The Two Sisters Houses: A Tangible Link to Baltimore’s African-American Labor History
By Tyler Anthony Smith
Have you ever noticed two small, 218-year-old, wood-sided houses on South Wolfe Street in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point? The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point owns these buildings, often referred to as the “Two Sisters,” which likely date to 1797 -- the same year that the U.S. Frigate Constellation was built in a Fell’s Point ship yard.
Originally part of a building with four identical units, the remaining "Two Sisters" each stand just twelve feet wide and fifteen feet deep, with a single room on the first floor and a half story garret above. The buildings housed many working Baltimore residents, including African-American ship caulkers Richard Jones, Henry Scott, and John Whittington from 1842 to 1854. As ship caulkers they are associated with a unique Baltimore story.
Ship caulking -- the process of strengthening and waterproofing ships’ hulls by filling the seams with cotton and oakum fiber, which is then coated with hot pitch -- was an essential part of Baltimore’s booming ship building industry. Ship caulking was a trade dominated by free and enslaved African-American workers, the most famous of whom was Frederick Douglass, who caulked ships in the 1830s and also lived nearby in Fell’s Point.
African-American laborers organized the Black Caulkers Association, which held a monopoly on the caulking industry in Baltimore for over a decade. The Caulkers Association hosted annual balls and pleasure cruises for its members and friends.
Baltimore City directories from the 1800s show the names and addresses of many African-American caulkers, painting a picture of Fell’s Point as home to many African-American sailors, ship carpenters, carters, washerwomen, rope makers, and small vendors as well. Individual names can be followed in the directories over the course of years, making it possible to trace the movements of individuals over time.
A significant concentration of ship caulkers around the Two Sisters property appears in the late 1840s. Several caulkers lived on South Wolfe Street and many more lived behind Wolfe Street on Happy Alley (now Durham Street).
Significantly, South Wolfe Street is not an alley street; the presence of African-American laborers on a wider street could be interpreted as a sign of their financial stability at the time, which would correlate with the comparatively good wages secured by caulkers belonging to the Black Caulkers Association.
The directories reveal that in the 1850s and 1860s the concentration of African-American ship caulkers shifted from Happy Alley and Wolfe Street westward to Bethel Street and Dallas Street. This movement correlated with a change in the labor politics.
During the later part of the 1850s the Caulkers Association became victim to gangs of “job busters” hoping to break the caulking monopoly. Newly arrived immigrants -- often escaping conditions in Ireland and Germany -- competed with African-American laborers for wage labor jobs including ship caulking.
The Baltimore Sun’s articles covering the conflicts, dubbed “The War Between the Caulkers,” create an engrossing narrative with details fit for Hollywood including political intrigue, a boat chase, and a gang of toughs called the White Tigers. (Shawn Gladden writes in more detail about this issue in his 2007 paper "Emergence of Baltimore’s Free Black Caulkers.")
While the Black Caulkers Association did lose economic clout in the late 1850s, its legacy continued in the work of Isaac Myers, a Baltimore ship caulker and influential leader in the creation of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, and the Colored National Labor Union.
The “Two Sisters” houses are a physical remnant of this unique Baltimore history. A grant from the African-American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP), a partnership of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust, has made it possible for the Preservation Society and the Dell Corporation to continue the stabilization of the structures over the past two years, an effort which has included weatherproofing the structure and constructing an ingenious and minimally invasive interior support system.
The grant also allowed for archeology done by the Ancient Studies department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. This AAHPP project has helped to preserve these fragile structures, the first step toward articulating and interpreting the story of Baltimore’s African-American laborers.
Tyler Anthony Smith is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Maryland College Park and working for Dell Corporation as an Assistant Preservation Technician. This post previously appeared on Our History, Our Heritage: The Maryland Historical Trust Blog.