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Volume 16, Number 2 • March-April 1998
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   Freedom and
      the Chesapeake

By Harold Anderson


In the days before the U.S. Civil War blacks in America had a profoundly different view of work on the water than did whites. For black people who sailed ships the harsh life on the sea was a step up from the lot of a slave on land. Sailing ships represented economic opportunity and the possibility for self determination and dignity. Black sailors traveled to distant places and encountered other cultures, bringing knowledge back to their slave counterparts who usually spent their lives in one small region. These sailors linked far-flung black communities and united plantations to urban centers.

Some of the most restrictive legislation was designed to prevent blacks from participating in the maritime industries.

As early as 1796, the federal government issued Seamen’s Protection Certificates which defined these black merchant mariners as "citizens" – America’s first black citizens. "Black jacks," as they were known, were so common by the mid 19th century that Eastern Shore-born Frederick Douglass, when he escaped to freedom, did so by borrowing the uniform and papers of a free black sailor and then simply taking the train north from Baltimore.

The Roots of Slavery

The first slaves were brought to the Chesapeake region in the 1600s to work in the fields and homes of colonists, largely because of the decline in the number of indentured servants. At first the numbers of slaves were small, but the evolution of an economy based on growing labor-intensive tobacco caused a massive upsurge in their numbers, so that by 1750 there were an estimated 165,000 blacks, mostly slaves, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

By 1790 the soil in the region was depleted from overplanting, and the market for tobacco collapsed. This collapse rendered the keeping of slaves – especially in the numbers formerly required for the farming of tobacco – economically impractical. This economic reality, coupled with moral forces like the Methodist Church’s stance against slavery and the endorsement of freedom and human dignity explicit in the Declaration of Independence, resulted in the freeing of many slaves by the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Enclaves of free blacks eventually became full-fledged African American communities.

The transition from small enclaves to free black communities with cultural identities and potential economies of their own did not sit well with many whites on the Eastern Shore, particularly while the greater number of blacks were still held as slaves. White fears were exacerbated by slave uprisings like the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831 in nearby eastern Virginia.

As a consequence, extremely restrictive laws were passed to regulate the advancement of black economic and social interests in the region, and to discourage migration. Free blacks were excluded from public schools, from combat roles in the military and from giving legal testimony against whites. Historian Kay McKelvey, Eastern Shore coordinator for Sojourner-Douglas College, has researched Black History in the late 18th to the mid-

19th centuries in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. According to Dr. McKelvey, some of the laws were especially arbitrary and petty. "[A free black] could only sell certain products to other blacks – he couldn’t sell to whites. He had to be off the street sooner than [whites]. He couldn’t own a dog. If he didn’t have a job, he had to pay a $15 fine and leave the state. These laws were set so that you could not rise."

Some of the most restrictive legislation was designed to prevent blacks from participating in maritime industries, the oystering business in particular, and especially in a management or ownership capacity. In 1836, a bill was enacted that forbade blacks from captaining any vessel large enough to require being registered. Owners of boats in violation of the law would have their boats seized and sold. Half of the proceeds went to the informer who reported the offense. This kind of law contributed to a culture of legal and institutionalized suppression.

Still, legally or not, blacks continued to work the water in various capacities, from shipbuilders to crew, even captaining by subterfuge – frequently with the complicity or protection of whites. Many of these ingrained cultural patterns persisted in the form of discrimination and paternalism long after the repeal of the most pernicious laws. Says McKelvey, "The white people in this area more or less had a feeling of ‘I am your boss. I am to take care of you. I will make everything O.K. for you. But don’t you rise higher than me.’"

The Promise of Freedom

At the end of the Civil War black labor was well established as an essential part of the Chesapeake region, just as it was in many other areas of the South. Since the Chesapeake Bay was, by 1860, the main supplier of oysters in the United States, oystering was a natural pursuit for blacks, as it was for others. With little capital outlay required and a high demand for seafood, which had begun to boom in the late nineteenth century, individuals could make a modest living alongside larger companies that were operating for much bigger stakes. "Oystering was one of the highest paying jobs for black men," says McKelvey.

Along with harvesting oysters, there was work on vegetable farms and in the canning, preserving and food packing industries that grew in tandem with oystering and agriculture on the Eastern Shore. For most of the 20th century, blacks comprised the majority of workers in oyster and crab processing houses. Men, women and children worked year round canning tomatoes and vegetables, picking crabs and shucking and packing oysters.

By the early part of this century, a new kind of repressive system was created in an attempt to disenfranchise blacks. In addition to the growing acceptance of white violence as a means of race control, African Americans were subjected to "Jim Crow" laws that segregated hotels, steamboats and passenger trains that had never been segregated formerly. Thus began the period of so-called "separate but equal."

[women sorting crabs]

Despite legal and social repression, the next few decades began to bring incremental improvements in the lot of blacks. The pace quickened in the period following World War II, as America sought to demonstrate its democratic and egalitarian principles to the world. In 1954, the Supreme Court in "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka" struck down racially segregated schools. Ignoring the Supreme Court’s decision, all nine counties of the Eastern Shore retained racially segregated school systems until 1968 when the last impediments of racial segregation were finally removed from education on the Shore.

Federal and state laws have since eliminated any legal basis for discrimination, yet in many communities throughout the nation, coastal and inland, difficult problems of race persist and admit of no easy solution. While blacks and whites on the Eastern Shore, as in many other places, have often lived separately and unequally on land, some of them worked together, side by side on the water, where nature held the upper hand, and harvests did not know racial boundaries.

Sandy Rodgers contributed to this article.

For Further Reading

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, W. Jeffrey Bolster, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Few Americans recognize the degree to which early African American history is a maritime history, says the author of this book, which chronicles seafaring among enslaved and free black men from 1740 to 1865. They endured the often extreme hardships of life at sea, while also serving as the eyes and ears to worlds beyond the limited horizon of black communities ashore. An epic tale of the rise and fall of black seafaring, this account reveals the critical role sailors played in helping forge new identities for black people in America.

Maryland’s Eastern Shore: A Journey in Time and Place, John R. Wennersten, Tidewater Publishers, Centerville, Maryland, 1992.

Historian Wennersten has divided this book into three sections – Soil, Soul and Sea – and in them gives a thorough accounting of the ways in which agriculture, slavery and water-related industries have shaped the Eastern Shore from its earliest days to the present.

The Weather Gauge, a scholarly journal produced by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, has published the articles listed below about African American maritime history on the Eastern Shore.

"Bellevue Seafood Company," J.E. Aliyetti, Volume 33, Number 2, 1997.

"Black Oystermen of the Bay Country," L.W. Harvey, Volume 30, Number 1, 1994.

"Black Pioneers of Seafood Packing," R.J.S. Dodds, Volume 22, Number 1, 1986.

"Curtis Downes, Sailmaker," D. Hanks, Jr., Volume 33, Number 2, 1997.

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