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Shipwrights and Boatbuilders

Skilled black laborers and craftsmen toiled in the boat and shipyards. In the mid-1700s, most white shipwrights of Norfolk owned slaves to whom they taught the shipbuilding trades. Ironically, slaves probably helped construct sloops involved in the trade of slaves and goods between Chesapeake and the West Indies. They may have built vessels such as the Charming Betsy, destined for the African slave trade.

Blacks dominated the caulking trade in the early half of the nineteenth century in Norfolk and Baltimore. Frederick Douglass was among their number. White laborers offered competition, and the two factions clashed. In one brawl, Douglass was seriously injured. Nevertheless, African-Americans continued the trade as long as there were enough wooden vessels on the Bay that required their care.

" Frederick Douglass was sent to Baltimore to work in the shipyards of Gardiner. Here the workers were Negro slaves and a poor class of whites. The slaveholders caused much friction between the two groups. It was in one of the many brawls here that Douglass almost lost an eye. Douglass had become a master of his trade, that of ship caulker. Seeing no reason why at the end of the week he should give his complete wages to a man he owed nothing, again he planned to escape."

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