At the eastern end of Fells Point, where the river widens into the Baltimore harbor, a young boy once "sat on a cellar door and studied his spelling books."
This was no ordinary boy, and the spot in which he studied would make history.
The boy was Frederick Douglass, the African American speaker, author, publisher and statesman who seized his freedom from slavery in 1838 on a northbound train from Baltimore.
Nearly 30 years after his escape, and just two years after the Civil War had won freedom for enslaved people, the site gave rise to the first shipyard owned and operated by African Americans. This bold venture, driven by the efforts of Isaac Myers, was as remarkable in its defiance and groundbreaking achievements as Douglass himself.
Today, the shipyard is gone. But its location is framed by the tall windows of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, a waterfront museum of the Living Classrooms Foundation that explains how their stories, and that of the Chesapeake Bay, connect.
"They were faced with many, many obstacles, but through persistence and determination they were successful at making something of their own lives," said museum director and curator Dianne Swann-Wright.
The Douglass-Myers Maritime Park, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, opened in 2006 in a building that straddles past and present. Much of its exhibit space spreads through an 1810 waterfront warehouse, which is the oldest existing commercial building in Baltimore.
The galleries feature high ceilings and plentiful windows that open not just to the shipyard site but to the modern city skyline and the Patapsco River at its feet. On the top floor is the spacious Founders Room, where portraits of the shipyard founders line the brick walls in thick oval frames of wood, silver and gold.
On the ground floor is the museum boat shop, rife with the scent of wood chips. Here, shipwrights build small vessels and give school students a hands-on lesson in maritime heritage.
Pulleys, pieces of boat frames and caulking tools-with a "please touch" welcome for all visitors-are featured in the museum's exhibits because the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers shaped the world in which Douglass and Myers lived. "From employment and culture to dress and food, the Chesapeake Bay affected the lives of African Americans in so many ways," Wright said.
For Douglass, the Bay enabled both his captivity and his taste for freedom.
Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of the Bay in 1818, near Easton, MD. At the age of 6, he began to work at the Wye House, a large profitable plantation that produced wheat, corn and tobacco. The wealth of its owner, Col. Edward Lloyd, was sustained by the labor of 150 enslaved people and by easy access to commerce on the Bay.
Lloyd's godlike hold on this corner of the world made an impression on Douglass.
"I know not, but it is a fact, that every leaf and grain of produce of this plantation, and those of the neighboring farms belonging to Col. Lloyd are transported to Baltimore in Col. Lloyd's own vessels; every man and boy on board of which-except the captain-are owned by him," Douglass later wrote in his autobiography.
While still a boy, Douglass was sent across the Bay to Baltimore on one of Lloyd's ships. Docking near the present location of the National Aquarium, Douglass traveled on foot to Fells Point, where he would serve the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld. The experience changed his life.
"It was a different world," said education coordinator Willa Banks. "African Americans, even those who were enslaved, had many freedoms here."
At the time, Fells Point was a frenzied scene of shipping and shipbuilding. Skilled labor was in demand. Many enslaved people were sent from outlying plantations to work in the shipyards and send earnings back to their masters. Racial tensions existed, but these men were still able to work beside white men and walk the streets with greater freedom.
The young Douglass witnessed this. He also began learning the alphabet, taught by Sophia Auld until her husband lectured her on the dangers of literate slaves. Douglass continued to teach himself and others as he was shuffled back to labor on a series of Eastern Shore farms.
The sense of defiance that took root in Fells Point grew as he endured harsh conditions in the fields. Douglass clashed with his masters and was sent back to Fells Point when he was about 18 years old. He became a caulker in the shipyards, sealing seams in ship hulls with oiled rope and pine tar. He owed all of his earnings to his master.
Nearly two years later, a free black seaman helped Douglass with a bold plan. By borrowing the man's clothes and traveling papers, Douglass disguised himself as a seaman and boarded a train for the north. He never returned to slavery again.
Douglass went on to become the leading African American voice of his era, known internationally for his speeches and autobiography and for his lifelong campaign for human rights.
The African American experience at Fells Point makes it no accident that the stories of Douglass and Isaac Myers intersect at this location. Against a backdrop of racism, Fells Point provided both men with inspiration and opportunity. Yet Douglas was 17 years older than Myers, and their lives were quite different.
"It's like an English essay, inviting you to compare and contrast," Wright said.
At the museum, visitors walk through exhibits that depict the experiences of both men along separate paths. The Douglass scenes feel more rural, troubled and personal. The Myers exhibits tell of industry and gritty conflict, led by a businessman who confronted his barriers head-on.
Myers was born in Baltimore in 1835 to free parents. He attended school until age 16, then took up the caulkers trade and became a supervisor at one of Baltimore's largest shipyards. For a few years, he entered the grocery business and operated his own store. He returned to the shipyards as the Civil War drew to a close.
It was a time of turmoil.
Less than five months after the Civil War ended, there was a riot. German and Irish immigrants attacked black workers and demanded their jobs.
Some African Americans left the shipyards under threat. Others were fired. Myers helped to form and lead a union of "colored mechanics" that tried to improve their relationship with white labor unions.
But within a year, Myers and 15 other African American men decided to shape their own prospects. In 1866, they announced the creation of the Chesapeake Railway and Dry Dock Marina-the first shipyard in the United States to be owned and operated by African Americans.
Not surprisingly, it was difficult to buy land. A white man eventually brokered a deal that secured several acres along the Patapsco River. The founders raised $10,000 as a down payment, a large sum for the time, by selling stock in their community.
All work done with "cheapness and dispatch," their signs proclaimed. The business was widely known and won a number of government contracts. Hundreds of African Americans found work there. Some white men did, too.
But the land deal that launched the shipyard ultimately ended it. The founders believed they were purchasing the land. The fine print said otherwise. After 18 years of payments, the landowner retained the property and described the entire transaction as a long-term lease.
Investors decided not to renew the lease, and the shipyard closed in 1884.
Throughout his life, Myers developed business opportunities and defended workers rights. He served as president of the Colored National Labor Union, which he helped to create, as well as the Colored Business Association of Baltimore and the Colored Building and Loan Association. He was also one of nine black delegates to attend the National Labor Movement Convention in 1869.
Myers, who was born free and reached adulthood as slavery ended, fought different battles than Douglass. But the men shared a personal courage that allowed them to confront relentless prejudice with uncommon success. As the Douglass-Myers museum conveys, they also shared inspiration and opportunities drawn from the Bay's maritime heritage.
Frederick Douglas Isaac Myers Maritime Park
The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $5/adults; $4.50/seniors; $4/students/ages 6+; ages 6 and younger are free. Admission includes docent-led tours. Theme tours and gallery talks are available on special occasions or by arrangement.
From the north: Take I-695 to I-83 south. The expressway turns into President Street. Continue straight onto Fleet Street as traffic bears to the left. Turn right onto Caroline Street and continue until it ends at Thames Street. The museum is on the right.
From the northeast: Take I-95 south, exit on Keith Avenue, turning right at end of exit ramp. Travel one block on Keith Avenue and bear right with all traffic onto Clinton Street. Turn left at the first light onto Boston Street. Turn left at the second light onto Aliceanna Street. Turn left onto Caroline Street and continue until it ends at Thames Street. The museum is on the right.
From the south: Take I-295 to downtown Baltimore/Inner Harbor. Turn right onto Pratt Street. Turn right onto President Street and continue straight onto Fleet Street as traffic bears to the left. Turn right onto Caroline Street and continue until it ends at Thames Street. The museum is on the right.