A Brief History of Black People and the Chesapeake Bay

A celebration of Black History Month and the Mid-Atlantic region’s most popular estuary

Why do we write the stories we write? As writers for the ocean and environment, it is important to ask these questions because we are always writing with a purpose. Even more, we should consider what our frame is, who and what is in the frame and who and what is left out of the frame. I write this to celebrate the rarely noted contributions of Black people to maritime industries and ocean conservation. I also write this blog in honor of Roger Arliner Young, the Black woman for whom the RAY Conservation Diversity Fellowship is named after. As a RAY fellow, I welcome any opportunity to celebrate the significant history of Black people working on and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Enslaved Africans brought to the Americas with them many ancient skills they developed from working on the water, including oystering, crabbing, boat-building and net-making. In an interview with the National Aquarium, Helen Yuen, Director of Marketing at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, noted that work on the water has been a long tradition among Africans and African Americans.

Black people worked on the water long before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In the 1600s, Virginia merchants and planters who relied on the water for shipping goods and tobacco sought out African boatmen for their knowledge and skills. And in 1796, 67 years before Emancipation, the federal government began issuing Seamen’s Protection Certificates, which defined those who held them as American citizens. This allowed Black men to work alongside White men as equals on the water. Black men were then able to use their highly-esteemed skills as sailors to gain an independence that they did not yet have on the plantation.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, newly freed men flocked to the water for opportunity. Many Black people worked on the water as sailors, boat-builders, crew members, oyster harvesters, seafood processors and boat captains.

For hundreds of years, Black people have been pivotal to the development and continuation of maritime industries in the Chesapeake region. In fact, one enslaved man—Aaron of York County, Virginia—is credited for building the first examples of multiple-log canoes, which became a symbol of the Chesapeake Bay. Another innovator (Frederick S. Jewett) developed the crab grading system still used today.

The Chesapeake Bay became the primary supplier of oysters in the United States by mid- to late 19th century. The industry required a strong workforce and this, along with the availability of jobs and the expansion of railroads and steamships, led many Black men to the region to work in the oyster industry. The number of Black men working in oysters grew significantly after the Civil War. In York County alone, Black oystermen outnumbered White oystermen by four to one, according to Robert J. Mamary’s analysis of an 1880 census. Around this time, oysters offered some of the best paying job opportunities for Black men.

Black people created communities among the Bay’s shores in large part due to the oyster boom and availability of jobs working on the water. The Chesapeake Bay became an economic and cultural hub for Black people in the region. The Chesapeake Bay is an area rich with Black history. Black communities in the Chesapeake retain pieces of maritime Black culture. In this three-part blog series for Black History Month, you can expect to learn about the role of the Chesapeake Bay in the Underground Railroad, shifts in the Bay’s seafood industry, and who is working on the water today.

This piece was the first installment of a blog series for Black History Month. Read more with The Chesapeake Bay’s Role in the Underground Railroad and Who is Working the Chesapeake Bay Today?

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