The ocean is essential to our climate, our food system, our economy—our very existence. It’s also filled with wonders and permeated with human stories and histories. Let’s hark back to the Middle Passage, the infamous part of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This atrocious history is embedded in the ocean as many lives were lost during the treacherous Middle Passage. The impact of slavery at sea should not be understated. Africans endured some of the worst suffering in the Atlantic Ocean, leading some to resist by jumping overboard, choosing death over captivity. Most accounts of slavery focus on land-based enslavement, such as the plantation, but the Atlantic Ocean itself was also a site of slavery for more than 300 years.
When enslaved Africans reached land, the Chesapeake Bay—an important hub for the slave trade—was the first port of arrival for many of them. However, the Chesapeake Bay later functioned as a site of freedom for Black people in North America. The Chesapeake Bay played an important role in the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, and became a cultural and economic region for Black people after the Civil War.
Most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad and the famous Harriet Tubman, a conductor of the Underground Railroad who returned to the South 19 times to help enslaved Black people to freedom. It is not as well known that Tubman led these folks to freedom using the Chesapeake Bay. A significant portion of the Underground Railroad took place on water. The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and abolitionists that coordinated with each other to help enslaved Black people to escape. The Bay and its rivers were referred to as the Chesapeake Station or Chesapeake Underground. The Chesapeake Bay’s waterways were pathways to freedom. Fugitives escaped using the Bay’s waterways by sneaking onto docked vessels that would take them up the Bay and into the Susquehanna River, receiving assistance from ship captains that would allow them to board their ships, and crossing the Potomac River.
Some of the people who aided fugitives seeking freedom were Black people who worked on boats. Black watermen were critical in building the Chesapeake region’s economy, and they had a degree of independence and respect that was key in helping fugitives move north. Watermen provided important information for those trying to escape slavery—such as which direction was north—and even smuggled fugitives on vessels. The mere presence of Black watermen (and the esteem given them) helped fugitives to freedom.
Even Frederick Douglass ventured to use the common presence of Black watermen to his advantage. Douglass, who attempted escape via the Chesapeake Bay, wrote in his autobiography, “Our reason for taking the water route was, that we were less liable to be suspected as runaways; we hoped to be regarded as fishermen…” Douglass’s attempt to escape by canoeing up the Bay and into Pennsylvania was unsuccessful. After this first attempt he was sent to work in Baltimore’s shipyards. Douglass eventually escaped slavery via a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia. He disguised himself as a free Black sailor and presented the Seaman’s Protection Certificate of a friend’s, which served as his free papers.
Black people have played a role in the waterways since the founding of the states that make up the Chesapeake region. The Chesapeake Bay was both an entry-point to slavery in North America and a gateway to freedom and opportunity. We must continue to grapple with these mixed histories of the Chesapeake Bay, the land we occupy and the ocean we depend on. In the next and last part of this Black History Month series, I will explore how the Chesapeake Bay has changed, where Black people are today in relation to work in the Bay’s waterways and who is working on the water today.
This piece was the second installment of a blog series for Black History Month. Read more with A Brief History of Black People and the Chesapeake Bay and Who is Working the Chesapeake Bay Today?