History brought to life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland's African-American history seemed to awaken yesterday with telling tales by Baltimore's waterfront, one told in a proud old ship by a direct descendant of the anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass.

"This is a country in tumult, divided North and South," declared Frederick Douglass IV, 54, appearing as his great-great-grandfather. His ancestor grew up in slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore and went to Baltimore as a young man to work as a ship caulker, earning wages he turned over to his owner.

Dressed in a 19th-century suit and top hat, Douglass riveted listeners in the Constellation with his wife, B. J., who provided accompaniment to his monologues with traditional gospel tunes and laments. In yesterday's speech, he vowed to urge "Mr. Lincoln" down the path of justice and emancipation.

To mark the start of Black History Month, the Constellation and several other city museums and harbor attractions presented events and speakers yesterday that illuminated a side of the country's history that often lies in shadow. Baltimore's tale is unique, because it had the largest population of free blacks in the country before the Civil War broke out.

On Pier 5, another tale was told in a 145-year-old red lighthouse known as Seven Foot Knoll, which now houses part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum. Tiny crab cakes were served during a talk on a new exhibit, "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay," by Vincent O. Leggett. Harvesting crabs and oysters was a way of life for generations of African-American families living on the bay, and their songs and seasonal cycles were tuned to the rhythm of the water and the catch, he said.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Leggett said, "Blacks were also shipbuilders, sailors and then later, owners of seafood processing plants."

Another little-known fact, he said, is that the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were part of the Underground Railroad. "For Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, it was a gateway to freedom," Leggett said. Tubman led hundreds of slaves north toward freedom, traveling a series of secret routes between safe stopping points.

Leggett, an Annapolis resident who performs oral histories about black bay culture, is the author of a collection of memories, poems and recipes documenting black life on the bay, titled "The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes."

"I'm trying to rescue a part of Chesapeake Bay culture long overlooked," he said.

The exhibit points out that Maryland was home to the first organized labor union for African-American workers in the country, the Colored Caulkers Trade Union, organized by Isaac Myers in 1865. It became the Colored National Labor Union in 1869, and represented nearly 1,000 tradesmen.

Douglass relates in his autobiography how he made $6 or $7 a week working as a caulker in the Fells Point shipyards. While there, he joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society to improve his education, and made plans to escape to the North. In Baltimore, he noted, the feeling in 1836 was "very bitter toward all colored people."

Meeting Douglass' descendant on the Constellation, which intercepted slave ships before the Civil War, was just what Paula Deadwyler had prepared her 9-year-old daughter, Marisa, for. "We had to be here," she said as Marisa, in a blue velvet hat, smiled for a picture.

"This will go in her memory book," said Deadwyler of West Baltimore.

Across the harbor, at the skating rink on Rash Field, Black History Month needed a little revving up. Children ages 11 and younger who present a school report on a black-history theme were invited to skate free from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; the free skating continues every Saturday this month.

Yesterday at the admissions window, however, Carol Boisvert was wondering where everyone was. "Not a one," she answered when asked how many had shown up to take advantage of the offer.

So the planned display of all the reports in a rinkside tent would have to wait - until Saturday, at least.

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