A 19th-century business pioneer; Recalling Black History


A DOCK strike that left more than 1,000 black Baltimore longshoremen and mechanics unemployed in October 1865 convinced Isaac Myers, a ship caulker, that there was just one thing to do: Start his own shipyard.

Myers organized a company that in four months sold enough stock to raise $10,000, selling shares at $5 each. The company, Chesapeake Marine Railway and Drydock Co., purchased a huge plant that included a fully equipped shipyard with a marine railway attached for $40,000 and paid off the mortgage in three years.

Myers, who was born a free black in Maryland, a slave state, had gained business expertise during the Civil War working for a wholesale grocery company, rising to the position of store manager. After the war, he worked as a ship caulker, advancing to the position of supervisor in four years.

His shipyard thrived by winning government contracts in direct competition with white-owned yards here and in other cities. At its height, his shipyard employed some 300 workers -- black and white.

The shipyard lasted about a decade -- until competition and a changing marketplace forced it to close.

Political clout

Later, Myers was one of the first postal inspectors assigned to criminal detection -- a sign of his political clout. Eventually, he opened a coal yard and started a weekly newspaper, The Colored Citizen.

Though a business owner, Myers still sympathized with workers and was instrumental in organizing black labor unions.

He was founder of the Maryland Colored State Industrial Fair Association, the Colored Businessmen's Association and the Colored Building and Loan Association.

It's significant that Myers had such economic and political power when the black community suffered from severe unemployment and discrimination. African Americans, many of them former slaves, had been forced out of the white shipyards by white workers -- backed by the police. Nationally, the Supreme Court was supporting the right of businesses to discriminate against African Americans.

Community leader

Besides his business and human rights activities, Myers was a pillar of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a grand master of a Masonic Order and an author of a Masonic handbook and a sacred play.

Although Baltimore dedicated a pier at the location of his former Fells Point shipyard to Myers and abolitionist Frederick Douglass -- who also worked as a ship caulker here -- Myers, who died in 1891, is sadly a little-known figure today.

But that is likely to change. The Living Classrooms Foundation is in the process of re-creating a park and working marine railway in Fells Point in memory of Myers and Douglass.

R. B. Jones is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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