Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflections on the BoC quilt from Blacks of the Chesapeake Founder Vince Leggett


For the past 25 years, I have been documenting the contributions of African Americans to the Chesapeake Bay region’s maritime and seafood industries. This labor of love has taken me everywhere from Point Lookout in southern Maryland to Havre De Grace on the upper bay and Ocean City on the Atlantic coast. I’ve visited far and wide, collecting oral histories, rescuing artifacts, archiving memorabilia, sailing on workboats, fishing with boat crews, and eating the catch of the day around an old pot belly stove, talking about hope for tomorrow.

But the most extraordinary journey I have taken was not in the bay’s waters, nor along its shorelines. It was through the air.

On Saturday, November 14, I joined quilter Dr. Joan Gaither and Genevieve Kaplan, Education and Public Programs Manager at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, for an event in which the public was invited to add to the Black Watermen of the Chesapeake documentary story quilt. The quilt is a one-of-a-kind, dynamic work of art, visually ebbing and flowing like the ever-constant tide. Every river, creek, and tributary depicted on the quilt is wending its way back home to the Atlantic Ocean, along the way touched by many hands.

At the quilting event, I spent the day watching all the activity around the quilt -- it was as busy as a watermen’s wharf. Dr. Gaither was working with teachers, students, parents, and even some tourists who stopped by the museum. She prodded everyone who took a sideways glimpse at the quilt to have a go at it.


Throughout the day, more than 150 students from the Wiley H. Bates Middle School’s Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program assisted Dr. Gaither by adding stitches to the quilt. Young people were adding their names or the names of their favorite fish (“rockfish”), and some stitched in their cherished waterways (“I love the Severn River”). The students were also enjoying themselves at the “Waterman For a Day” hands-on exhibit. Boys and girls tried on watermen’s bright yellow rain slickers, white boots, and black gloves and authentic hats -- Nor’easters, ball caps, Greek fishing caps, and captain hats. They tried their hand at tying nautical knots, tossing nets over their heads, pulling lines, and pretending they were hauling in their bountiful catch of the day: fish, crabs, clams, and oysters. They were laughing and having a ball as they posed for photographs.

Other young people were attracted to a wide-screen TV showing the documentary “Black Captains of the Chesapeake.” The film features Black watermen primarily from the Kent Narrows area of the Eastern Shore who were once proud oystermen of the bay, but due to the declining resources, their advancing age, and over-regulation of fisheries, they were forced to stop harvesting. Today, they are captains of their own boats and carry out fishing parties from April to November every year. The film begins in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, when the first Africans came to the shores of the Chesapeake as indentured servants, and ends with a statement by me emphasizing the importance of enlisting all stakeholders in efforts to preserve the bay and its rich history.

The Black watermen’s quilt is another way to try to carry on this message and reach into the hearts of all who see it. Seeing the young people so engaged in the day’s activities was an encouragement. They are the future champions of conservation and restoration of the bay.


After working with the first wave of 30 students, I took a break and went upstairs to the second floor balcony, overlooking the sanctuary of the former Mt. Moriah A.M.E. Church. Even though the space has been retrofitted for use as a museum gallery, its tall, beautiful stained glass windows remain. They were a reminder that I was in a sacred space, and that brought me to a quiet place within.

In that moment, I drifted away from the scene below. I imagined myself soaring high like a seagull, looking down on the remarkable quilt. I began to slow my wing beats, circling downward, trying to catch a closer glimpse of everything that was going on below. The rich colors of red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, and violet were complementing a field of royal blue running through the center of the quilt. When I flew a little closer to the quilt, I discovered that the sparkling blue hue was the Chesapeake Bay. I could smell the salt air and hear the calling of other gulls, and it made me feel at home. I tucked in my wings and dove directly into that blue center and found such peace and tranquility.


The more I peered down at the quilt, the more I imagined myself riding on a large magic carpet. I was floating in the Gulf Stream and slowly gliding over the many towns and villages that I have come to know in my years of research along the bay. The sounds of chatter and laughter filling the sanctuary reminded me of the men and women workers of the Chesapeake. I thought of the thousands of African American women that have worked in the seafood processing plants all along the reaches of the bay, picking crabs, shucking oysters and clams, and cleaning fish. Seated at long stainless steel tables, the women would look something like communion stewards at an old Methodist church on first Sunday, but they were separating lump meat from back fin and placing claw meat in different piles. These women, dressed in white hats and aprons, would sing praise songs and gospels to break the monotony and help keep time and rhythm, because in this trade they were not paid by the hour, but by how much they produced. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s honorable, and has long been a way of life for people all over the bay -- Kent Narrows, St. Michaels, Cambridge, Salisbury, Crisfield, Solomon’s Island, and Broomes Island.

The carpet ride was so peaceful that I started to doze off into a deep sleep. But I was stirred awake by a loud noise: a flock of Canada geese overhead, flying south for the winter. The majestic birds were traveling in a V-formation. I was reminded of a lesson they learned thousands of years ago: one individual cannot go nearly as far as a group working together. And with that, I returned to the scene below, where student by student, the Chesapeake Bay’s group of defenders was growing.

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