Celebrating Black History on the Chesapeake Bay

Honoring stories of yesterday and spotlighting today’s champions

It is fitting that Ocean Conservancy is kicking off Black History Month by spotlighting a Black-led organization near our headquarters on the ancestral lands of the Anacostans and the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples—more commonly known as Washington, D.C. An important history of this region is the Black maritime history that runs deep in the United States. 

Just how deep? African American sailors and watermen today can trace this legacy back to the 1600s. For hundreds of years Black Americans have crabbed, fished, whaled, managed lighthouses and commanded sea vessels. Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Justice team elevates these inspiring American stories that should be celebrated while we support today’s Black mariners and Black ocean communities that continue to make waves.

A trip to the Chesapeake Bay gives us a portal into some of this special history. Vince Leggett founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake Project in 1984 to spotlight and preserve the area’s Black maritime history. Leggett’s efforts trace the amazing stories of Black Americans living along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

A map showing property in Annapolis

Leggett shares records, artifacts and more than 40,000 photographs that help retell the area’s stories. Even before the abolition of slavery, the Chesapeake Bay was home to sites related to the Underground Railroad. Black Americans went on to work the waters catching oysters, clams, crabs and fish. In tributaries, Black people planted young shellfish before harvesting them for the market. Black workers crafted boats that sailed the Atlantic. Skilled African American blacksmiths made oyster tongs that helped support the region’s thriving seafood industry. When the world began using steamships, Black Americans worked as deckhands, stokers and firemen. 

Leggett explained in an interview with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that he was driven to capture these stories to show how important Black people are to protecting Chesapeake Bay. “[Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation] is smashing the myth that African Americans and marginalized citizens do not care about the environment,” said Leggett. 

Today, Black seafarers are working to keep their traditions alive while caring for the Chesapeake Bay. Captain Lamont Wright is one of the few remaining Black headboat captains in Grasonville, Maryland. Wright and other headboat captains make a living leading recreational fishing tours for groups. According to locals, this tourism work started over 50 years ago with a visiting couple who wanted to take a fishing trip. Decades later. headboat captains are still guiding tours for visitors from southern Maryland and beyond. The captains have also made an impact working with state advisory committees to reform fishing regulations. Their input has helped buoy local businesses that depend on the water.

Wright has been working with his son, Cedric Cooper, to take over and help carry on the legacy of Black captains in the Chesapeake. He told WUSA-TV how important it is to preserve the work he and his peers take so much pride in. 

“My goal is to make this a living legacy for the Black watermen and the Black captains of the Chesapeake,” explained Wright. “If somebody doesn’t step up and do something right now, there will be no Black captains.”

Cooper and commercial oyster farmer Imani Black represent the Chesapeake Bay’s next generation of Black seafarers. Like Cooper, Black’s bond with the sea goes back generations. Despite her passion for the water, she was disappointed by the lack of diversity working on mostly white, all-male oyster farms. In response, Black started a nonprofit called Minorities in Aquaculture (MIA) to improve education about the field and foster community for people of color. Since then, MIA has partnered with the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative, OysterSouth and the United States Aquaculture Association to help support Black Americans in aquaculture.

The Chesapeake Bay’s Black seafarers from the past and present are all part of a proud tradition. Celebrating their stories is an important piece of promoting ocean justice, which we define as the fair and equitable distribution of both the benefits of the ocean’s bounty and the burdens of its complex care. We’ll continue to share stories from the Chesapeake Bay and beyond as we work toward a healthier ocean, protected by a more just world.

Want to help Blacks of the Chesapeake recover their beaches? You can learn more about their important work and their Parks for All campaign here.

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