BLACKS OF THE CHESAPEAKE PROJECT
On the Bay with Vince Leggett
This publication is the second in a series planned over the next few years. It is a sequel to Blacks of the Chesapeake: An Integral Part of Maritime History. That book's purpose was to introduce people to contributions that Blacks have made to maritime and seafood processing industries throughout the Chesapeake region.
Many people's concept of Blacks in these fields is that of crab picking and oyster shucking. The first book's objective was to graphically depict blacks in the widest expanse of the maritime trades.
Blacks were shown hand-tonging and dredging for oysters, making sails, pound net fishing and commercially steaming crabs. The initial research took approximately 12 years and included over 60 field visits throughout the Chesapeake watershed.
Some of the points of interest on Maryland's Eastern Shore included Oxford/Belluvue, Unionville/Cooperville, St. Michael's/Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury, Crisfield, Nanitcoke, Quantico, and Kent Narrows.
The Fells Point and Inner Harbor areas of Baltimore, Eagle Harbor in Prince George's County, Longview and Mill Point Shores in Charles County were also researched.
The Talbot County Historical Society, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Calvert Maritime Museum proved to be excellent sources of information.
A special debt of gratitude is due Eva Slezak of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. She provided some extremely useful information about how Blacks used the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways to escape the gripping jaws of Maryland slavery.
The Virginia Tidewater area was also included in our field visits. Trips were made to the old Mehandden fishing grounds of Reedsville, Richmond, and other locations along the James, Rappanhock and Tappanhanock Rivers. Extensive time was spent in the Portsmouth, Hampton Road, and Norfolk areas and at the Mariners Museum in Newport News.
The Blacks of the Chesapeake Project is based in Annapolis. Therefore, the state's capital became the last area that we surveyed for black maritime history.
Within Anne Arundel County, we visited Oyster Harbor, Highland Beach, Deale, Churchton, Galesville, Shady Side, Columbia Beach, Clay Street and Eastport in Annapolis.
Over the past fifteen years we have lectured and displayed our exhibit throughout the Chesapeake region. We have provided middle school teacher training at the National Aquarium in Baltimore for the past four years; and lectured to historical societies, schools, colleges and universities, and senior citizen centers.
The Eastport Yacht Club, The Severn River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Historic Annapolis Foundation, The United States Naval Academy and the Captain Salem Avery House Museum have supported the Blacks of the Bay Project.
In September 1997, the inaugural exhibit was featured at the Deep Waters Conference in Fells Point in Baltimore. The conference was sponsored by the Greater Fells Point Alliance and the Living Classroom Foundation. The book, Blacks of the Chesapeake was released at the event.
Fell's Point has a rich Black maritime history. In the 1830's, Frederick Douglass, slave-abolitionist, worked as a ship caulker who repaired wooden sailing vessels at shipyards in Baltimore.
We are including the words Frederick Douglass penned as a 16 year old boy standing on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, when he was a slave on a Talbot County plantation. It is entitled, "Frederick on the Chesapeake."
Issac Myers, a Black man, owned and operated the Chesapeake Marine Dry Dock and Railway Company in Fells Point. This cooperative business provided work opportunities for blacks and whites, something unheard of during the 1860's.
During the 1997-98 year, the eyes of the sailing and maritime community have been focused on the Chesapeake Bay area because of the Whitbread Round the World Sailing Race.
The Blacks of the Chesapeake exhibit and book are now in hands and minds of people throughout the world. The exhibit was included in the U.S. Sail Boat and Power Boat Shows in Annapolis. Letters have been written by wonderful people from all over the world expressing their delight in the exhibit and the publication. Members of the New York Executive Yacht Club, the Detroit Sailing Club, and representatives from the British Virgin Islands have requested additional information about the subject.
In addition, Black yacht clubs, sailing clubs, and scuba diving clubs throughout the nation have expressed interest in the project. In the Baltimore and Washington areas, organizations such as the Annapolis Seafarers, the Neptune Yacht Club in Baltimore, and the Washington, D.C. Seafarers have shared information about their clubs to be included in future publications.
However, the most exciting times for us were as part of the Whitbread Round the World Sailing Race. The Blacks of the Bay Project tacked into position and received a favorable trade wind; the Blacks of the Chesapeake exhibit became part of the Race Start festivities broadcast live at City Dock in Annapolis.
In similar fashion to the Whitbread captains, crew and sponsors, the Blacks of the Bay Project charted a parallel course through the Chesapeake region.
The Blacks of the Chesapeake exhibit went on a nine month tour. One of the exhibit's ports of entry was at the Annapolis Children's Museum "Around the World Festival at Anne Arundel Community College. It was there that Gary Jobson, ESPN's Sailing Commentator for the Whitbread Race, took interest in the project. He has recommended the project to officials at Hampton University in Virginia, which recently started the first intercollegiate sailing program at a Historically Black College.
The Living Classroom Foundation in Baltimore has also supported the project. George Collins, the captain of the boat, Chessie, brought pride to the Baltimore and Annapolis community by sponsoring the local boat.
The excitement of the Whitbread Race began to build as the local entry, Chessie, had some good finishes. The boats left Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, heading for the Chesapeake Bay, and all hands were on deck.
We spent four beautiful days in Baltimore's Inner Harbor serving as host to millions of visitors. Our project was featured on a regional television station and a local cable show as a "must visit" exhibit. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke came by to experience our exhibit and share in the festivities.
We packed up our exhibit and headed to Annapolis for the Whitbread Race's restart. The Blacks of the Chesapeake exhibit was set back up at the Volvo Race Village at Sandy Point State Park.
At the site were thousands of pleasure boats, large and small, on the Bay that Sunday morning in May with the U.S. Coast Guard's battleship gray fleet protecting the expensive sailing vessels and maintaining order on the Bay.
The Bay Bridge formed an excellent backdrop, and those courageous sailors in beautiful sleek ocean sailing vessels tacking for position is etched in my mind. I still hear echoes of the cannon fire announcing the start of the race. Governor Glendening received an autographed copy of our book before he left the exhibit.
Future books and exhibits will include other stories and photographs produced during field visits and special events. The Blacks of the Bay Project will continue seeking out the roles that Blacks have played in maritime related endeavors, including scenes of the many wonderful views of the sun rising and setting on the Chesapeake.
The Blacks of the Chesapeake exhibit and book has matched my dreams and exceeded my expectations.
Please enjoy Black Watermen: Saved by Grace.
FREDERICK ON THE CHESAPEAKE
This Very Bay Shall Yet Bear Me Into Freedom
Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sail from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.
I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened hear and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but he Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:
"You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! n betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!
The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O god, save me! God deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught , or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God help me, I will. 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."
The Library of America
Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y. 1994