Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Other Chesapeake

Vince Leggett, founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, submitted this posting recently on the Black Watermen of the Chesapeake and the important role it play in documenting the people and places along the Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Joan M.E. Gaither hopes the Black Watermen of the Chesapeake quilt will "help people learn about the rich and storied history of black men working the water, fighting winds and tides and other obstacles to pluck precious fish, oysters, clams and crabs from the bay. The quilt looks like a 3-D map of the Chesapeake Bay and is multilayered and bright. An outer strip of African mud cloth gives way to a blue one symbolizing the Atlantic Ocean crossed by slaves during the Middle Passage. Hundreds of large safety pins, some left open, represent the pain of separation from Africa, link to the next few layers; a red one for blood and death, a star spangled one for the United States of America they live in, and zippered fabric from a yacht’s canopy-which makes the quilt contemporary-all of which lead inward toward the story of black life on the bay.”

The Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation have been documenting the roles that black watermen played in the shaping of our nation through exhibits, books and teacher’s guides and documentary films for the past 25 years. The Black Watermen of the Chesapeake documentary story quilt takes this saga to new heights. Black watermen make their living harvesting the bay’s finfish, shellfish, eels, and crabs. In the past African Americans on the Chesapeake Bay have been marginalized-pushed off into the corners of history or buried in unmark graves on the oceans floor. Independent and self-employed, black watermen own their boats and choose their catch. It’s a tough, physically demanding way of life, and it’s been going on for hundreds of years.

The documentary quilt project places African Americans front, center and in living color. Black watermen “Saved by Grace” is a theme which intersects the latitudes and longitudes on the quilt. That amazing grace is represented through several beautifully hand-crafted angels celestially adorned in spiritual and nautical artifacts strategically placed on the quilt as the guardians of the black watermen. The quilt contains memorial tributes to black watermen who have lost their lives on the bay, such as Captain Thompson Wallace, of Deal Island, who went down with his son and four other men in Tangiers Sound. Captain Wallace was one of 23 children to watermen Robert James and Roseanna Wallace. In 1977, his skipjack the Claude Somers was struck by a squall near Hooper Straight Light, leaving six drowned including her owner-operator Captain Thompson Wallace. The Claude Somers has been redeemed and now is used for educational and heritage tourism purposes by the Watermen Museum in Reedsville, VA.

The quilt is an elegant tapestry of black life on the bay. It is filled with stories, images and key dates such as 1619 when the first Africans came to the bay in Jamestown, Virginia as indentured servants. Chesapeake blacks have made steady progress for the past 350 years migrating to Nova Scotia following the 1776 War of Independence and the War of 1812. The black watermen of the Chesapeake have seen the tides of life rise and fall like the sails of a sail boat for nearly four centuries. However, black watermen have faced discrimination on the water and their stories recant how unsavory white oyster captains have shanghaied their fore parents and refused to pay for their services on oyster boats. Instead they were knocked off of the boat by the swinging boom. They lamented about how their ancestors were “paid off by the boom.” Still others spoke about standing at the back of the line waiting to sell their catch at the end of the day and how the prices steadily dropped as the ice melted on the docks. Many a watermen have cautioned against just talking about the beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the bay, but the bay has also been a watery grave for black watermen. These men and women whispered about the “other Chesapeake.” The one not mentioned in the history and texts books—the black side of the bay.

The Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Quilt:

  • Details the lives of the many African American men and women involved in the history and culture of the Chesapeake Bay
  • Highlights the men and women who dedicated themselves to the bay through their work, communities, or their love and concern for the waters of the Chesapeake
  • Tells the stories of the unique Maryland communities through images, text, and artifacts
  • Includes images and references to Maryland’s maritime history
  • Represents an unsung part of Maryland’s past
  • Joins together hands and spirits to tell untold stories
  • Shows men hand-tonging for oysters through the frozen ice, shucking oysters, cooking oysters, and eating the bi-values on the half-shell. The cleaned empty shells have been decorated and placed through out the quilt as a reminder of this legacy
  • Shares the history of the bay’s black watermen’s dreams, disappointments and hopes
  • Incorporates many different groups working together all along the reaches of the bay, cataloging their stories, images and fond memories by paying tribute to their loved one
  • Encompasses a wide variety of the occupations held by Blacks in the maritime and seafood industries such as Lighthouse Keepers, Ferry Boat Captains, Bridge Tenders, Bay Pilots, Sail makers, Boat Builders, Seafood Process Plant owners, etc
  • Features the people, places and communities associated with Maryland African American watermen.

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