A museum's ship comes in

Fells Point: Ground is broken for a museum of black maritime history that will be the first of its kind in the nation.

October 01, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Cannons rumbled, a fireboat shot arcs of water, and a marching band thundered as more than 100 people gathered beside the water in Fells Point yesterday to celebrate the groundbreaking for what will be the nation's first museum of black maritime history.

The $13 million project to convert a more than century-old coffee warehouse into the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park should be complete by the end of next year.

The museum will tell the long-ignored stories of African-Americans who played crucial roles in America's shipbuilding and sailing industries. Featured in the exhibits will be Douglass, a former Fells Point ship caulker who escaped from slavery to become an internationally known abolitionist, and Myers, a founder of one of the nation's first black-owned shipyards.

The center will also include a working 19th-century-style ship repair yard, classrooms where children will learn about shipbuilding, a cafe, a gift shop and a waterfront boardwalk.

"This site is dedicated to two great Americans, Frederick Douglass and Isaac Myers, who provide great inspiration to us because they broke through barriers to succeed," said James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which is heading the project.

"This center will be a beacon of hope for young people as they try to overcome barriers in their own lives," said Bond, who spoke from a podium where he was flanked by officials including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, and Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The turnout suggested the variety of sources of funding for the project, about a third of which is being paid for by the state, a third by the city and a third by private contributors.

Among those applauding the groundbreaking were Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat; Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican; and directors of the nonprofit Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Dr. Patricia Schmoke, wife of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a trustee of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said she was proud that one of her ancestors worked with Isaac Myers to found one of the nation's first black-owned shipyards, the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co.

The shipyard, founded to help provide opportunities for black workers and others in 1868 after white caulkers struck to force shipyards to fire their black laborers, operated until 1884 a few hundred yards from the museum's future site at the end of South Caroline Street.

"My great-great-grandfather, John Locks, was one of the founders of this maritime railway, ... and my grandfather was very proud that this project is taking place," Schmoke said.

Frederick Douglass IV, a descendant of the abolitionist, was master of ceremonies at yesterday's celebration. He borrowed a phrase from his great-great-grandfather in giving advice to 100 pupils in attendance from the Crossroads School, a public middle school run by the Living Classrooms Foundation at 802 S. Caroline St.

"It's all about education," Douglass said. "My great-great-grandfather said, `Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.' In his time, those who learned to read were severely punished."

The City College Marching Knights, high-stepping in white boots and twirling orange, silver and black flags, provided music for the event. The crew of the Pride of Baltimore II, a replica of a vintage Baltimore clipper ship, fired four cannon shots from offshore, and a city fireboat shot arcs of water.

After the event, Wilber E. "Bill" Cunningham, a vice president of the foundation, led a tour of the construction site. He pointed to the early 19th- century brick warehouse, which will be converted into historical exhibits; and the vacant lot next door, on which the foundation will build a three-story classroom building with elevated glass passageways connecting it to the museum building.

Nearby, Cunningham showed a visitor a rotting wooden pier that was smashed during Tropical Storm Isabel. It will be replaced by a concrete, steel and wood pier connected to a wooden promenade that will border the museum site on three sides.

A heap of 5-foot steel gears will become part of the machinery of a marine railway next to the museum, Cunningham said. The railway will haul vintage wooden ships from the water so that shipbuilders can caulk and repair them, helped by students who will be on hand to learn about historic shipbuilding.

"It will be learning by doing," Cunningham said. "And it will be a great tourist attraction, too."

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