Thirty-two-year-old Henry Matthew died this date, February 3rd, in 1853 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. I am afraid that I am not able to definitely identify Mr. Matthew in any of the censuses or city directories. There is no mention of him in the local newspapers of the era. We do know that he was born in Philadelphia around 1821 and was married at the time of his death. The family lived in Currant Alley which ran from Walnut Street to Spruce Street between 10th and 11th streets in the 7th Ward of the City.
Mrs. Matthew reported her husband’s occupation as “Boat Builder.” Many African American men up and down the East Coast became assistants or apprentices in established companies that were engaged in various phases of shipbuilding. They were employed as caulkers, blacksmiths, carpenters, sailmakers, ropemakers, spinners and anchor makers.* Robert Forten was a successful African American sailmaker in the first half of the 19th Century Philadelphia.
Perhaps the most notable of these African American men was Frederick Douglass. In the final months of his enslavement, he was put to work in a Baltimore shipyard and learned the skills of a ship caulker. He would pack the joints between the boards of a ship with Oakum, a tarred spun fiber. After his escape from bondage, he plied his trade in Newport, Rhode Island. His brutal and violent struggles in the Baltimore shipyard are documented in his biography.**
*Stavisky, Leonard Price, “Negro Craftsmanship in Early America.” The American Historical Review 54, no. 2 (1949): 315-25.
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, p. 83-87.