Charting new course for maritime history

Warehouse: A nonprofit's project to educate people about African-Americans' contributions to Baltimore's status as a port city in the 19th century is under way.

March 04, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Nearly lost in Baltimore's bountiful maritime history are the largely uncharted contributions of countless African-American craftsmen and laborers who hauled cargo, built and repaired ships and helped forge a seafaring capital out of a young port city.

That will change next year, when an educational nonprofit group finishes restoring a rickety warehouse in Fells Point.

Due to open in the fall of next year, the waterfront Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is jointly named for the Maryland-born abolitionist and the founder of the first black-owned shipyard in the nation. The nearby Living Classrooms Foundation is directing the project, and the site will become an extension of its campus.

The maritime park project recently received a gift of $250,000 from civic philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, which brought fund raising just short of the $12 million goal, foundation officials said yesterday. The nonprofit group bought the warehouse for a dollar from the city several years ago with the promise to restore it.

The idea is to create a versatile complex that honors the role of African-Americans in the country's maritime saga. Plans call for classrooms, exhibits and a working shipyard next to the warehouse. The site is 100 yards from where Myers and 14 African-American partners founded the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co. in 1866.

The African-American Historical and Genealogy Society is trying to locate descendants of the other partners who founded the shipyard after the Civil War.

Among the board members of the shipyard was Frederick Douglass. His great-great-grandson, Frederick Douglass IV of Baltimore, is enthusiastic about the project, which he says will bring to light parts of American history which have been warehoused for too long.

"This will recognize the contributions of entrepreneurs in the African-American maritime community. This will also be a synergistic facility," Douglass said.

His illustrious ancestor worked as a caulker, a skilled tradesman who sealed gaps in a vessel's hull to make it airtight, at a shipyard in Fells Point.

"That was where my great-great-grandfather once practiced reading aloud," Douglass said.

Frederick Douglass, born a slave, had to give a portion of his wages to his master. He escaped from slavery as a young man and became a distinguished author, orator, diplomat and informal adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.

Douglass also advised Myers on business matters. Later, Myers became superintendent of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"I get a real sense of history here," said James Piper Bond, president of Living Classrooms, as he walked across the bare floors of the warehouse. "You can hear the commerce and the workings of the harbor."

To let people know the building will be back in business, electric candles illuminate the windows facing the water at night.

Living Classrooms cares for several vessels as part of its mission, and Bond said the new complex would serve many purposes.

"Imagine the Lady Maryland, a 104-foot schooner, down here with students working on it; tourists walking on the wooden promenade; a seaport taxi at the black maritime history stop," Bond said.

A contemporary brick building will be joined with the warehouse by a bridge. In addition to exhibits, meeting and cafe space, the waterfront campus will also be the home base for the Crossroads School. A city public school operated by Living Classrooms, Crossroads combines classroom learning with exploratory fieldwork.

It took ingenuity and a dash of serendipity to transform the oldest industrial structure still standing - barely - on the Baltimore waterfront into a 21st-century public space.

Historic preservation rules require renovations that are faithful to the original structure. Made of heart pine, brown bricks and shell-flecked mortar, the warehouse - which once stored rope, coal, grain and sugar - was not an easy restoration.

The once-abundant forests of heart pine have vanished, but nearly identical wood was found. Mortar made with seashells was mixed to the original, sandy consistency.

Living Classrooms came into possession of 32,000 bricks when a cannery in Little Italy was demolished. They were recycled to buttress the walls.

"It's stronger now than the day it was built," said Douglas Grinath of the foundation.

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