♪ ♪ [ANNOUNCER] Waters Edge.
Black Waterman of the Chesapeake is made possible by Irene and Edward H. Kaplan.
(waterman singing) ♪ ♪ - A waterman is a man that makes his living on the water.
He feeds his family from off the water.
From on the water.
And within the water feeds himself.
- Watermen are essential to this area, whether that be a captain or someone who fishes these waters.
- This harbor, St. Michael's Harbor, was full of them once, and they would go out just a mile, maybe two miles, maybe five, and return home with their canoes full of oysters ready to be shucked or shipped off.
- Some work on Schooners.
Some work on Skipjacks.
- They harvest the oysters.
They harvest the crabs.
They harvest the fish.
He's like a farmer on the water.
They 're farming the bay.
- African-Americans have always worked on the water with others.
But once they got off of the water, it was a totally different thing.
- These are the men and women who built the boats, built the sails, own the seafood processing plants, that own the five star restaurants.
- These founding Black families that have been essential to the backbone of America.
Yet, they haven't been celebrated as much as they should be.
- Frederick Douglass was born in the area around Wye Mills.
- There was a point where he could actually look out onto the Chesapeake and see the ships going up and down the bay.
- People talk about the Black watermen and women of the Chesapeake, Black women of the Chesapeake specifically were right there side by side.
Sometimes, they were leading.
Sometimes, they were walking hand in hand and heart in heart.
- It's like you're walking down this pathway of Black excellence this legacy of Black excellence.
You can't help but embrace it and rise to it.
♪ ♪ [DR. CLARA SMALL] I am what's left of Clara L. Small, Emeritus Professor of History from Salisbury University.
I taught for 44 years and I write books trying to preserve African-American history, specifically on the Eastern shore of Maryland.
Well, when I was hired to teach here at Salisbury, I realized just how close I was to Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, some of the most prominent African-Americans in this country.
And then one day, around 1998, on a Friday afternoon, a student made a statement.
Well, Blacks have never done anything in this country and definitely not on the Eastern Shore.
Well, steam was rising, coming out of every orifice of my body.
My parents faces flash before me, which meant I was in trouble.
I went home, sat in the middle of my bed with a word processor, and that was before laptops.
And I typed.
The goal was to write one book.
Volume two, three, and volume four is at the editors at present.
If you drop a compass here on Eastern Shore and expand it 60 to 90 degrees, you hit the home sites of some of the most important African-Americans in the region, in the state, in the nation, and some internationally.
So, we're talking about a very, very rich heritage here on the Chesapeake Bay.
[PETE LESHER] If you look at the seal of the state of Maryland, there are two human figures on the seal.
One is a farmer and the other is a fisherman.
And that tells you a lot about how important the Chesapeake Bay was to people's lives.
[ADMIRAL VINCE LEGGETT] The Chesapeake Bay watershed is 64,000 square miles.
It starts in Cooperstown, New York, and it goes all the way down to Tidewater, Virginia.
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America.
I know that might sound like a fancy word.
But, an estuary is where freshwater and saltwater come together, and it just forms a cornucopia of seafood.
The average depth of the bay is only 24 feet.
And so, it really makes it a lot more accessible to people where you might find Lake Michigan, maybe a thousand feet deep.
But one of the things I think that is most unique about the Chesapeake Bay is just the rich cultural diversity, as well as the natural diversity.
On the Chesapeake Bay, many times, limited resource people enslaved and free African-Americans lived along the water's edge.
It was the low bottomland, high reeds, and high mosquitoes, and you couldn't grow tobacco on it.
And so, the more resource people took the higher ground.
They lived up on the hill.
We were down in the bottoms, in the hollows, in the shallows, in the creeks, and on the necks.
[IMANI BLACK] Living by the water was something that you wanted to do.
A lot of black and brown, you know, families live near the water's edge because it was known as like, you know, poor to live near the water.
[VINCE] In the period of enslavement, part of the slaves world was a water borne society.
They built boats.
They sailed boats.
They acted as pilots.
[TARENCE BAILEY, SR.] Here, on the shore, the Slaves either got what was left of the hogs that was thrown out, I guess what we call soul food today, pig feet, pig ears, what we call chitlins.
And then, they also got what they can get out of the water.
[IMANI] Seafood was out of necessity.
It was something that was like, readily available, that their white slave masters, like, weren't even interested in because they were shipping in like, salted herring from England.
[VINCE] Slavery was unique in the state of Maryland because it was a border state.
Some call it up south or down north.
It was free and enslaved.
And even with the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued, it did not cover slaves in Maryland because Maryland did not succeed from the union.
[CLARA] Around 1790, Maryland had the largest number of free Blacks in the nation.
[VINCE] Free and enslaved were on the boats.
So, often their work were out of the watchful eyes of the overseers, of the bosses, of the community leaders.
Just imagine, if you pushed offshore a few hundred yards or a few hundred feet.
Relationships developed on the waterways surrounding these coastal communities that did not exist in the middle of a tobacco field, in the middle of a cotton field, in the middle of a sugarcane field, because there were so many eyes and ears want to know what y'all are doing?
♪ ♪ [CLARA] Working on the water, you came in contact with people who sail around the world, who knew what was going on from one place in another.
And it brought news with them.
[VINCE] It was a great communication network because they were in and out of various ports.
[CLARA] We're talking about individuals who had contacts with a lot of people.
And as they met with each other, they passed the information on and on and on.
[VINCE] Often when the oyster grounds in New York and Connecticut became over harvested and depleted, many merchant watermen began to raid the oyster grounds of the Chesapeake Bay.
In this case, there was a lot of maritime traffic and Black watermen were on those vessels going back and forth.
All produce and products traveled on the waterways because the roads were so poor.
And sometimes that cargo included human cargo.
[CLARA] Black sailors were not necessarily known to help others escape, but they did.
[VINCE] There are at least eight major rivers and hundreds of other streams and tributaries.
People knew the winds and the waves and the tides of the rivers to move products apart.
And so, they used that same knowledge to seek freedom.
[TARENCE] Frederick Douglass was born here in Talbot County in 1818.
He took February the 14th, Valentine's Day as his birthday because his mother, my sixth time, great grandmother, always referred to him as "My Little Valentine."
The cabin, which he was raised in, called Muddy Shores, sat right on the banks of the Tuckahoe.
So, his first years, his first memories were on water.
His grandmother, my seven times great grandmother.
We talk about watermen.
She was a waterwoman.
Not only did she go out into the water and fish for shad, but she made nets and sold nets.
Betsy Bailey raised Frederick Douglass the first six or seven years of his life before taking him on the 12 mile walk from Home Hill to the Wye House plantation.
This was the last time that Frederick Douglass saw her.
She took him to the plantation and told him to go play with his brother Perry, my five times great grandfather.
And he went off to play and look around at all the sights and turn around and look for Grandma Betsy.
She was gone.
[CLARA] Frederick eventually was sent back to Baltimore.
He had several jobs as a caulker for one, working on ships at Fells Point.
[VINCE] The ship caulker was one of the second highest paid jobs in a shipyard during the period of wooden boat building.
Caulking is a process where skilled tradesmen were taken oakamoor tar and root, which in between Wedging it in between wooden planks on boats to make them seaworthy.
[CLARA] Frederick met a woman named Anna Murray.
They fell in love.
She was free, but she told him that she would not marry him as long as he was a slave.
[TARENCE] There was plenty of times that he stared out on the bay and just daydream.
So, it's no wonder, that when he made his escape, the soon to be wife made him a sailor's uniform.
[CLARA] Gave him a uniform.
He went to Philadelphia.
That's how he escaped.
[VINCE] Can you just imagine?
In 1830s, 1860s, you come back to your community and they call you Captain Leggett.
When in town you are boy.
You are the man with no last name.
You are counted among the hogs and the chickens in the inventory of the estate, of the wills.
In the chattel category, I got five Negro women, five boys, five men, eight horses, six pigs, two shovels, five wagons.
And that's what my ancestors were counted as.
But when you come back to the dock and they say, Captain Leggett, because I own my boat, I'm out making my way on the Chesapeake Bay.
That just lifted up a downtrodden people.
[CAPTAIN TYRONE MEREDITH] A fisherman has to get up very early.
Four o'clock in the morning I usually get up.
(sound of footsteps) (bag of ice being dragged) Time, I eat breakfast.
I'm at the boat at five in the morning.
Checked the engines and wait for the people to arrive.
(men chattering) I'm Captain Tyrone Meredith.
A Charter boat captain.
I'm U.S. Coast Guard License 100 ton master.
My great-great-grandfather came to Kent Island in 1867.
He was a waterman.
Horsehoe in the winter and crab during the summer.
His son was Richard Meredith.
Then, my father's father was Earl Meredith.
He also worked as a waterman.
Then, my father crabbed and oytstered.
And he was one of the first ones on Kent Island to start running charter boats.
(boat engine starts up) I put on the captain's hat now.
There we go.
(chuckles) I started going out on a boat at six-years-old and kind of grew up into the business and I've been working as a Waterman for over 40 years, out of Kent Island.
The land of pleasant living.
♪ ♪ I started out working on the boat as a mate for my father at six years old.
Then at 12, I started crabbing commercially.
The crabs you want catch them before the sun gets hot.
Because once the sun comes up, the crabs don't come up on your line.
They stay down on the bottom and eat your bait up.
So, I use to start like one, two o'clock in the morning.
By nine o'clock I'd be done.
Crab was coming up on a trot line.
Trot line is like a long line about a mile long.
It's got little strings with bait on it.
We use back then was eels, salty eels.
It was four or five crabs on each piece of bait.
And I was dipping.
My brother was dipping.
Dipping as hard as we could dip and we filled every basket up on the boat.
We had 55 baskets and it was still coming up on a line when we was pulling a line in.
I couldn't drive.
I was 12 years old, so I had to find somebody to come and pick my crabs up and take them to the market.
I use to sell them to George Hill and son.
George Hill was African American.
And he had one little place they used to sell crabs to.
And then, he started growing.
He got more and more.
He had half of Kent Island watermen selling crabs to him.
He was just that big.
[VINCE] One difference about watermen on the Chesapeake Bay.
The federal government didn't set your pay grade.
The Chesapeake Bay watermen got paid on how where you worked and how well you hustled.
[EDZEL TURNER] And I might mention that when you talk about oysters, you talk about hard work, and most people try to get out of it.
[TYRONE] One of the first ways that harvesting oysters was tonging.
They use hand tongs made out of wood.
They got rakes on the bottom of them, and they range from maybe 10 feet to 30 feet in length.
Oystermen stand on the side of the boat, holding the tongs and they open them up and rake the oysters off the bottom.
And used to they pull them up by hand, which was very hard work, backbreaking work.
And then, they got smart, so they invented hydraulic tong pull, where they strap a line on the tongs and step on a little switch and it pulls a tongs up for you.
So, you ain't got to pull them up by hand no more.
Now you'll see watermen out there seventy, seventy-five years old, still hand tonging because the tong puller made it easier for them to catch [VINCE] Black watermen they weren't just out there showboating.
They knew how to move these boats, how to trim the sails, how to streamline their vessels, one to be the first one to the oyster grounds, but equally important, the first one back to the market.
But once he retired at 70 years as an oysterman, you don't get a pension.
It's a lot of wear and tear on your body.
Arthritis, bad legs, cold weather, lifestyle, all of it comes upon you as you age.
[PAUL] Today, there are far fewer people who work the water.
There just isn't as much money to be made in doing this.
[EDZEL] It's not a what I'd say reliable.
[TYRONE] Used to be to walk around with a dip net and catch a bushel of crabs just walking around the shore, seeing them swim on top of the water.
But now, you don't see that anymore.
[EDZEL] When I was growing up, you had the sub aquatic grasses and they grow best in clear water, whereas the water came more cloudy.
The grasses tend to die out.
[TYRONE] The bay grasses is where the little crabs hid at, but now the grass is all gone and so the crabs don't have nowhere to hide.
So, the predators getting them before they get full grown is like crawling around in a desert.
[IMANI] We went through a lot in the Chesapeake Bay from our huge decline of our fisheries.
The Black watermen were going through all that social and political aspects of being Black out on the water.
[VINCE] We couldn't get loans, we couldn't get bank loans.
We were redlined, blacklined, greenlined out of communities we could live in.
[IMANI] Even though part of that true definition of being a watermen is that we're all out there, we're all watermen.
They were still going through a lot of racial issues and it being very apparent they were not getting the same pay for their crab bushels or the oyster bushels.
[VINCE] As the bounty of the bay declined and the regulation of the bay increased.
It collided on a whole way of life, Black and White.
The big difference is the Black watermen didn't have a safety net that if they couldn't make payroll or if the roof started leaking at the same time the car broke down.
They didn't have legacy wealth.
They were out of the game.
[IMANI] When technology was increasing Black watermen in particular, they didn't have any access to capital.
You know, banks weren't giving them loans.
They didn't have the resources to be able to elevate their boats or their equipment.
Black watermen cultivated oysters from the water's edge.
They didn't really have to go too far.
And then, as the industry, you know, really got industrialized and, you know, it got more competitive than they had to keep up.
How can they enhance their boats or enhance their equipment without any capital?
And then are you going to risk your boat or your family's income to rise to that competition and it not be lucrative in the end?
[MARC CASTELLI] Things got so hard for these guys back in the seventies and eighties, and they all had title fishery licenses with Rockfish on them, which is pretty pricey now.
They sold their licenses.
[CLARA] They just had to stop because they saw that the industry was dying.
Now, you just said, well, this is not working any longer.
[VINCE] So often people are longing for the good old days.
However, they want to describe them.
I would say what has been is gone and what's going to be is coming up.
And what I found to be successful on the bay is people that are always innovating.
People like, Captain Eldris Meredith.
He started out as a waterman, but they had a nightclub.
Then, he opened up a restaurant and then he started carrying fishing parties.
And he had the largest fishing boat, The Island Queen, on the Chesapeake Bay.
So, they had a diversified portfolio.
[IMANI] Captain Meredith saw an opportunity to be his own boss and have his own business.
And a lot of the other Black watermen followed.
[VINCE] They were innovators that moved these traditional watermen, people that harvest crabs, clams, oysters, and fish, and turn them into charter boat and head boat captains.
[PAUL] A good, successful charter boat captain knows where the fish are biting and when the fish are biting and the tides and how the fish move.
These were watermen, and they use that expertise to take people on their boats as charter boat captains.
[IMANI] For them, it was a sense of freedom.
We can dictate our own kind of destiny on the water and now, I mean, it's more than lucrative.
[TYRONE] Thing about crabbing, if you didn't catch any crabs, you didn't make any money.
But if you take people out fishing, they still have to pay.
Even though you didn't catch any fish.
[IMANI] They have a lot more freedom in being their own bosses than, you know, kind of pulling up to the dock and waiting for whatever value the person on the other end sees their catch as for that day.
- How long you been fishing out here?
- I've been fishing on the boat for about 40 years.
Thirty-five, forty, fifty years.
Fishing with the old man, Captain Meredith.
- Meredith knew how to find the fish.
Meredith, take this boat, find a spot, and won't have to move all day.
- We didn't stay up until two o'clock.
We would stay up until five or six o'clock in the evening until everybody got enough fish.
- They would just say, Drop them, (laughter) and he wouldn't have to move this boat no more today.
And everybody loved it.
All of us, no matter.
(laughs) - I was just learning how to fish when I met Captain Meredith, and he welcomed everybody aboard.
If you didn't have nothing to eat, he would send you back across the street to his restaurant to get something to eat.
This was back in the day.
It was a Black institution.
[TYRONE] My father worked as a charter boat captain for over 80 years, and they call him the Black Admiral of the Sea.
- Yeah, Captain Meredith - The Admiral.
[TYRONE] The governor appointed him as Admiral to Chesapeake.
He was a 101st admiral.
He ran his last fishing trip, the day before he went in the hospital.
And four days later, he didn't come back.
He was 93 years old.
Sometimes, I hear his voice in the morning calling me.
Saying, Boy, you ain't up yet.
It's time to get up.
Even today [PAUL] Picture Baltimore.
In the late 19th century, the early 20th century, there was no air conditioning.
There was no public sewer.
There were dusty streets.
The city was a good place to escape from in the summer.
And people did escape by going to these waterfront beaches and parks and picnic grounds and full scale amusement parks.
And they got there most often from the Port of Baltimore, by boat, by steamboat.
Hundreds of people would get on a steamboat and take a two hour ride down the Patapsco River across the bay to Tolchester Beach, one of the most popular resorts.
Stay there for the afternoon.
Most of the day.
Have a picnic lunch there, take in the band, take in the sights, go swimming in the bay with a rented wool bathing suit.
At the end of the day, the boats would return them back up to Baltimore.
It was a beautiful day trip, but Tolchester Beach most of the time was open only to Whites.
This was Jim Crow America.
And George Brown, he's a Black man.
All of his friends, they can't do this.
And so, he sees an opportunity.
Acquires a picnic beach, acquires a secondhand steamboat, what he can put together in capital because a steamboat, as you can imagine, is a pretty good investment.
You needed not just the boat, but you needed the professional crew.
You needed a licensed steam engineer to operate this thing and use this boat to take Black families and church groups down the Patapsco River to Brown's Grove.
This picnic ground that he had set up, he was just figuring out here is a market niche and people are ignoring an important market for Baltimore.
[VINCE] One of the things that are advances that Blacks, free and enslaved, were the backbone of the maritime and seafood processing industries.
♪ ♪ [PAUL] Packing plants were typically not well heated.
You didn't want the oysters to spoil, so it was cold and it was damp.
Often, it was not terribly well lit and you would have a row of shucking stalls with people getting piles of oysters, shucking, throwing the shell onto the floor and dropping the oyster into a bucket, which when they fill the bucket, they get credit for one bucket and that goes off to get washed and packed.
[VINCE] To hear the guys in the oyster shucking plants.
That was a different kind of sound.
The guys were in eighteen inch stalls facing the wall and had to keep the oyster house cold because that's the way the oysters like it.
You were standing in piles of mud and shells up to your knees and looking at the wall from sun to sun.
just shucking oysters.
And they were using stainless steel shucking knives and just hearing the tap, tap, tap of the knife going into the oyster, hitting the wooden board, the shells falling on the floor.
[PAUL] And in the summertime, when we're not harvesting oysters, they switched over to crab meat.
(women singing) [VINCE] I've seen photographs where the ladies in the picking house look like communion stewarts.
They have the white caps on and all white gowns and just so dignified.
[PAUL] People crowded, but they were spirited places.
You would hear them...singing the Methodist hymns that they sang on Sunday.
They would sing around the crab picking table.
[VINCE] They would sing songs to keep meter.
They sang praise songs and gospels where the menhaden fishermen weren't singing praise songs and gospel as they were singing.
"Judy got the Girl and Gone," and let's get moving so we can catch up with Judy.
[PAUL] The watermen were off on their boats, harvesting crabs.
They bring them back, and the crab pickers, the women are picking that which adds value to the product.
You can sell your crabs for so much, but you can sell crab meat for a lot more.
[VINCE] The Coulbourne and Jewett Seafood Processing Enterprise.
I have to use a fancy word that's beyond business.
They understood the science of the business, the business side, the marketing.
[PAUL] Frederick Jewett and William H.T.
Coulburn, as teenagers, started traveling up to St. Michaels, of all places, to learn the oyster packing business.
And after a number of years, Frederick Jewett decided he could make a living by shucking oysters, but he could make some money by operating his own business.
And he managed somehow to put the capital together and then to get somebody to sell him land on the waterfront in St. Michaels.
Just as Jim Crow laws were coming into Maryland and through the first couple of decades of the 20th century, they built this oystering business and they made the choice early on to go into crab meat.
This was a new business in the early 20th century.
Before this time, crabs were not really a big product for the Chesapeake Bay because they're harvested in the summertime and crab meat spoils very quickly.
Until, we got artificial ice making and artificial refrigeration.
You really couldn't ship crab meat very far, once you didn't have to import ice by schooner from Maine.
Frederick Jewett saw this opportunity and decided to specialize in crab meat.
And Frederick Jewett grew to become the largest employer in St. Michael's with over 100 employees.
He was enormously successful.
And what added to his success was that he was also a marketing genius.
When he started in the crab meat business, everybody picked all the crab meat and they put it into the pound crab meat containers and they sold picked crab meat.
But you know, the meat that comes out of the claw is kind of gray or brown.
Some people prefer those big lumps of back fin.
And so, he came up with a five grade scheme of crab meat.
He had claw meat and then special.
That was all the shredded up body meat.
And then, back fin, the bigger pieces and then finally, lump, if it really came out in a big chunk, that was the premium.
And this five grade scheme is still what we use today.
[VINCE] They started looking at various pasteurization techniques and began to ship their products out to the Mississippi River, to the Midwest.
[CLARA] They were shipping nationwide.
I mean, we're talking about a thriving business.
- Alright y'all this is going to be the real deal.
(playing the piano) ♪ Not my brother, nor my sister, but it's me, O Lord, ♪ ♪ Standin' in the need of prayer.
♪ ♪ ♪ My name is Dennis DeShields and I am a fourth generation resident of the Bellevue community.
My name is Rowena DeShields, and I was born and raised in Bellevue, Maryland.
[KAT DESHIELDS MOON] Bellevue is very interesting place.
As a kid, it was just a grand adventure in a place.
It always felt so magical with family right up and down the street, the water right down the way.
♪ ♪ [ROWENA] Back in the days, everyone knew everyone and there were no fences.
We just ran across the yard.
In fact I did not know the names of the streets, [EDZEL] It was a small community, a self-contained community, mostly Black.
People that lived there, mostly worked on the water.
[ROWENA] We never did without although that was more during the depression, it was never the depression here.
Never, never, never.
Everyone had a garden.
And wintertime, we had things from the river crabs, oysters, anything we wanted.
My grandfather really stayed with him.
He got up at four o'clock.
And with his lantern went across the field.
And we could tell when he started the boat because that, (laughs) that noise-- sometimes to go around and get the nice oysters with his skiff, because he did mostly crabbing, but we never wanted for food.
He made his own eel pods.
He made his own fishing net.
He did his own.
[PAUL] So many small villages have no industry to speak of.
Bellevue was kind of special because there was an industry in town, both seafood harvesting, the waterman, and seafood packing, the Bellevue Seafood Company and W. H. Turner and Son.
[KAT] The bread, the butter of Bellevue was a Turner factory.
[VINCE] The Turner families were the property owners.
They owned seafood processing plant.
They traded in crabs and oysters, and they were boat builders.
[ROWENA] Hazel Turner I loved her.
She was the historian of Bellevue.
I mean, she was just so just so clever.
[VINCE] One of my best experiences was with Miss Hazel Turner.
I went down to Bellevue and I made a statement about Black people living in little shanty houses.
Well, Miss Hazel Turner said, "You sound just like them People."
And I said, Whoa.
And I kind of felt I knew what kind of people she was talking about.
She grabbed me by the soft meat in my jaw, called the jowl, dragged me across the oyster floor, pointed to a split level rancher on the hill and said, "That's where I live."
And now, I sent my son Etso and Haywood Turner, and family members to some of the best colleges, and universities in this country, and get out of here with that mess.
And I love you, baby.
[EDZEL] The family has been in Bellevue for quite some time.
Started back in the thirties, I believe my great grandfather, he was in that business and then my grandfather got in it, then my dad.
And then I came along.
[PAUL] Bellevue, across the river from Oxford, really grew up as a Black community.
It was a one industry town.
And that was seafood packing.
As Bellevue grew up, it was the White owned William H. Valliant seafood packing plant.
Valliant owned the plant, Valliant owned the store, Valliant owned everything there.
But his workforce was Black.
When Valliant went out of business, that void was filled by a native Bellevue family, the Turner family they founded at first w They founded at first W. A. Turner and Sons.
Black owner and Black workers.
And at one point the family split apart and they formed a second business, the Bellevue Seafood Company.
So, you've got these two Black owned seafood packing businesses.
Almost every family in Bellevue had at least one, sometimes more than one member of the household that was working for one or the other of these seafood companies.
It was part of the community.
It was part of the culture of the community to have that source of employment, which created a level of prosperity for this community.
[EDZEL] Bellevue was a self-contained community.
We had just about everything we needed in course.
There was a school there at one time.
Then we had our church, they had a post office and a couple of general stores and then you always have a place of entertainment where people would come and dance and drink alcohol.
[MONICA] The females they used to come during the summertime.
A lot of them didn't want to.
They used to come in the summertime and can different seafood, and that was their summer jobs.
[CLARA] Most women, their involvement with the seafood industry was as pickers, crab pickers.
[EDZEL] On crabs, we had to cook them and provide them to the women that picked the crabs.
Wives, mostly they processed the crabs, oysters and clams.
[CLARA] So, the men were out crabbing and oystering, but the women were picking the crabs.
[PAUL] To watch a crab picker in action is amazing how fast they extract the meat out of there, how cleanly they do it, how little meat they leave behind.
Not everybody can do it.
And it is definitely a learned skill.
Another skill that was typically passed on from generation to generation, often mother to daughter.
In the same way the waterman's trade was passed on from father to son.
[VINCE] Another part of it is sail making.
Every waterman, you needed a blacksmith to repair their dredges or their anchors.
They needed a sail maker to build new sails or to repair the sails they had.
You didn't need that many sail makers, but you needed at least one.
And for a long time in Oxford.
Downes Curtis was that one.
Downes Curtis, a celebrated sail maker, an African American sail maker, grew up and spent his entire career in the town of Oxford, Maryland.
[VINCE] Their sail loft was a two room colored school that the mama taught in.
They attended school there and they learned the art of sail making from an Englishman named Pritchard.
[PAUL] As a teenager, Downes Curtis and his brother had a small dinghy and they wanted to put a sailing rig on it and they went to Pritchard.
And Pritchard said, "You boys can't afford a sail, so you're going to have to work for it."
I don't know, if he had this in mind that maybe they'll take to it, but they did.
So when they got to sail for their dinghy, they just kept at it and really continued to learn the sail trade from Pritchard.
And when the old man passed away, they continued on with the same customers.
Oh, we can finish that job.
We'll take this on.
And just carried on the business for half a century.
[VINCE] These guys were just top at their craft.
A good sail maker makes a sail that isn't too full, that isn't too flat.
You think about an awning or a tent or something like that.
Mostly, you're dealing with flat panels, but with a sail, you need to introduce a little bit of belly to it.
A sail is like an airplane wing.
It's got a high pressure side and a low pressure side.
And if it's done just right, it draws the boat forward.
So, a well-designed new sail will draw beautifully.
By the time Downes came along in the 1930s, most in the market was yachtsmen.
[VINCE] When the Johnny Carson's and the Jackie Gleason's came on the Chesapeake Bay, Downes Curtis was making them sails.
[PAUL] He learned to make sails by hand and was so skilled at his trade that he was the go to sail maker for a generation of racing sailors.
[VINCE] Downes Curtis, on the license plates on his car.
He had the words sails.
Can you imagine all these big baller mega yacht owners on the Chesapeake Bay coming in from Newport and California and a little Black man down here in Oxford, Maryland got down to the motor vehicles before anybody else and said, "I want the word sails on my vanity plate."
Oh man, we just laughed and cried and clapped.
I'm Mark Castelli.
I went to University of Colorado for Art.
I met my first wife in Colorado.
We moved to West Michigan after we got married and lived on Lake Michigan.
That's the first time I'd ever been around bodies of water.
Marriage didn't last very long, but I by then was hooked on water and the landscape, God it got right in my system.
We moved here in 1995.
Later that year, the fog rolled out of the trees like smoke, like it was on fire.
It was just roiling out of the trees and across the fields.
And I said, I've got to get down to the docks!
All the watermen they're all at the docks working on their boats.
And I get out of car, I got my camera.
They're a very insular group of people, watermen are.
And a lot of that's probably because when they're on shore they 're not looking back at land, they're looking out at the water and they 're thinking about their boats and they 're very private.
So they asked me that day at the dock, Who are you shooting for?
And I said, I'm not shooting for any newspapers.
I'm not shooting for any magazines.
I take pictures of you guys and I prefer to take pictures of you guys in all weather because you don't work in Bluebird calendar weather all the time.
And it went from boat to boat to boat to boat.
And he's okay.
Don't worry about it.
He's not with the state.
And I get down to the end of the dock and there's a waterman who's down in his boat and he's working and he looks up and he looks at me and he goes, "So...where do you live?"
He sees the camera and I said, I live outside of Chestertown.
He said, Are you from here?
I said, No, we just moved here earlier this year.
He goes from where?
And I said, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.
And he goes, "Well, you're nothing but a damn chicken necker."
And I said, You know, I know what that means.
And the dock got really quiet because he had insulted me.
And I said, Let me tell you this, I don't crab recreationally.
I don't fish recreationally.
I don't oyster recreationally.
That's how you make your life.
And I respect that.
And I don't want to walk on your toes.
That seemed to stop the questions.
And he goes, "Here's my name, here's my phone number.
Call me in April when I start crabbing."
And that was my first invite on the boat.
Now I spend 2 to 3 days a week all year long on the water.
I have three rules.
Don't get in their way because this is where they work.
Don't ask them to pose and just respect what they're doing.
I'm on the boat for the arc of the sun.
I call it the shadows change, the sky changes, the water changes.
And it is remarkable because it's never the same, even through the day.
Day to day it's different.
But through the day.
And I love painting these guys purely from the point of being a painter.
You're always watching their faces because they read weather so much faster, like a little bit of cool breeze will blow through and it could rain.
It's bringing water with it.
The sun's coming down through the clouds like this and it's drinking up the water and it's going to rain the next day.
There's all these things that they teach you.
This painting there of Tyrone, I think he'd prefer I didn't paint that one because he knows that there's weather coming.
And it was also at the time where George Floyd had been killed by the police.
I don't normally attach a political significance to my paintings, but in this instance, the look on his face and that there was weather coming, it became there's a storm coming.
I use a magnifying glass when I'm painting these portraits because you look at the web of wrinkles coming out of their eyes and down their faces.
It's like every creek, every river, every cove that they spent their lives on.
I will kid these guys because every now and then the light's perfect.
The sky's perfect.
And I go, Man, you guys are so picturesque today.
(laughs) They don't think of themselves as picturesque.
They are shocked that I paint this stuff.
It's gritty, it's uncomfortable at times.
It's living history, each painting.
It's just a way to honor them and say, thank you.
[VINCE] We are in an organic society, an ever changing society, that through sea level rise and climate change, the landscape is vanishing.
But equally important, the lived experience is vanishing.
I go to more funerals then baby showers.
[PAUL] I remember interviewing a local waterman here, Turk Cannon.
The last Black Waterman in St. Michaels.
He had five children and he sent them to college and they all got other jobs.
And he was so proud of the fact that none of them had to do this.
I said, Well, what do you think about working on the water?
I'd love it, if I could do it all over again.
This is exactly what I'd do.
And yet, he saw for his children a better future.
[MONICA DAVIS] With the decline of the watermen industry, the Turner industry stopped.
How do you keep a community self-sustaining, if you don't have any more job opportunities?
People, they became educated and went on to other places, whether Baltimore, or D.C. and the properties are being sold for the most part to white individuals.
[KAT] Gentrification is how I would describe what's happening in this space now.
A lot of the buildings, the families that I remember as a kid aren't here anymore.
As a young person, it's kind of difficult to understand how much is lost when you know that general store that used to be there is now a house or a community center that has always been there is now gone and you just see empty spaces where history used to be.
There's a sense of change and there's nothing wrong with change, but there's also a very deep need to conserve what has been lost and what is under threat of being lost.
[IMANI] There are so many people that have been, you know, kind of at the start of innovations that we still use on the water or we're really big businessmen that, you know, there's no records of.
It's only right now stories and memories.
[TARENCE] They say that when an elder dies, the library burns.
I tell young people all the time, don't be afraid to ask questions.
When you are there with your grandma or your granddad, you should be sitting there at their feet.
Christmas time, you should be at the library.
Where's the library?
At the feet of your grandparents.
In the Black community, there should be your library.
[KENTAVIUS JONES] Oral history is highly important, and especially, if you're talking about the African-American experience.
[MONICA] A lot of times our histories are not in the school books.
So, it's vital to our legacy.
Also, for other people to understand, Black people were self sustaining people at an early time.
It's not about slavery, and I think sometimes their story gets missing and the dark side sometimes overpowers that.
It's important for people to know Watermen did exist.
A lot of times people like Black people are afraid of water.
No, we're not.
We have a history and a legacy that you can go back in and see that's inaccurate.
[ROWENA] With this generation now, everyone should know about it because you're getting ready to take things out of the books, which they should not take out the books.
We want them to know the truth that people are still living who know the truth.
It was difficult coming from Africa for our ancestors to come, but still we're here and we have gained a lot.
And we achieved a lot.
It was hard.
We weren't all wealthy with all the debt, but...we grew.
♪ ♪ [KAT] Entrepreneurship is the spirit of innovation and creation.
And historically, entrepreneurship was born out of necessity.
[DENNIS] As I've grown older, I'm learning to appreciate the contributions of the Bellevue community.
They were able to thrive and be self-sufficient during this period when we knew that life wasn't fair for people of color.
[VINCE] In the midst of segregation.
In the midst of it all, they found a way to make a way on the Chesapeake.
[KAT] It requires courage.
It requires being able to connect the dots in ways that most wouldn't think of.
And it requires the tenacity to keep going, even when things aren't easily available or readily handed to you.
[ROWENA] Those individuals who were committed to their craft.
- And that legacy is still there in terms of the history of the people and the community.
That's currently is there as well.
[KAT] Watermen and waterwomen and those that worked Turner Seafood Company, as a kid it was just like this, this kind of mythos or like lore, you know, of the area.
And you would hear it and you would see the pictures.
You know, we would go up to the Turner Seafood plant before it was changed into a home and play around out there.
It wasn't logging or registering as like, this is history, you know, this is important.
This is Black history.
This is something that should be nourished and appreciated, not dismissed in the ignorance of youth.
And I'm first to say that's the first thing that I did.
And then, you turn around and all of those things are gone.
And all that's left is the stories.
Looking at the Black watermen of the Eastern Shore, the historical photographs that are available have an entirely different meaning because I have to hunt for it now.
It's not just there.
You have to pursue it.
[CLARA] The Eastern Shore is one of the richest areas in this country in terms of history, not just African-American history, but history, period.
I work with about seven different agencies and I stay on the phone half the day and on Zoom, trying save this history any way I can.
[PAUL] We love the Chesapeake Bay.
In fact, so many people love the Chesapeake Bay that we're in danger of loving it to death.
And so, we try to help people fall in love with the bay, so that they become better stewards of the bay.
But not just of the bay, because we want people to also fall in love with the people of the bay, with the cultures of the bay, and to understand how our actions might impact the work of the watermen or others who are making their living on or around the bay, deriving their livelihood and their identity from this place.
We want to preserve their stories and we want to tell their stories.
And sometimes, we want to just stand back and let them tell their stories, use their voices.
They're much more authentic when you hear it straight from the source.
That's what the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is all about, a place to preserve those stories and pass them on so that people fall in love with this place and, with its cultures.
[KENTAVIUS] When I think about and reflect upon the work that I do, I would say we do.
It feels special.
It feels necessary.
I just feel fortunate to be a part of it, really.
[IMANI] We definitely should document as much as we can about the past.
That's a really comforting piece to people that are starting the relationship with the waterways, you know, especially Black people.
For me, this isn't an area where it's new that we're coming into.
We're just bringing you back home.
[DENNIS] When we have a sense of who we are in the past.
That kind of helps to affirm who we are in the present.
And as we go forward as well.
[MONICA] Just understand the heritage of how this Black community lived together, worked together, and communed together.
It's empowering to me because sometimes you don't see that now.
[VINCE] That's a story of resiliency.
That's the story that people weren't settling, that people wanted more for their life when they built schools and homes and became leaders in their communities.
[TARENCE] This water around here has been the lifeblood of Black folk to get to freedom.
It fed the African-American community.
[IMANI] Our relationship with seafood and the water like didn't start as our own, but we made it our own.
That's how we feed our families.
And I think it's funny now that it is a luxury thing to eat oysters.
And I think, like we really need to start getting back to oysters, kind of being home grown.
[MONICA] I think me coming back here is seeing the future of a space to see that what it used to be can be again, right.
Because it was this entrepreneur type of town where people lived and thrive.
Now, with technology, people can like work anywhere and live anywhere, so we can make it more attractive again.
It can be another space where African-Americans are thriving and doing well.
[IMANI] It's about being really adaptive.
Being really resilient.
Being a waterman to me is someone who in every single season is always like, How can I be more efficient?
How can I be lucrative?
I've been on work boats where we have a little propane tank this big for six people and it's snowing and sleeting, and raining all at the same time and it's 30 degrees.
But there's a new wave of commercial fisheries that's coming.
It's never going to be how it was back then and it's never going to be the traditional ways that we were involved in fisheries.
Reshaping it is really what's going to take us forward.
[TYRONE] I have a grandson named Bryson.
He loves it, he called me up, said, "Pop-Pop, you going to come get me so I can go out next weekend?
I want to come and go fishing" and when I take him back home.
He hates to go home.
He loves being on that boat.
He tells me, he said, "Pop-Pop, I want to be a captain."
I say, Okay, Bryson.
I'll teach you everything I know, so you can be a captain when you grow up.
♪ ♪ [ANNOUNCER] Water's Edge.
Black Waterman of the Chesapeake was made possible by Irene and Edward H. Kaplan.
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