Isaac Myers was a pioneering Black labor leader who rose from a caulker, sealing seams on vessels in the Maryland shipyard, to organizing the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society and eventually became the president of the (Colored) National Labor Union, the first organization of its type in U.S. history.
Born in Baltimore to poor free Black parents in 1835, Myers began working as a ship caulker at age 16, just over a decade since the formation of the Caulkers Association, one of the first Black trade unions in the United States.
White workers took notice and in 1865 held a strike to force shipyards to dismiss Black workers, including Myers, who organized Black and white businessmen to create the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a cooperative employing Black and white tradesmen.
Myers later formed the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society and secured an invitation for the organization to join the National Labor Union, then the largest organization in the country.
“I speak today for the colored men of the whole country…when I tell you that all they ask for themselves is a fair chance; that you shall be no worse off by giving them that chance,” Myers said in his speech at the NLU’s 1869 convention. “The white men of the country have nothing to fear. … We desire to have the highest rate of wages that our labor is worth.”
Myers later became president of the (Colored) National Labor Union, the first such organization in the United States; editor of the “Colored Citizen” newspaper; and organizer of several critical groups including the Maryland Colored State Industrial Association and the Colored Building and Loan Association of Baltimore. He died in 1891 at the age of 56.