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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Public History, Industrial Capitalism, and the Presence of Ships in Baltimore

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

BHW 8: March 25, 2023


This is a photograph of the ship the USS Constellation docked in Baltimore City's Inner Harbor.
Figure 1. David Wells, USS Constellation, 2012, Creative Commons [1]

Baltimore’s location around a major port and harbor fills ships with great illuminative capacity for understanding the city’s past. Whether for the slave trade, industry, or twenty-first century historical tourism, elaborate ships are associated with Baltimore. Materially, they provided the goods and shipping for the industrial economy responsible for so much of the city’s nineteenth century growth. It was through Baltimore’s shipyard industries that the one of its most famous historical residents, Frederick Douglass, came to know the city. [2] Today, ships continue to assert their presence in the Inner Harbor. There is a Coast Guard ship from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a submarine from the World War II era, a lightship from before World War II, among others. One ship stands out as the star of the harbor, and that is the USS Constellation. [3] This ship’s contested historical provenance and military-focused public historical interpretation speaks to how Baltimore’s tourism industry advances a particular history alluring to consumers. [4] These narratives overlook Baltimore’s key role in America’s industrial economy, its complex histories of slavery and freedom, along with the crucial contributions of antebellum Black Baltimoreans to the rise of Black labor unions and entrepreneurship in the United States.

Baltimore was a hub for both the international and later the domestic slave trade. [5] Ships directly connected to the city contributed to both sides of official campaigns against the slave trade in the early-nineteenth century. The USS Constellation, contrary to the once-dominant narrative that it was an eighteenth century frigate, was involved in nineteenth century slave trade prevention efforts. This is especially significant given the ship’s prevalence in Baltimore’s public historical narratives, and thus its great potential for sharing this history. Indeed, as historian William S. Dudley writes, it “is a virtual icon of the city.” [6] The Constellation in the harbor today was built in 1854 and was the last entirely sail-powered U.S. naval vessel. It was likely constructed using some remnants of the 1790s frigate for which it was originally mistaken. Most notably, the Constellation served as the flagship for the U.S. African squadron from 1859 to 1861, part of an international effort to suppress the slave trade by patrolling African shores to prevent the export of enslaved Africans. [7] However, in this same era Baltimore’s shipyards produced fast-speed vessels in high-demand by enslavers who sought to use the best in maritime technology to evade the international campaign against the slave trade. Frederick Douglass labored on one of these ships while enslaved in Baltimore. [8] The Constellation’s now publicly featured history of working to dismantle the slave trade takes clear narrative prominence over instances of local shipyards supporting this same trade, both domestically and internationally. [9] Hopefully in the future, the lack of historic site emphasis on the extensive history of American involvement in the trading of enslaved people will be better addressed. [10]

While Douglass was in Baltimore, Black Baltimoreans made some of the antebellum era’s most powerful assertions of Black labor rights. Douglass worked as a ship caulker, a trade with rich ties to the local Black community. It was an almost entirely Black occupation in antebellum Baltimore. [11] As early as 1838, Black Baltimore caulkers had organized a labor union known as The Caulker’s Association. One of the first Black unions in America, this association protected hard-fought pay grades and workplace protections. [12] As historian Frank Towers argues, “Predominance in skilled trades like caulking, which produced Frederick Douglass and Isaac Myers, two of the century’s great Black leaders, was a resource that antebellum African Americans used to create autonomous urban communities.” [13] Black Baltimoreans asserted the value of themselves and their communities through this work. This example demonstrates a complicating factor in Baltimore’s nineteenth century historical narratives, which is that the close urban coexistence of slavery and freedom can give false impressions of freedom. While Douglass advanced claims to autonomy for the city’s Black community through his labor, he remained enslaved. Douglass writes in his autobiography, “I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore – friends that I loved almost as I did my life.” But it is also true that his desire for freedom overrode these friendships. He needed to leave Baltimore to attain his own freedom, and he knew he thereafter could not return to Maryland unless it first abolished slavery. [14]

Ground-breaking advancements in nineteenth century Black entrepreneurship also took place in Baltimore shipyards. While the legal details of the lease are murky, it appears a Black-led shipyard operated in Baltimore immediately following the Civil War. It was run by the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Drydock Company, which effectively subleased a Fells Point shipyard for eighteen years, from 1866 to 1884. [15] The involvement of Black company leaders by necessity functioned through white intermediaries, as shipyard owners were not willing to lease to a Black person or group. [16] Nevertheless, Black company representatives asserted their authority within and through the company, applying knowledge gained through self-led education to achieve industrial success. [17] Not only did this shipyard industry work empower Black laborers, Black Baltimoreans also became trailblazers of industrial entrepreneurship and investment. [18] Beyond company leaders, the local Black community invested financially in the company. In October 1876, the Baltimore Sun reported that, “A large and at intervals excited meeting of stockholders of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Drydock Company of Baltimore was held last evening at Douglass Institute to take action in reference to the operations of the organization. The stockholders are colored men and women, and 3,607 shares of stock were stated as represented.” [19] It was truly a community enterprise.

The culture of ships and shipbuilding itself was crucial to Black Baltimoreans gaining a firm foothold in the nineteenth century industrial economy. As historian W. Jeffrey Bolster argues, in these industries, “Racial boundaries certainly existed, but they were often secondary to those established by the institution of the ship.” Shipyard and seagoing norms, order, and structure often surpassed race in importance when it came to how these individuals worked together in practice. [20] This reflects another way industrial Baltimore provided fertile ground for Black empowerment. Indeed, at the core of industrial thinking was production and efficiency. If the most productive and efficient way to produce functional ships involved utilizing Black caulkers, so be it. If Black caulkers established an effective monopoly on the industry, that was fine so long as they exhibited efficiency. Similarly, if maintaining a strictly ordered system of production mattered more to industrial success than enforcing racial inequalities, then the latter would take precedence over the former. It appears this was the case in Baltimore. [21] The culture of industry ran up against the system of American racism, and the realities of industrial capitalism dictated that industry would take precedence over prejudice. [22]

Shipyard industries contributed to a Black sense of belonging in Baltimore City, but notions of belonging can be highly complex. Historian Dickson J. Preston’s analysis of the Douglass case reminds us that true self-belonging relies on preconditions of freedom. Preston claims, “A threatened disaster and a return to the Eastern Shore only served to strengthen Frederick’s sense of belonging, in the deepest meaning of the word, to Sophia Auld and to his Fells Point family.” [23] He legally belonged to the Auld family, he was their property. This is another reason it is important to emphasize that while Douglass lived a better life in Baltimore than he had on his Eastern Shore plantation, he remained enslaved. He later compared his Baltimore and Eastern Shore experiences, writing that, “A city slave is almost a freeman. Compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.” [24] These improved conditions in Baltimore and the enslaved ship caulking labor that came with them were a step on the path to freedom for Douglass, rather than any sort of endpoint. As he later reflected, “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.” [25] This was because Baltimore had a much greater proximity to freedom, both geographically and socially, than the Eastern Shore. [26]

In contrast to tourist-geared narratives put forth about the Constellation and other historic ships in Baltimore, collectively marketed as “one of the most impressive collections of military vessels in the world,” efforts are underway to amplify Black Baltimore’s industrial empowerment through shipbuilding. [27] An organization called The Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses is working to protect and memorialize two surviving rowhouses formerly home to nineteenth century Black caulkers. The organization claims the houses date to around 1798 and are historically important “as a tangible connection to Fell’s [sic] Point’s free Black community before the Civil War.” [28] These efforts could counterbalance military-focused and deracialized ship narratives by centering Black stories. The houses are very much active public history sites where restoration is being done in service of advancing the site’s public historical learning potential. In addition to representing Black empowerment they also speak to the history of white violence against the freedom claims of Black Baltimoreans. [29] The homes have complex meanings worthy of public attention and sharing.

From slavery and the slave trade to industrial capitalism and twenty-first century tourism, ships in Baltimore illuminate the city’s complex, ongoing histories. [30] These ship-related histories have great potential to advance narratives of Black empowerment, entrepreneurship, and hard-fought gains for freedom. The stories of Douglass and others show that early-nineteenth century Baltimore was a world of contrasts, home to the largest free Black population of any city in the country while also being part of a slave state. [31] That the most famous ship in the harbor today, the USS Constellation, was used in international efforts to prevent the slave trade relates to the city’s history of deep involvement in that same trade. Indeed, one of the Baltimore ships Douglass labored on was used to evade the Constellation’s slave trade prevention compatriots patrolling the coast of Africa. The ship itself now sits in the harbor being used to advance a military-focused narrative, while itself having a history directly related to the city’s involvement with slavery. Focusing on the more pleasant aspects of Baltimore history is certainly marketable, yet it is important to balance this appeal with working towards promoting justice for the lived experiences of the city’s past. Current efforts to preserve the homes of nineteenth century Black ship caulkers are a step in the right direction. These sites carry great interpretive potential for illuminating themes of Black empowerment in Baltimore. The complicated histories of big ships in Baltimore speak to the nuanced complications and contradictions of Baltimore history, while also providing windows of hope into how the city’s histories can be used for collective growth and learning.


[1] David Wells, “USS Constellation,” photograph (Baltimore, September 20, 2012), Creative Commons,,_2012%29.JPG.

[2] W. Jeffrey Bolster, “‘To Feel Like a Man’: Black Seamen in the Northern States, 1800-1860,” The Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (March 1990): 1173,

[3] William S. Dudley, Maritime Maryland: A History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 222-223,

[4] C. Herbert Gilliland, “Prologue,” in William Androse Leonard, USS Constellation on the Dismal Coast: Willie Leonard’s Journal, 1859-1861, ed. C. Herbert Gilliland (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina press, 2013), 19, Kindle edition; “Explore: USS Constellation,” Historic Ships in Baltimore, 2023,

[5] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 235,

[6] Dudley, Maritime Maryland, 223.

[7] Gilliland, “Prologue,” 19-23.

[8] Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 146,

[9] “USS Constellation,” Historic Ships in Baltimore, 2023.

[10] Stephanie E. Yuhl, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Centering the Domestic Slave Trade in American Public History,” The Journal of Southern History 79, no. 3 (August 2013): 623,

[11] Frank Towers, “Job Busting at Baltimore Shipyards: Racial Violence in the Civil War-Era South,” The Journal of Southern History 66, no. 2 (May 2000): 221,

[12] Bettye C. Thomas, “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon Its Inception and Ownership,” The Journal of Negro History 59, no. 1 (January 1974): 2,

[13] Towers, “Job Busting at Baltimore Shipyards,” 238.

[14] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New York: Dover Publications, 1995 [1845]), 63,; Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, 159.

[15] Thomas, “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard,” 1, 5.

[16] Thomas, “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard,” 6.

[17] Thomas, “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard,” 11.

[18] Towers, “Job Busting at Baltimore Shipyards,” 221.

[19] “Local Matters,” Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1876,

[20] Bolster, “To Feel Like a Man,” 1180.

[21] W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 5,

[22] Bolster, “To Feel Like a Man,” 1199.

[23] Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, 87.

[24] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 21.

[25] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 18.

[26] Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, 105.

[27] “Walk the Decks, Learn the Ropes, Live the Life,” Historic Ships in Baltimore, 2023,

[28] The Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses, “The Project,”

[29] Towers, “Job Busting at Baltimore Shipyards,” 222-223.

[30] Dudley, Maritime Maryland, 222-223.

[31] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Kindle edition, 10.


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