ISAAC MYERS

Born in Baltimore(1835), Maryland, the son of free African-American parents. Myers was barred from public education, but he did attend a private day school run by a local clergyman named Rev. John Fortie. Leaving school at sixteen, he served an apprenticeship with Thomas Jackson, a widely-respected African-American ship caulker and then entered the trade himself, becoming by the age of 20 a supervisor, responsible for caulking some of Baltimore’s largest clipper ships. He stayed in the trade for a decade. 

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In 1838, African-American workers formed the Caulkers Association, one of the first black trade unions in the U.S. This was a true union: Bargaining collectively with Baltimore’s shipyard owners, it made significant gains.“Caulkers were paid very well and were seldom refused wage increases since the Association monopolized the market,” wrote Bettye C. Thomas in the Journal of Negro History (1974). “They were also able to dictate the conditions under which they would work.”

In the late 1850s, the caulkers were being paid $1.75 per day — which was more than many white workers earned in similar trades. The high pay did not go unnoticed by shipyard owners and the influx of immigrant workers seeking jobs on the waterfront. 

In 1860 he entered the employment of Woods, Bridges & Co., wholesale grocers, and became their chief porter and shipping clerk. In 1865 Myers returned to the shipyard just in time for a dock strike that left more than 1,000 black longshoremen and mechanics out of work because of their color.

Some shipyard owners refused to hire black caulkers, and the situation was tense for several years. At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, white workers staged a successful strike that forced shipyards to dismiss African-Americans. Approximately 1,000 dock workers lost their jobs.

Soon after the war ended, Myers found himself unexpectedly unemployed.  In response to the strike, Myers proposed the creation of a union for black caulkers.

This was the catalyst that drove Myers to organize a stock company. The goal was to raise enough money to open a shipyard that would employ Baltimoreans, regardless of color. The proposition was submitted to a number of merchants, who promised them work, and a meeting was held in all the black churches of Baltimore. Within four months $10,000 dollars was raised.

In 1866, Myers purchased for $40,000 a huge waterfront plant that included a fully equipped shipyard and marine railway, the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Drydock Co. of Baltimore, a cooperative that employed 300 black workers, and some white tradesmen, at $3 a day. Myers soon won a $50,000 government contract. The company operated until 1884.

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The success of Myers’s union in Baltimore encouraged black caulkers in other seaport cities to organize.  It also caught the attention of the National Labor Union (NLU) Executive Committee, then the largest labor organization in the nation.

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