Now that Baltimore has removed its Confederate monuments, the city should honor its own underappreciated heroes from the same period. I recommend Isaac Myers and Harvey Johnson, two men of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras whose contributions to the fight for racial equality deserve recognition and celebration.
In 1865, Isaac Myers stood on the front lines of the fight for civil rights. After white waterfront workers shut down the docks and forced African Americans out of jobs that they had held since the 1830s, Myers decided to act. He and a group of 15 black Baltimoreans solicited Baltimore’s black community to fund a cooperative business that they named The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company. The venture became the pre-eminent black enterprise in the city, lasting nearly two decades. Before it closed in 1884, the company employed hundreds (if not thousands) and provided vital support to African Americans as they navigated a job market beset with racial prejudices.
Myers was a pioneering civil rights activist before that designation even existed. He tirelessly championed black education, became an active member of the Republican Party, and participated in meetings of some of the nation’s first post-war African American rights groups. In 1869, Myers attended the National Labor Union meeting in Philadelphia before organizing the Colored National Labor Union. The organization was one of the first nationwide black labor unions. Throughout his life, Myers not only championed African American civil rights but also worked diligently to overcome the racial prejudice that divided the nation after the Civil War ended.
In many ways, Harvey Johnson built upon the tradition of activism that Myers helped create. Unlike Myers, Johnson was not a native son of Baltimore. Born a slave in Virginia, Johnson came to Baltimore when he accepted a pastorate at Union Baptist Church. At the time, the church possessed a congregation of only 250 members. Fifteen years later, Johnson’s church boasted a congregation of 2,200. Union Baptist also became the epicenter for a proliferation of black Baptist churches across the city and state in the 1870s and 1880s.
In the 1880s, no one did more to change the trajectory of black activism in Baltimore than Harvey Johnson. One contemporary biographer best captured Johnson’s energy and determination. “I have met with men more learned and of longer experience,” wrote A.W. Pegues, “but I can recall no one more earnest, more thoroughly devoted to what he believes to be his duty, more aggressive, broadminded, and fearless than Rev. Harvey Johnson.”
The list of Johnson’s accomplishments should firmly place him in the pantheon of civil rights heroes. In 1884, Johnson helped six of his parishioners challenge segregation on a steamboat that plied the waters between Baltimore and Virginia. The next year, he organized an effort to get African American attorneys admitted to the Maryland bar. He succeeded in both endeavors. These initial victories inspired him to use the courts to push Baltimore, and the nation, to live up to the ideals that it set forth in its founding documents.
Johnson’s most notable achievement was the formation of the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty. The group spearheaded challenges to Maryland’s remaining black laws — legislation that discriminated against African Americans — and continued Myers’ struggle to gain access to public education. In 1888, the group prevailed. They not only compelled the city to open a new school for black children but to staff it with African-American teachers for the first time. The next year, the Brotherhood of Liberty defended a group of black laborers who had rebelled after being forced by a U.S.-based company into slavery on the uninhabitable Navassa Island. The organization’s attorney, Everett J. Waring, eventually argued the case before the Supreme Court.
The Brotherhood of Liberty’s strategy of using test-case litigation laid the foundation for civil rights activism in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Johnson became one of the founding members of the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP. His protégées, William Moncure Alexander and W. Ashbie Hawkins, became important activists in their own right. They continued Myers’ and Johnson’s important work by defeating Maryland’s attempt to disfranchise black voters and Baltimore’s effort to legally segregate the city’s residential neighborhoods in the early 20th century.
Myers and Johnson left legacies that should inspire all of us to make this country one that stands for equality for all its citizens.
Dennis P. Halpin is an assistant professor of American History at Virginia Tech working on a book about African American activism in Baltimore between 1865 and 1920; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.