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  • Writer's pictureMGMUS

In Celebration of Isaac Myers

Isaac Myers, although free when he was born in 1835, lived surrounded by slavery. In Maryland's harbors, slaves made up much of the labor force. They worked on docks and on ships, and even free Black men like Myers found themselves with little opportunity. There was no such thing as public education for Black youth, who would grow up impoverished. It was fortunate for Myers, then, that a local pastor took an interest in him: Reverend John Fortie took the young Myers into his school, tutoring him and preparing him to earn a living.

When Myers was sixteen, another free Black man, James Jackson, offered to take him on as an apprentice. He soon took his first formal job as a caulker, which was momentous for him, introducing him to the maritime industry. It was his responsibility to seal the seams on ships, and from that work, he earned a comfortable living.

Within three years, he was supervising caulking on his own. He got married, to a woman named Emma Morgan, and together they had three children.

When the Civil War broke out, Maryland did not secede from the Union. This meant that the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to states in rebellion, did not end slavery there. Instead, the 13th Amendment in 1865 did that. Because of the influx of free labor, Baltimore saw increased racial tensions at its shipyards. White workers organized strikes, and in the end, companies caved, letting go of more than a thousand Black caulkers. It was an important lesson for Myers, the power of collective organization, and one that would shape the rest of his life.

In 1866, Myers was one of the core leaders of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a cooperative organization of Black maritime workers whom the strikes had put of out work. More than three- hundred Black men joined Myers's cooperative, but it was only a sign of what was to come.

Two years later, Myers founded the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society. He served as its first president and over the next year, attracting the attention of the National Labor Union, which invited the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society to their yearly convention – a first for any non-white union. Once again caving to pressure from all-white unions, the goodwill unfortunately dried up, and in 1869, Myers founded the Colored National Labor Union. He then served as president for three years, succeeded by another famous Black maritime professional of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass.

After leaving his leadership position at the Colored National Labor Union, Myers involved himself more in politics, serving as an agent with both the Customs Service and the Postal Service under President Ulysses S. Grant. From 1870 to 1879, he became the first Black postal inspector. His legacy, one of fairness and equality, lived on through his son George Myers, who went into Ohio politics and fought against economic disadvantages for Black people, much in the same way that his father had. In Isaac Myers's honor, the City of Baltimore has established The Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Maritime Park, located on the former shipyards where Myers made his name.


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