What isn’t known about the 400-year history of African Americans and the Chesapeake region could fill the Bay itself to overflowing.

“This is part of the American story,” said Jonathan Doherty, manager of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a partnership of 150 parks, refuges, museums and other significant sites. “For too long, parts of the American story have been untold and under-addressed.”

Maybe for not much longer. The Park Service is joining the National Trust for Historic Preservation and three Bay area states on a $400,000 effort to map sites and landscapes important to the Black experience within the watershed. An advisory committee of professionals will help guide the work.

A group of African Americans pose aboard the bugeye Thomas Blades in the harbor of St. Michaels, MD, c. 1910.

The recently announced collaboration plans to gather the locations into a digital database. Once a site is registered in the system, organizers hope that surrounding communities will work toward their preservation — or at least spare them from imminent destruction.

“We need to know where resources are in order to prioritize their preservation,” said Kendra Parzen, a field officer with the National Trust, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. “Lack of detail leads to those places being overlooked.”

Historians won’t be starting from scratch. African American history and culture in the 64,000-square-mile watershed have been documented in books, museum and university collections, articles and photographic collections. Many historical sites are already protected.

But there is no clearinghouse of Black historical sites for the multistate watershed. And many places of potential significance remain poorly documented or unknown to historians altogether. Other sites may be generally familiar to scholars but their connections to African American history may still be shrouded, Doherty said.

“There are sites that have been documented on a state or national level for some time,” he said. “It may have been added because of the architectural attributes on the property, but there’s no documentation of that particular site to show that it may have had a significance associated with African Americans.”

Black history in the Chesapeake region dates at least as far back as 1619, when the first Africans arrived as slaves in Jamestown, VA. For much of the Colonial period, they toiled anonymously on tobacco plantations. But two of the most recognizable icons from the 1800s, underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, hailed from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The Chesapeake region is dotted with Civil War battlefields, many with strong links to Black valor. For example, at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, VA, soldiers with the United States Colored Troops led a counterattack that drove back Confederate forces, staving off a potential Union rout.

From the Jim Crow era, the mapping effort is likely to identify dozens of sites, including Blacks-only schools and beaches. And there are physical touchstones of the civil rights movement scattered around the region as well.

Crew on the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark sort through their haul of oysters from the Chesapeake Bay in in 1976. Credit: Dave Harp

What places qualify as historic? What does it mean to represent African American life in the Chesapeake region? Doherty said that the partnership will interpret its charge broadly. Sites won’t necessarily have to be related to the water or seafood industry to be candidates for inclusion.

But the partnership’s supporters expect some of their richest stories to be directly related to the region’s waters. African Americans were – and continue to be – an integral part of the Bay’s iconic water-based economy, working as watermen, oyster shuckers and crab pickers, among other roles.

Vince Leggett has been working to document that history for more than three decades. In 1994, he founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake Bay, which seeks to collect stories and artifacts of African American life in the watershed. The partnership has invited him to serve on its board of historical advisers.

Historically, Black people tended to live closest to the Bay’s shores because the lower ground was viewed by White settlers as less hospitable, Leggett said. He hopes that the partnership captures not only the stories of the region’s most well-known Black figures but also those of people from various walks of life.

“It’s more than the Frederick Douglasses and Harriet Tubmans,” Leggett said. “They are the bookends of Black history. We lift them up. But we were more than slaves.”

One measure of the recognition gap between Blacks and Whites in the Bay’s history involves Leggett personally. In 2003, he was named an Admiral of the Bay, the highest honor a Maryland governor can confer upon someone for environmental accomplishments. African Americans account for only five of the more than 100 recipients of the designation since its creation in 1959.

The Gateways Network has put up half of the project’s funding. The rest is coming from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the National Trust.

That money will cover three pilot projects, one in each state, designed to determine the effectiveness of different computer-mapping technologies. That phase is expected to take up to 18 months.

“We [historians] have captured more historic sites that are associated with White history,” Parzen said. “We are working on shifting those priorities now.”  

This article originally appeared in the Bay Journal on December 14, 2020, and is republished with permission from Bay Journal Media.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply