Advisory: This story includes descriptions of abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
The Navy decided in the late 1790s to use “live oak” for framing six warships because the material was known to be strong and rot-resistant. But it only grew in the South, and the best spot to get it was in Georgia.
The Navy’s history blog notes “Local enslaved men were rented by the War Department from area plantations … to cut and clear the roads to access the stands of live oak.” Over time, their role expanded, and “enslaved African American men were employed in the actual harvesting of the live oak that made the wooden walls of the Navy’s first warships.”
Dr. Carl Herzog, the public historian at the USS Constitution Museum, said they probably used a dozen enslaved people for the cleanup work, and that later naval work relied even further on the labor of enslaved people.
And some of that wood is still in the boat. It was originally constructed from 1794-1797, and “it’s quite likely that some of those original timbers are still on the ship today,” Herzog said.
Herzog said the construction of the USS Constitution is one example of a much bigger fact: The federal government used slave labor on public infrastructure projects.
The museum has an exhibit on the construction and history of “Old Ironsides,” which makes cartoonish reference to the enslaved people who harvested the wood. It includes a modern life-sized photo of a Black man dressed as an "enslaved" worker carrying an axe. The attached sign says "I hate this work. My master earns top dollar for my toil, but me, what do I get... Others left. I don't have that choice. Got nowhere to run."
This story is part of the project Enslavement History of the Freedom Trail, a collaborative effort between GBH News and Boston University students to detail the mostly hidden history behind some of Boston's most well-known sites.