Keeping a hand in history

Exhibit: Events at the National Aquarium celebrate the contributions black women have made to the crab-picking industry.

February 03, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

In Crisfield, water is king, crab is a verb and history is ripe with the pungent fragrance of bounty from the bay.

But Crisfield is also a place where, for some, that history is fading away.

And so, before it's gone, they will come to the National Aquarium in Baltimore tomorrow night to celebrate it, by presenting a one-day exhibit and program: "Blue Waters, Black Women: With These Hands. Celebrating Black History."

In Crisfield, you see, crab picking was once mostly an African-American woman thing.

"Most of the crab pickers were women, although there were a few men," says Azinith Williams, a Crisfield historian.

"Don't know why," she adds. "It was tradition."

Today there are fewer crab houses, and the work force is a mix of locals and immigrant laborers. But there was a time in this town when crab picking was a trade handed down from generation to generation. Mothers taught daughters who, in turn, taught their female offspring. "The women started out as children learning how to pick crabs," Williams says.

Ramona Blue was one of those children.

"I started crabbing when I was a little girl, about 13 years old," says Blue, who is now 40. "I was digging meat out of the shell, and I learned how to pick and pack crabs."

She went on to spend 14 years working at Handy Seafood. "I packed soft crabs, then crab cakes. The business would ship them all over the world," she says.

These days, Blue is a cook for the Crisfield Housing Authority. At the aquarium tomorrow evening, she and other cooks will demonstrate their culinary skills, while Hazel "Hurricane" Cropper will highlight the art of picking Maryland blue crabs at a lightning-fast pace.

Williams, the Crisfield historian whose photos and artifacts will be on display, grew up learning the industry from another angle. Her father, the late Elbert C. Bell, was a co-founder of the Seafood Workers Union, Local 453.

"For 30 years, he was president of the union," she says. "When he used to go to the conventions, I took care of the office for him. He and my mother both left me that legacy. Both were seafood workers. My mother picked crabs. My father shucked oysters. All of it was hard work and long hours," she says.

Things were much worse before the union, she adds. "They were at the mercy of the supervisors and the owners," Williams says. Besides better pay, "the union got [them] worker's comp, starting and stopping times," she says.

There were men in the Crisfield crab houses, too, but most were there for the heavy work. They hauled loads of blue crabs onto long tables for the women to pick.

James Lane, who will also be at the aquarium, worked in the crab houses. Crabbing, he says, was woven into every part of his life while growing up in the maritime community. "Practically all of my family worked in the seafood industry," he says.

Lane, now a 48-year-old community worker, has vivid recollections of his days in the crab houses, when he was just a child.

"One thing I remember that always stuck with me is seeing my mother, aunts and other female relatives dressed -- with their crab nets on their hair and with their aprons on -- on their way to work." They would leave their homes not too long after dawn, then "stop and get sticky buns and coffee before going to the crab houses," Lane recalls.

Religion was another thread that knit the Crisfield community tightly together. As the women gathered in the crab houses, each work day started the same way.

"They would begin with the Lord's Prayer first," Lane says. "A lot of the women were in church choirs and some had extraordinary voices. Someone would begin to sing and the others would join in." Throughout the day, he recalls, the crab houses would come alive with the sounds of the women's songs.

Williams never worked as a crab picker herself. Her parents, it seemed, wanted something different for her. Besides being a historian, Williams, 59, earns her living as a program assistant for a day-care center and is currently studying social work and sociology at the University of Maryland.

Last year during Black History Month, the aquarium put on an exhibit called "Blue Waters, Black Men" that proved to be popular. Williams attended and was asked to participate this year.

For tonight's exhibit, Williams will bring many photographs and artifacts left to her by her father. The collection, which she has dedicated to him, includes old photos of crab pickers, crab knives, crab cans and other tools of the trade.

Sarah Holley, director of community affairs at the aquarium, says she hopes that through the exhibit "people will learn of the contributions that African-American women made to the seafood industry."

For a myriad of reasons, the seafood industry in Maryland is not what it used to be.

"Basically, the seafood industry has just about faded," Williams says. "My opinion is because of the over-harvesting and the pollution. We don't have many crab houses anymore."

Lane agrees. "The seafood industry is a far cry from what it used to be before. How much can you get from the bay? It's pretty devastating."

Imports which have increased from 14 million pounds in 1994 to 26 million pounds in 1998 are also threatening Maryland's crab-meat industry.

But Lane still sees positive things ahead for the Eastern Shore community.

"I'm optimistic," he says. "People recreate on the bay. There is the fishing industry. The bay is more than just shellfish."

The program "Blue Waters, Black Women: With These Hands Celebrating Black History" will take place tomorrow at 6: 30 p.m. At the same time on Friday, Feb. 11, Vincent O. Leggett, president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, will present a multi-media exhibit and lecture.

Aquarium admission is $5 on Fridays. Call 410-576-3800.

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