Sailing past shoals of bias Boaters: A group formed by blacks who banded together 38 years ago in the face of racial discrimination will be co-host of the U.S. Boat Show, which opens today in Annapolis.

October 09, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Thirty-eight years ago, when many Chesapeake Bay marinas wouldn't let black people gas up at their piers, a group of working-class men sacrificed smokes for money to buy boats and started the Seafarers Yacht Club. This week, Eastport's black yachtsmen will hold a coming-of-age party when they are co-hosts of the 27th annual U.S. Boat Show, the nation's largest in-the-water boat show, which opens today at City Dock in Annapolis.

It was an invitation a long time coming, Seafarers say, but one they welcomed without bitterness.

"I don't think we've ever looked at it as being snubbed or excluded," said Bill Woodward, commodore of the Seafarers. "It just never came to pass. Truth be told, we didn't reach out to them, either. But we are immensely proud to be a part of the show."

Jim Barthol, general manager of the boat show, said, "To be honest, we never thought about it before. When it was finally brought to our attention, we thought, 'Wow. We've been doing a good job attracting general boat enthusiasts. Why not focus on a group?' We think it's a wonderful idea, and we're glad to be a part of it."

In the 1960s, black boaters couldn't buy fuel or lines at most marinas. They couldn't dock at most piers. Service stations wouldn't sell them spark plugs, and local boat races were exclusively white. No yacht clubs admitted black members.

None of that was particularly troublesome to the dozen friends, real estate brokers, teachers and shop owners in their 30s who talked at night on a Washington street corner. They loved the water, but most of them couldn't afford to buy a boat, let alone a yacht. Still, they started the Seafarers. "We met in the basement of members' homes, and later we rented a storefront in Annapolis," founding member Ellsworth "Bubba" Randall, owner of a Washington auto repair shop, once said of the club.

"In order to buy their boats, some members cut down on beer and cigarettes and playing poker," said Randall, who died over the summer.

The club eventually rented a storefront in Annapolis, a run-down, one-room, cinder-block building, and gave it a nautical motif. In 1967, members paid $11,000 for an abandoned schoolhouse at Third Street and Chester Avenue that had been built for black children.

The Seafarers were a new chapter in Annapolis' colorful maritime history, said Vince O. Leggett, author of "Blacks of the Chesapeake: An Integral Part of Maritime History."

A history of seafaring

Blacks had worked the bay as oystermen and skipjack owners since the 1820s. They found "that it doesn't matter whether you're white or black when you're throwing a life raft out to someone on the water," Leggett said.

In the mid-1950s, men in Annapolis' Clay Street community put together the loosely organized Tomahawk Club, the city's first black pleasure-boating club: about six men owned the 12- to 16-foot wooden boats.

Eventually, more blacks bought pleasure boats. Elroy Wilson, a black undertaker, bought an old racing boat. Dr. Aris T. Allen bought a luxury cruiser and in 1990 became the first black invited to join the Annapolis Yacht Club.

Still, boating was a luxury out of the reach of blacks in Annapolis. The Seafarers underscored that.

Inside their schoolhouse, they created an oasis that the impoverished community nearby could not always relate to: swimming pools, sea cruises and galas with visiting foreign dignitaries. People spent $3,000 to $22,000 on vehicles used merely for enjoyment, and a black man could be called "captain."

Outside the schoolhouse, things remained the same. Former commodore James T. Jackson, a Virginia attorney, remembers being turned away from marinas along the Potomac. A fleet of 20 Seafarers boats gliding into a lodge along the Rappahannock River in the late 1970s met with a chilly reception, Jackson recalled.

"We were invited," said Jackson, who now belongs to the Federation of Yacht Clubs, an organization made up mostly of black yacht clubs along the East Coast. "But when we got there, they seated us away from everybody. When we went swimming, everyone else got out of the pool. We submitted reservations for next year and they advised us that it wasn't a good idea."

By the 1980s, the Seafarers had about 70 members, and the group was listed in the yacht club registry at Lloyds of London. That brought in more membership applications from around the world.

Before long, 36-foot sailboats, 47-foot motor yachts and 34-foot speedboats were bobbing in Back Creek at the Seafarers' pier. On weekends, members threw small parties to fellowship with their colleagues.

Then, about a decade ago, the Seafarers held an open house for the neighborhood. It was not a one-day affair.

'Created out of need'

"This group was created out of need," said Woodward, 49, who lives in Annapolis. "We were created to support each other. As that need changed with the times, we recognized the need to reach out to the community. The need to inspire a whole new crop of people into boating."

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