Saturday, November 12, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Shipyard Racism
 
Much to his surprise, instead of being sold to a plantation owner in the Deep South, Frederick was sent back to Baltimore by his master, Thomas Auld, to live under the supervision of Thomas’s brother, Hugh Auld.
 
The flat streets behind the Fells Point docks, wedged tightly with three-story brick houses, had changed less than the young man who walked them ….
 
As he wandered through the streets of Baltimore with his master’s vague promise of manumission in mind, Frederick Bailey asked himself what being a free black man in that city would mean.  … To black Marylanders the city was a haven; being there gave Frederick courage. 
 
Free Baltimore could give him his chance; it was “the very place, of all others, short of a free state, where I most desired to live.”  Thousands of former slaves and descendants of slaves lived in the city; so did people still owned but permitted to hire themselves out, and therefore able to determine where they would do their own day’s work.  By following their example, Frederick would make a free man of himself.  He would show Thomas Auld; he would allow Hugh Auld to arrange for an apprenticeship, but once he had learned his trade he would elbow past the Auld brothers and set himself up as a mechanic—an artisan—in the energetic port city.  … He would, with dignity, become one of the achingly respectable “free people of color” of Baltimore.
 
 
At first, Frederick again lived with the Hugh Aulds on Philpot Street, but things were not as they had been.  He had left as a fifteen-year-old boy; when he came back, at eighteen, he had matured physically, had worked in the fields, had been to jail.  Tommy [the Aulds’ son] too had changed; he was entering adolescence, and more and more, the focus of his life was outside his home.  …. Tommy appears to have picked up enough street racism to know that he no longer wanted a nigger older brother.  … Sophia too kept her distance from the black man that Frederick now was; only Hugh seems to have been comfortable with the almost-adult who now shared his house.  He immediately arranged for Frederick to serve as an apprentice caulker in his own trade, shipbuilding, in William Gardiner’s shipyard.
 
However, Hugh was out of step with the times.  There had been little racism in evidence in the shipyards when he had first worked in them.  There did not need to be as long as free men and slave men worked together simply getting the job done.  The earlier social structure had been secure enough so that workers did not feel pitted against one another; now, with a greater clamor for jobs, the managers had learned that the workers could be kept in line with threats that if they did not work satisfactorily, someone else could easily be hired.  By 1836, with more and more black people coming into the city to seek jobs as hired-out slaves or, increasingly, as free men, and with a great many white immigrants from Europe and from rural Maryland competing for those same jobs, the use of racism as a managerial tool was on the rise.
 
 
Just before Frederick went to work in Gardiner’s yard, the white workers had struck, knowing that the shipbuilder had a large, lucrative contract to build, in a hurry, warships for the Mexican government.  Previously, black and white workers had labored side by side, but now Gardiner gave in and fired the free black carpenters.  … In 1836, the seventy-five or so triumphant white carpenters of the Gardiner yard, back at work, expressed their scorn and their guilt by tormenting the only people in their path, the score of young apprentices who were at their beck and call.
 
“Fred., bring that roller here.” – “Fred., go get a fresh can of water.” – “Fred., come help saw off the end of this timber.”  He was being summoned by more than one worker at a time in the time-honored practice of hazing apprentices, but for him the taunts had a special edge: “Halloo, nigger!  Come, turn this grindstone.”  … “darkey, … why don’t you heat up some pitch?”  … “D—n you, if you move, I’ll knock your brains out!”  The white apprentices were subjected to hazing too, but they had available a convenient target for their resentment.  … “They began to put on high looks, and to talk maliciously of ‘the niggers,’ saying, that ‘they would take the country,’ that ‘they ought to be killed.’”  They resented the fact that the carpenters, having driven out the blacks who were in their own line of work, had not forced Gardiner to fire the apprentice black caulker in their midst.  Frederick suspected that he had been kept on because, unlike the fired carpenters, he was a slave (McFeely 58, 59-60).
 
… being encouraged by the journeymen, they commenced making my condition as hard as they could, be hectoring me around, and sometimes striking me.  I, of course, kept the vow I made after the fight with Mr. Covey, and struck back again, regardless of consequences; and while I kept them from combining, I succeeded very well; for I could whip the whole of them, taking them separately (Douglass 101).
 
One day, Ned Hays … grew so angry with Frederick for bending a bolt that he went after him with an adze, a razor-sharp tool.  Frederick countered with a swing of his maul, a heavy wooden hammer, that drove the adze out of Hay’s wounded hand.  The fight stopped there, for the moment.  On another day, Edward North … ordered Frederick to do some fetching for him.  When he refused, North hit him, and instead of hitting back, Frederick simply picked up the big man—he was the largest of the other apprentices---and threw him from the staging onto the deck.
 
… Hays’s and North’s beating rankled, and some time later these two, along with Bill Stewart and Tom Humphreys, lay in wait.  As Fred came alongside the boat where they were working, he saw one of them, holding a brick, standing directly in his path.  Instantly, he felt the presence of two others, one on each side.  And just as he comprehended what was coming, the fourth attacked from behind, hitting him on the head with a handspike, a heavy metal bar used for easing timbers into place (McFeely 61).
 
… I fell, and with this they all ran upon me, and fell to beating me with their fists.  I let them lay on for a while, gathering strength.  In an instant, I gave a sudden surge, and rose to my hands and knees.  Just as I did that, one of their number gave me, with his heavy boot, a powerful kick in the left eye.  My eyeball seemed to have burst.  When they saw my eye closed, and badly swelling, they left me.  With this I seized the handspike, and for a time pursued them.  But this took place in sight of not less than fifty white ship-carpenters, and not one interposed a friendly word; but some cried, “Kill the damned nigger!  Kill him!  He struck a white person.”  I found my only chance for life was in flight.  I succeeded in getting away without an additional blow, and barely so; for to strike a white man is death by Lynch law,--and that was the law in Mr. Gardiner’s ship-yard. 
 
I went directly home, and told the story of my wrongs to Master Hugh; and I am happy to say of him, irreligious as he was, his conduct was heavenly, compared with that of his brother Thomas under similar circumstances.  He listened attentively to my narration of the circumstances leading to the savage outrage, and gave many proofs of his strong indignation at it.  The heart of my once overkind mistress was again melted into pity.  My puffed-out eye and blood-covered face moved her to tears.  She took a chair by me, washed the blood from my face, and, with a mother’s tenderness, bound up my head, covering the wounded eye with a lean piece of fresh beef.  … Master Hugh was very much enraged.  … As soon as I got a little the better of my bruises, he took me with him to Esquire Watson’s [the nearby magistrate’s office], on Bond Street, to see what could be done about the matter.  Mr. Watson inquired who saw the assault committed.  Master Hugh told him it was done in Mr. Gardiner’s ship-yard, at midday, where there were a large company of men at work.  “As to that,” he said, “the deed was done, and there was no question as to who did it.”  His [the magistrate’s] answer was, he could do nothing in the case, unless some white man would come forward and testify.  He could issue no warrant on my word.  If I had been killed in the presence of a thousand colored people, their testimony combined would have been insufficient to have arrested one of the murderers.  … Of course, it was impossible to get any white man to volunteer his testimony in my behalf, and against the white young men.  Even those who may have sympathized with me were not prepared to do this.  It required a degree of courage unknown to them to do so; for just at that time, the slightest manifestation of humanity toward a colored person was denounced as abolitionism, and that name subjected its bearer to frightful liabilities.  … There was nothing done, and probably nothing would have been done if I had been killed (Douglass 101-103).
 
Hugh Auld took Frederick out of Gardiner’s yard after the beating, brought him back into his house—the young man had apparently been boarding out—and got him a different job.  Hugh had lost his own modest shipbuilding business while Frederick was on the Eastern Shore; now, working as a foreman at Asa Price’s yard, he arranged for Frederick to complete his apprenticeship there; he would then become a journeyman caulker (McFeely 63).
 
 
Works cited:
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.