Oystering, crabbing, fishing, sailing, boat building and net making were ancient skills in Africa and work on the water has a long tradition among Africans and African-Americans, as explained by the Director of Marketing Helen Yuen of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Yuen states, "in studying the history of watermen, African-Americans are crucial to the evolution and continuation of these maritime industries."
Black watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, circa 1905.
"In the early twentieth century," Yuen continues, "black seafood workers in Maryland struggled to make a living wage despite their critical role in creating the seafood packing industry. The work was hard and dangerous and the profits were unpredictable. That said, oystering and crabbing brought African-Americans a sense of pride and independence, especially after the end of slavery. Many built their own boats, set their own schedules, and when demand was high, made money.”
Those working in the industry found camaraderie on the water and a source of income to support their growing families. This way of life supported many through the tumultuous period of World Wars and the Great Depression. Throughout periods of instability and unrest, watermen found a bond and source of employment as the industry continued to evolve.
Yuen cites Henry Travis Coulbourne, Frederick S. Jewett and his wife Henrietta, as one of the best examples of black industry on the water. “[They] set up a packing company in 1902 when black-owned businesses were rare on the Eastern Shore. It was the largest employer in St. Michaels, Maryland. Jewett developed the crab grading system: ‘lump,’ ‘backfin,’ ‘special,' and ‘claw’ that is the system still in use today.”
The oyster industry continued to grow throughout the 20th Century, so did the demand for ship captains and those familiar with the harvesting oysters by traditional means. This familiarity allowed harvesters to adapt to the introduction of technological methods to aid in the industry’s continued prevalence on the Chesapeake Bay.
Learn more about the history of African-Americans in the Chesapeake Region here.