By Sarah Groesbeck, Architectural Historian, & Secretary, Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses
The Ship Caulkers’ Houses, located at 612-614 S Wolfe Street, Baltimore, are two one-and-one-half story wood frame houses in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. The houses are owned by the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point, which has tasked the Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses with the rehabilitation of the houses and finding a permanent, sustainable use for them. Our project to stabilize the Ship Caulkers’ Houses was awarded an African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant, which funded the critical stabilization of these fragile houses, which were close to collapse.
July 25, 1850, must have been a hot, sticky day in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood. The harbor wharfs along its south side dominated life in Fell’s Point, providing a livelihood for its working-class residents and supplying a constant stream of sailors, merchants, and migrants from across the country and throughout the world. On this July day, a census taker stopped at what is now 614 S Wolfe Street, one of a row of eight identical story-and-a-half wood-frame houses. Stretching north from 614 to Fleet Street, each house measured a mere 12’x16’ and included one room on the first story, an attic loft above, and perhaps some form of lean-to addition on the back. Built ca. 1797 as a form of eighteenth-century speculative tract housing, these rental properties were home to a rotating cast of occupants who usually stayed no more than 5-10 years.
The 1850 tenants of 614 S Wolfe Street were the Jones’s, a free Black family headed by Richard (50 years old) and Rebecca (36 years old). The two had six living children: Ozius (14); Charles (13); Francis (6); Horace (3); Alex (8); and Maria (1). Additionally, the census taker listed a boarder, 45-year-old Lazarus Arnold, who lived with the eight Jones family members in this two-room house. Baltimore City Directories show that the Jones family had been living at this address since at least 1842 and in the vicinity even earlier. Richard Jones is listed as a caulker in the census; he was one of many Black ship caulkers living in Fell’s Point. Other Black caulkers who lived in the houses between 1840 and 1860 include John Offer (1840-1841), Henry Scott (1851-1854), and John Wittington (1853-1854).
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, enslaved Blacks worked the ship building trades in Baltimore. Those who gained their freedom, and remained in Baltimore, passed their skills from father to son. By the 1840s, ship caulking, the process of making a vessel water-tight, was an almost exclusively African American trade in Baltimore that employed both free and enslaved Blacks. Newspaper articles in the 1840s-1850s, referred to them simply as “caulker” without specifying race because it was understood that Baltimore’s caulkers were Black.
This near monopoly provided free ship caulkers some leverage in a racist system that was stacked against them. Their wages were less than white workers, but significantly higher than the average Black worker’s wage in Baltimore. White shipyard owners tolerated and benefited from the Black caulkers’ dominance of their trade, because Black workers were paid lower wages and they worked in the owners’ yards with the understanding that they would boycott new shipyards and suppress competition.
Within the limits of the freedom they possessed, this group of free Black caulkers created a community to help and support each other. They formed a trade union and, through it, a Beneficial Society to provide aid to members who fell on difficult times such as unemployment, injury, or sickness. While these mutual aid societies were common throughout the United States through the nineteenth century, African American organizations were different than white ones, as they served the additional purpose of helping formerly enslaved members adjust to free life. This community also formed the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a literary and debating society that was held in its members’ homes.
Literacy was important to Black Baltimoreans as a whole and Black literacy rates grew through the nineteenth century, thanks to schools such as the Dallas Street Church’s Sunday School on S Dallas St (the same block on which Douglass Place now sits). Sunday Schools like this one taught reading through Bible study, sometimes providing night classes for those working during the day. The Dallas Street Church’s Sunday School was the first Sunday School in the eastern half of Baltimore City and its first anniversary celebration was attended by Frederick Douglass in 1831 when he was still enslaved.
The limits of freedom, however, would have been visible daily. Although Baltimore was home to the largest free Black population in the country, it also was a large slave trading port. Free Black people like Richard Jones and his family had to record proof of their freedom and obtain a Certificate of Freedom. But even with a recorded Certificate of Freedom, Maryland laws allowed free Black people to be sold into slavery if convicted of a crime or, after an 1832 vagrancy law was passed, for being “unproductive.” Limits were placed on gathering and assemblies, including religious organizations. Ship caulkers lived and worked alongside enslaved people, some of whom became part of their community. Most famously, Frederick Douglass participated in the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society before he escaped enslavement in 1838. Though legally he was not allowed to attend, the free members of the group risked their own safety by inviting him to attend and participate in the society.
The 1858 Caulkers Riots ended the approximately 20-year monopoly these Black caulkers held in Baltimore. In the spring of that year, white workers began agitating to replace the Black caulkers. The shipyard of J.D. Fardy & Bro., in Federal Hill, placed advertisements in the Baltimore Sun for “several good white caulkers” and began employing white caulkers. Soon after, groups of white men began harassing Black caulkers working in the other yards in Federal Hill; threats of violence became real when a mob of 40-50 white men attacked Black caulkers at the yard of A.J. Robinson, beating and stabbing a number of these men. The threats and attacks continued, forcing the Black caulkers to remain home and not work. The white “caulkers,” many of whom possessed no skill in the trade, forced shipyard owners (who now had no other options) to pay them full wages for their work. By late summer, the new status quo in Baltimore’s shipyards was Black and white caulkers. Violence against the Black caulkers continued through the Civil War and in September 1865, a strike by white workers resulted in an agreement to gradually replace Black caulkers with whites.
The legacy of these Black ship caulkers has lasted far beyond the few decades they held the monopoly on their trade. Their ranks included Isaac Myers, who was influential in the formation of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company as well as a labor and political leader. John W Locks, president of the Chesapeake Marine Railway, went on to be one of the wealthiest Black businessmen in Baltimore. Beyond these luminaries, research into the lives of ship caulkers has begun to uncover the stories of men who were leaders in the fraternal organizations, churches, and educational institutions that were so influential to Blacks in Baltimore during the second half of the nineteenth century. And ship caulking continued to be a viable trade for Black Baltimoreans who passed down the trade from father to son through the early twentieth century.
Over the years, the story of the ship caulkers and their connection to the houses at 612-614 S Wolfe Street had been largely forgotten and left untold. Preserving these houses is more than merely saving brick and timber; the houses provide a tangible link between the present and the past that cannot be made in any other way. The preservation of African American sites is essential to telling and understanding the Black experience in the United States throughout our history. These sites, along with those of other historically marginalized groups, are necessary to telling the full story of our shared history.
Our work to preserve the Ship Caulkers’ Houses has reached a major milestone with the completion of the stabilization of the houses, which are now once again standing on their own. This work continues; in January 2023 we began the restoration the houses’ exterior finishes (siding, roofing, windows, doors, and a reconstructed chimney). Once this work is completed, we’ll be back with a new post detailing the AAHPP grant work that has been completed over the past three years. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram at @shipcaulkershouses. Visit our website, www.shipcaulkers.org, to learn more about the houses and how you can support this important work.