Black watermen sail into view

History: Amateur researchers delve into libraries and family attics to find `unsung heroes' of the Chesapeake Bay.

February 08, 1999|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

They once were lost but now they're found -- the African-Americans who escaped slavery by sailing up the Chesapeake Bay to freedom, who built the great ships that roamed the world from Baltimore, who died on the decks of the oyster boats they captained.

Their names were lost to history, buried in old census records and "colored directories." Their stories were not told in coffee-table books celebrating the bay's maritime tradition. If they were known at all, they were known as crab-pickers and deckhands, not as business owners and union leaders and masters of their own fates.

But Vincent O. Leggett and a few other amateur historians are changing that. For 15 years, Leggett has roamed the waterfront on both shores of the bay, poking through libraries and historical society archives and family attics to recover the lost history of the Chesapeake Bay's black watermen. And a few of those watermen's descendants have taken up the cause, preserving family artifacts and writing down their ancestors' stories.

The fruits of their labors are on display in two exhibits -- one at the World Trade Center and the other at the National Aquarium -- that opened this weekend and run through February, celebrating Black History Month.

The story being unearthed may come as a surprise: From the 18th century on, historians say, African-Americans were at the center of Maryland's traditions.

"Usually if a black is depicted, it's shucking oysters or picking crabs," says Leggett, an Anne Arundel Community College academic adviser who has logged 245,000 miles in his pickup truck in pursuit of his passion for history. "But there's a lot more to it than that.

"My project is all about trying to lift up unsung heroes."

Like the rest of the Chesapeake's watermen, Leggett's heroes are a dying breed. He estimates that 16 of the first 20 people he interviewed have died. In most cases, their sons and daughters are not carrying on the tradition.

"To be honest with you, I'm getting out," says Hayward Turner, 54, the great-grandson of a waterman and co-owner of the state's only remaining black-owned shellfish packinghouse, near St. Michaels. "I don't see much of a future in it. It always was a struggle, but the decline of the bay's seafood has not helped at all."

Leggett calls the Chesapeake Bay "the ultimate freedom road." Today there are other roads to prosperity. But 200 years ago, it was one of the best escape routes from slavery.

When low tobacco prices and worn-out soil caused the collapse of Maryland's plantation economy, many plantation owners put their slaves to work on fishing boats. You can find their names and occupations listed in old wills, inventories and bills of sale in county courthouses up and down the bay, Leggett says.

Other owners ordered the slaves to buy their own freedom -- and many did so "with a small boat and a pair of oyster tongs and a lot of hard work," he says.

In a book of narratives by escaped slaves, Leggett learned that in this area, the Underground Railroad was a water route: a network of creeks and rivers leading north to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and desolate marshes full of hiding places.

In a vain attempt to stop the escapes, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law in 1836 requiring that all large boats be captained by whites. "A clandestine trade was carried on, and slaves had found facilities for running away," legislators said in the law's preamble.

Meanwhile, black sailors were such a common sight on the streets of Baltimore that Frederick O. Douglass, born into slavery on the Eastern Shore, escaped to freedom simply by borrowing a sailor's uniform and boarding a train, unchallenged, to Philadelphia.

In an 1819 Baltimore directory, Leggett found listings for dozens of sailors and shipyard workers, their names marked with a dagger to show that they were black. In 1871, the "colored directory" listed men and women working in 35 maritime occupations.

"You hear a lot about the `international flavor' of Fells Point -- the Poles and Bohemians and Germans," says Leggett. "You don't hear that practically all of the ship's caulkers -- which was the most highly paid and most skilled job other than ship's carpenter -- were black."

On the Eastern Shore, blacks owned sailmaking shops, marine railroads, boatyards and a packinghouse that once was Talbot County's largest employer. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels stands on the site of the black-owned Coulbourne and Jewett packinghouse; founder William Coulbourne's house is the museum gift shop.

When the bay offered an abundant payday and the skipjack fleet numbered in the hundreds, Leggett estimates that at least one in 10 boats had a black captain. It was grueling work, but it offered opportunities that didn't exist on shore.

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