Most seasoned watermen will tell you. Out on the Chesapeake Bay there’s never been much made over the color of a working man’s skin.
Since the heyday of the Chesapeake’s harvesting era, even in the worst days of segregation, the seafood business was one place strong and independent people armed with the tools of the trade, hard earned experience, and a serious work ethic could be assured of earning a living despite society’s presiding racial prejudices.
This bubble of equality, which often popped dockside, was perhaps most prominent in the oyster business. In a handwritten paper composed for the benefit of the Kent Island Heritage Society, longtime waterman George Walters addressed the topic: “Many people don’t realize it but hand tonging was possibly one of the few if not the only industry where there was little or no discrimination. The opportunity was equal to the black man as well as the white man. Some of (Kent) Island’s best tongers with the highest incomes were of the black race. Regardless of color, one could work as many days and hours as he wished within the conservation laws and regulations.”
This theme of personal liberty is one of several touched on in the compelling documentary Black Captains of the Chesapeake, independently produced by filmmaker and Howard University professor, S. Torriano Berry.
Black Captains of the Chesapeake focuses on a number of Kent Narrows based African American watermen, who, when faced with the dwindling opportunities working the water, carved out a place for themselves as fishing boat entrepreneurs.
Shot over three fishing trips, Mr. Berry says, “My goal was to tell the story of these dedicated seamen who had pledged their lives and careers to harvesting the Chesapeake Bay and taking people fishing.
“My biggest surprise was that they existed. I lived in D.C. for 14 years before I learned of them. I was told there were fishing boats that sail out of Kent Narrows, but no one said they had black captains. I had gone out on several other headboats in the DC area, and across the country, but I had never heard of a single black owned boat, let alone the consortium that Kent Narrows has.”
Watermen, a symbol of the American Spirit, have always adapted to the market. When the local captains featured in the film – Warren Butler, Eldridge Meredith, Lloyd Price, Darrell Roy, George Roy, Tyrone Meredith, Andrew Wright, and Montro Wright – talk about switching over from more traditional waterman trades to piloting head and charter boats, they are following a heritage of survival.
Baltimorean Vince Leggett is interviewed in the film. Mr. Leggett, a historian and educator, is the founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation. He explains that along the historic Chesapeake there were black watermen, steamship crewmembers, and boat builders. After the Civil War, in the days of skipjacks, schooners, and bugeyes, maybe one in ten watermen were black. Many started out sharecropping the bay before owning their own boats. Leggett calls working the water the “ultimate freedom trail.” He says these watermen were able to feed their families by participating in an economic opportunity unavailable on shore.
According to Grasonville’s Captain Eldridge Meredith, local black watermen first got into the headboat business when a man stopped in his father’s Kent Narrows nightclub The Weeping Willow Inn looking to pay someone to take him fishing. Capt. Eldridge took him up on the offer and when business got so good he couldn’t keep up, he encouraged other local watermen to pick up the slack. Many believe ex-oysterman make the best fishing captains because of their knowledge of fertile fishing grounds even without the use of today’s fish-finder and GPS technology.
Modern head boats charge per person and are not booked in advance. Captain Meredith says, “Show up early in the morning. Be there, pay your money, and go fishing.” Customers, many of them frequent and longtime, come from all over with one thing in common. They love to fish. On the local headboats it’s mostly bottom fishing – spot, white and yellow perch, the occasional flounder, sometimes rockfish and blues – using bloodworms and nightcrawlers for bait. The boats run from April to Thanksgiving most years, but June, July and August is the when they don’t miss a day.
Everybody on board believes this might be the day they catch “the biggest, hungriest fish in the bay”
And ultimately, no matter who you are, isn’t that really what life is all about anyway?
Photos Courtesy mdsg.umd.edu
Black Captains of the Chesapeake – Documentary
To be aired on Maryland Public Television
Sunday, April 21, 2013 @ 11:00PM & Monday, April 22 @ 5:00AM