Historian seeks Chesapeake Bay's hidden past

Looking at blacks in history, including Underground Railroad

  • Vince Leggett, 57, an oral historian from Annapolis, says the building in the background at Highland Beach is a summer house designed by Frederick Douglass.
Vince Leggett, 57, an oral historian from Annapolis, says the… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
January 31, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts

It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.

- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

He had always loved the Chesapeake Bay and enjoyed history, but for the longest time, when Vince Leggett tried to blend his twin passions, he was left with some haunting questions.

"I'd read of all the shipbuilders, boat captains and shipping magnates who supposedly made bay history, most of them members of the majority community," says Leggett, a public historian and former schools administrator who lives in Annapolis. "Every book would have a picture of a black crab picker or oyster shucker. The caption would simply say 'crab picker' or 'oyster shucker.' There'd never be a name.

"These people worked," Leggett says. "They must have had families, raised children, lived lives. Who were they? What did they do?"

Rather than wait for a scholarly account to appear, Leggett mustered the resources he had - energy, curiosity and an old pickup truck - and set out to assemble his own.

In 1984, Leggett, a Baltimore native, revved up his 1975 Toyota and set out to visit as many of the bay's port towns and villages as possible, to listen to stories, gather memorabilia and make friends, all in the service of a goal: to piece together a collective story of black life on the Chesapeake.

Fifteen years, 240,000 odometer miles and one warehouse full of stuff later, he had pretty much pulled it off.

In February, Leggett, the founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, an Annapolis nonprofit, shares a chapter of that life's work. On three occasions, he'll present a multimedia program, "Chesapeake Underground: Charting a Course Toward Freedom," a lecture that makes a case he has been building since 2000: that the bay and its tributaries served as part of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of escape routes for runaway slaves, and that it was the nautical skills of blacks that guided many to freedom.

The presentation draws on old maps, documentary video, commissioned art and more to tell the story, a portion of state history some say scholars have overlooked.

The story has never been easy to sell. Stereotypes, after all, die hard.

Out to sea
It's tricky when you're just a kid but you know more about a subject than the teacher. Back in the early sixties, Vincent O. Leggett felt he was in that position. It wasn't always fun, but it helped him choose a life's path.

At Columbus Elementary in East Baltimore, students spent a lot of time learning of famous Marylanders, all of them white. And they often studied the school's namesake, Christopher Columbus.

One week per year, though, teachers focused on prominent Maryland Negroes, to use the vernacular of that time. When they got to Harriet Tubman, they were in Vince's wheelhouse.

He had long read about the Dorchester County woman who had escaped slavery, then made 13 trips back into the South to lead others to freedom. He knew her life so well that when his teacher, a white woman in a newly integrated school, had the class put on a play about Tubman, he asked for the lead role. A girl got the part, but that wasn't what irked him.

One day, he recalls, the teacher told the students to pretend they were escaping from slavery by crawling through the woods, with Harriet in the lead. But Vince had a question. If Tubman operated from the Eastern Shore, and helped get runaways from her own family to Baltimore and beyond, how could she not have traveled on the water at least part of the way? Shouldn't that be in the play?

"Blacks don't sail boats," he remembers the teacher saying, "and blacks weren't explorers." With that, she moved on.

The reply didn't just anger him. It contradicted what he knew. He and his father enjoyed the Cheaspeake and went there often to camp and fish. They knew many blacks who boated there.

There was yet another question: Why would anyone walk all the way around the bay when it was possible to travel across it?

Leggett, he says, bears no ill will toward the teacher; she was probably just trying to press on with her syllabus. But if a 10-year-old is like a skiff heading out to sea, such questions became his rudder.

Creeks and coves
It's hard to catch Leggett in an office. He has as many of them as he has job titles: coordinator of minority engagement for the Department of Natural Resources; founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake; and director of projects for the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center, an Annapolis nonprofit focusing on black history in Anne Arundel County.

Toting a box full of historical documents - "you never know what you might need during a conversation," he says - he takes a seat at the Bates Center, hands over his business card ("Expediter," it reads), and says that, at the heart of things, he's a public historian. And an amateur one, to boot.

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