Planned for completion in July, the $9.1 million project will include a memorial to Isaac Myers, one of the nation's first black shipyard owners. He ran his business on a now-vacant lot a few hundred feet south of the warehouse.

The memorial will also honor Frederick Douglass, who worked as a caulker in Fells Point before escaping from slavery to become an internationally known author and anti-slavery activist.

The project is important because few people know the important role of slaves and free blacks in the 19th-century maritime industry, said Charles Christian, a black history author and associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

When many African-Americans think about the age of sail, they think mostly about the slave trade, Christian said.

Few realize that black sailors, who enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom during their travels around the globe, promoted the idea of liberty among their people when they returned home and helped advance the anti-slavery movement, Christian said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this is a worthy project," said Christian, author of the book "Black Saga: The African American Experience."

In the early decades of the 19th century, about a fifth of the 100,000 sailors working in the United States were black, historian W. Jeffrey Bolster wrote in his 1997 book "Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail."

Men of African descent served on the crews of Christopher Columbus, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Hernando Cortez and the pirate Blackbeard, Bolster found. During the American Revolution, working as a sailor -- a notoriously dangerous and low-paid occupation -- became one of the few jobs open to free black men.

Although most blacks enjoyed no legal rights in the United States, the federal government in 1796 started issuing "seaman's protection" certificates to allow black merchant mariners to pursue their livelihood, Bolster wrote. These documents defined black sailors as citizens of the United States, a distinction most blacks did not have.

Douglass, who was born on the Eastern Shore, took advantage of one of these certificates to escape from Fells Point to the North in 1838. He borrowed a certificate from a retired black sailor and used it to board a train to Philadelphia, where slavery was illegal.

Other prominent blacks with connections to the maritime industry include:

Paul Cuffe, a sea captain who led one of the first back-to-Africa movements.

Crispus Attucks, a sailor killed at the start of the American Revolution.

Denmark Vesey, who masterminded the largest conspiracy in South Carolina history to free slaves.

Capt. Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate gunboat with a crew of slaves during the Civil War and turned the ship over to the Union Navy.

Marcus Garvey, who founded the Black Star steamship line in 1919.

Ships were generally integrated before the Civil War, but by the 1860s, segregation began to rule the docks. An influx of immigrants from Ireland and Europe forced blacks out of maritime jobs, and labor unions in the late 19th century restricted blacks to low-level positions such as cooks and stewards, according to Bolster.

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