About Vince Leggett
[photo of Vince Leggett]
As a young boy growing up in east Baltimore, Vince Leggett was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay by weekend fishing trips with his father. "I caught the spirit of the Chesapeake," he recalls. "There was a freedom that came with being on the water, away from the asphalt and concrete." For fifteen years, he has roamed the expanses of the Chesapeake waterfront, tirelessly interviewing people, "hanging out and mixing up" with waterside residents, and "suitin' up and showin' up" at Bay functions. For over twenty-five years, Leggett, an eloquent man with contagious laughter, has held public positions at Anne Arundel Community College, Anne Arundel and Baltimore City Public Schools, and the Anne Arundel County Housing Authority.

He is currently special projects coordinator for education in the Chesapeake Bay Policy and Growth Management division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In this role, he also coordinates the Patapsco and Back Rivers Tributary Strategy Team. As an amateur historian, he has a tenacious interest in the integral role of African Americans in the Bay's rich maritime past.

In 1984, Leggett founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation to share the legacy of African American achievement, foster preservation of the environment, and facilitate the economic success of the Chesapeake Bay maritime trade and seafood-related industries. "We place a special emphasis on people living and working in urban settings," he explains. "They are key stockholders, even though they may not come into direct contact with the Bay on a regular basis." The foundation's initiatives include multimedia exhibits, lectures, publications, curriculum development, and educational programs conducted on the Dorian Lee, a 1957 Baybuilt workboat.

These undertakings ride the tide of Leggett's engaging enthusiasm: "People want to be part of something that's alive. "The effort long ago crossed the line from hobby to obsession," he admits. Enlisting the help of his wife and four sons, he has logged 245,000 miles on his pickup truck poking around libraries, archives, warehouses, churches, and family attics, compiling a warehouse full of written and oral histories, artifacts, and memorabilia. "I discovered a whole world that I did not know existed," he reports.

"Usually Blacks are depicted as living in shanties and working as oyster-shuckers, crab-pickers, or deck hands. We don't hear about the prevalence of Black watermen, steamship crewmembers, sailors, stevedores, and boat-builders. Or how Blacks owned sailmaking shops, marine railroads, boatyards, packinghouses, and culinary businesses." In the Bay's heyday, when five to six hundred skipjacks, schooners, and bugeyes worked its waters, Leggett estimates that at least one in ten boats had a Black captain. They often started out "sharecropping the sea"--planting young shellfish on the river bottom and captaining skipjacks owned by whites--before owning their own boats.

Leggett calls the Chesapeake Bay "the ultimate freedom trail. The bounty of the Bay has fed thousands of people and created an outlet for liberty and independence." There are other roads to prosperity today, but two hundred years ago it was one of the best escape routes from slavery, both as a means of financial independence and as a link in the Underground Railroad. "But there's a lot more to it. My project is about lifting up unsung heroes and getting all elements involved in conservation efforts." He recently coordinated an effort to restore housing in one of the last remaining waterfront African American neighborhoods in Annapolis.

"There's a lot of gentrification taking place, and there's only a few Black property owners left, particularly on the waterfront. Many minorities, view the Bay as a playground for the rich, rather than something connected to themselves. One of the things we found was that 'Save the Bay' doesn't play in every neighborhood. We were on College Creek, which flows into the Severn River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. That was just too many steps. So we focused our emphasis on cleaning up College Creek. We got the community actively involved with the Friends of College Creek organization, which really welcomed the diversity. That was a good hands-on project. "At some point, the message has to hit the ground. I'm a show-me person.

Theories and lectures don't lead to anything but more theories and lectures. Our projects are visual and interactive: videos, photographs, artifacts--scrimshaw, oyster cans, recipes, boat models--things people can see, touch, and handle. If you can work hand-in-hand with a waterman, get on your knees and scratch in the mud, feel the sea mist against your face, it makes the whole experience more real and lasting. By moving up and down the creeks and coves, not in a big hurry to go anywhere, you see firsthand the osprey and blue heron, the fish, the wetlands, as well as the consequences of growth. To actually see erosion, storm drains leading off expressways and discoloration where pipes empty into rivers and creeks gives a pointed picture of the impact we're having on our waterways."

Leggett uses the same approach to get minority youth involved in environmental education, encouraging them to participate in such activities as planting Bay grasses and helping to staff exhibits and presentations. "We try to keep them involved in all aspects of our program and use them to draw in other young people." Gathered on the Dorian Lee, a boisterous bunch of youngsters calms to attention as Leggett relates a lively gamut of Chesapeake lore--biology, boat design, blue crab anatomy, his grandmother's unbeatable catfish recipe--all peppered with enthusiastic interaction. "This boat was sunk for four years under the Magothy River," he expounds. "The captain raised her and donated the boat to be used as a dockside classroom."

He goes on to talk about using the vessel for shoreline restoration projects and to communicate a proud African American heritage. "We want to give you opportunities to experience the bounty of the Chesapeake. You don't have to go far to experience the water, enjoy the boats, smell the salt air, see the wildlife. There is no need for riches when a five-gallon bucket for the crabs and two bucks worth of bait are all you need to enjoy yourself for an afternoon on the water!" Leggett believes that "the answer to the riddle--how best to manage the resources of the Bay, balancing man's needs and nature's will--will be found by our children. We need to start with the younger ages and begin to build the blocks.

My approach is to make a connection through a cultural and historical perspective--show them their ancestors earned their livelihood from the Bay and have been contributors--then back them into the environmental aspects. The traditional message has not worked. There's a major group, our urban dwellers, which is not at the table. That translates into high numbers of minorities that aren't represented because they haven't been engaged in the process." Leggett considers the Bay-tributary concept to be "a lot like putting a hubcap on a car. The way you put the hubcap on is to tap it gently all the way around. But if you go bang on one side, the other side's going to pop up, and you're never going to get it on. For instance, if you bang on the farmers, something else is going to fall off.

I don't think the equation's going to be solved that way. Overzealous environmentalism is not always the most effective way to get results. We need to tap gently all the way around. It's going to be give-and-take for everybody to get the job done." The folklore that Leggett imparts makes for a good example of such gentle taps. "It is through these stories that we glean a unique, human glimpse of history for future generations to learn from and enjoy. I believe the Bay is blessed. I think the secrets of life can be gained by interacting with its waters. The best times of my travels over the years were spent around an old potbelly stove enjoying the catch of the day and sharing hope for tomorrow."

Photograph of Vince Leggett by J. Henson.

Photographs (c) 1998-2001 Richard A. K. Dorbin, Paragon Light, Inc. Essays (c) 1998-2001 Ann E. Dorbin Reproduction by permission only.


Updated January 16, 2004