Vince Leggett Tells of African American Ties to History, Culture, and Waterways of Chesapeake Bay Region


People pick the meat out of crabs harvested from the Chesapeake Bay to send to market, c. 1905. Image: Keystone View Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress

February 2021

Long before the abolition of slavery, the Chesapeake Bay region played a major role in enslaved African Americans' search for freedom and a better life. Maryland's Eastern Shore includes a number of historically-significant sites related to the Underground Railroad, a loosely structured network of routes and safehouses that people escaping slavery would use to travel north. Blacks worked the region's waters as ship-builders, crew, and sailors. For much of the 20th century, they comprised the majority of workers in oyster and crab-processing houses and their stories were largely passed down orally and through family histories.

Vince Leggett

Vince Leggett is founder and president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation (BOCF), whose work brings to light the maritime history of African Americans in the Chesapeake Bay. The foundation maintains a collection of records, artifacts, genealogies, and more than 40,000 photographs representing 200 years of African American life and work in the seafood and maritime industries.The Library of Congress and the U.S. Congress designated BOCF as a Local Legacies project, and former governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, commissioned Leggett as an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake in 2003. Below are his responses to some questions that help shed light on this history.

What sparked your initial interest in African American history in the Chesapeake Bay?

Oyster fishermen
Oyster fishermen dredge for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in c. 1905. Image: Keystone View Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress

I am a native-born Marylander, with an innate interest in the preservation of our bay and an understanding of life over the decades here for my African American community. I spent years traveling the deep and shallow reaches of the bay, and as a fellow waterman, I was welcomed into thriving and struggling shoreline communities. I've listened to hundreds of stories of African American fishers, captains, and maritime business owners. The more I heard about their way of life, the more I understood how the older generation's wisdom and culture might become lost to history.

That sense of responsibility was the driving force behind the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, which I founded in 1984 to advocate for preservation; to inspire the next generation of activists; and to celebrate our cultural history. BOCF is smashing the myth that African Americans and marginalized citizens do not care about the environment.

You wrote The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes more than 20 years ago to raise awareness of the African American maritime heritage of the Chesapeake Bay. How did you begin researching such under-documented stories?

People standing in front of a home
The family of an oyster fisherman in front of their home near Sherwood, Maryland in c. 1905. Image: Keystone View Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress

I am not the first descendant of slaves to want to tell the real story of African Americans in the 1800s and 1900s. It won't be found in the history textbooks of most American classrooms, where the white perspective has had an erasing effect. But it does exist in the hearts of those of us who are only a generation or two removed from the plantation. We rely on ourselves to preserve the truths, and honor those who lived in that time.

To help me write The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes, I spent countless hours listening to one of my mentors, Mr. William A. Diggs (1918-1995). A Charles County, Maryland, native, Mr. Diggs was a historian and retired educator who taught school during segregation on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay in Charles and Dorchester counties. He called his ancestors "saltwater Negroes," meaning they were born in Africa.

Mr. Diggs' stories spoke to the resilience of the downtrodden and the rise of Maryland history-makers such as North Pole explorer Matthew Henson, who was born in Nanjemoy, Charles County Maryland; and Mathias De Sousa, a fur trader and sailor and the first African American member of the Maryland Legislature.

Is there a particular person from the region's past whose story inspires you today?

Vince Leggett and his mentor smiling
Mr. Leggett with his mentor, Captain Earl White, both of whom have been honored as "Admirals of the Chesapeake Bay" by the state of Maryland. Image courtesy of Vince Leggett

I have been enriched by meeting many African American storytellers over the years. The one man whose words, history, and heart inspired my book is the old waterman, Captain Earl White. Captain Earl was born in 1919 in Dames Quarter on Deal Island on the lower eastern shore county of Somerset. He toiled for nearly 70 years oystering the bay, and in his retirement, he worked as the first mate and field educator on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's floating classroom, the skipjack Stanley Norman. He schooled me on what he called "the black side of the bay" and "the other Chesapeake." He shared with me the stories that his father and grandfathers had passed along to him.

When you speak to the public, what are audiences most surprised to learn about African Americans and their connection to the Chesapeake Bay?

joseph stewart canal
The seven-mile-long Joseph Stewart's Canal, near Madison, Maryland and today part of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, was dug by hand by enslaved and free African Americans between 1810 to 1832 to help move inland timber and crops into and beyond the Chesapeake Bay. Harriet Tubman used the secret communication network used by African American mariners engaged in the region to help support her work on the Underground Railroad. Image: Beth Parnicza/National Park Service

Audiences are impressed learning about the length, depth, and breadth of the African American presence on the bay, historically and currently. They come to realize that African Americans were more than slaves, servants, crew members, crab pickers, and oyster shuckers. Some Marylanders never learned that familiar local historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman had deep connections to the bay. Most importantly, my audiences are awakened to the truths behind what they have always understood as American colonial history. In so many cases, I found that African American stories were embedded within white American history. The history of African Americans living and working on the Chesapeake had long been overwritten by the white versions of successful enterprise and thriving communities. African American watermen have essentially been cut out of photos, history books, movies, and professional journals.

How can we harness the interest and passions that Americans have in our nation's maritime history to build wider, more diverse support for the stewardship of our waters today?

students gathered around an aquatic tank
Children check out some fish at a public event for Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The truth is that many citizens living and working in Chesapeake Bay region are not exposed daily to the bay and don't often consider their connection to its tributaries. As a result, people have developed a sense of alienation regarding responsibility for our watershed. In order to change this mindset, we must begin by increasing environmental literacy among our school students. From my years in the field of education, I have seen that often young folks dismiss the bay as a playground for the rich. BOCF has created environmental education programs that engage urban schools with high percentages of minority students. Also, people of color have largely been absent from environmental policy development and implementation discussions, and excluded from state resource allocations. With today's increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can raise issues regarding environmental justice to the attention of lawmakers and inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Finally, I see a great need for leadership at influential organizations to shift from majority-white and become more representative of the bay area's diverse population. To address these challenges, BOCF has outlined environmental, economic, and social justice imperatives and works to foster cross-generational interest in conservation.

In 2019, Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary was designated in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. What overlap do you see between your work and the presence of this new national marine sanctuary?

Kayakers on the water
Kayakers enjoy a day on the water in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Kate Thompson/NOAA

I find Mallows Bay fascinating, as a living organic laboratory with a complex anthropological history of white, Native Americans, and African Americans. My mentor Mr. Diggs taught me that Southern Maryland counties are the cradle of African American history and culture, between the Patuxent and Potomac tributaries. These navigable waterways spawned the growth of our nascent nation, as fishing and farming industries flourished. However, these ancient rivers were waters of hope and despair for enslaved and free Africans, given their place in history with the Underground Railroad. BOCF's expertise in this chapter of the African American story is a possible area of collaboration. The sanctuary's ties to military engagements are also of interest. African Americans have been a part of every battle fought by the U.S., as free men or enslaved. This truth presents another avenue for educational programming on the sanctuary's connections to African Americans.

Why should Americans care about this chapter in the Chesapeake Bay's history?

Four women smiling in front of a car
Four young women stand beside their car on a 1958 visit to Carr's Beach, the most famous of beaches for African Americans in the Chesapeake Bay region, including Sparrow's Beach (Annapolis) and the beachfront communities of Highland Beach, Columbia Beach, and Arundel-On-The-Bay. These historic beaches were the only ones available to African Americans before segregation began to end with major civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Image: WANN Radio Station Records, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Black history is American history, and American history is Black history. The two of them cannot be told separately or considered apart. This is one of our country's wrongs that I am working to make right. I think all of us in the modern era can acknowledge that and give the same honor and respect to African American history as the "founding fathers" history that we all were taught. We now need school systems, governments, and all our institutions to see the value of this inclusive mindset. This bay, too, is yours and mine. It belongs to everyone and we are all tied to its history, culture, and ecosystem.

New Partnership to Map African American Historic Sites in Chesapeake Bay Watershed

With a goal of telling a more complete American story, a new partnership between the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership; will map and identify sites and landscapes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed region significant to African American history and culture.

The mapping initiative, "Documenting Chesapeake Watershed Sites and Landscapes Important to African Americans," was announced in October and is intended to ensure that places important to African Americans are better represented in land conservation priorities in the Chesapeake Bay region, and ultimately that more of those places are conserved through land protection and historic preservation.

"While 18 million people live here, there are important sites and stories that have not received equal attention and need to be elevated and remembered," said Wendy O'Sullivan, who serves as the superintendent of the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Office. "This partnership to document African American sites and landscapes is crucial to ensuring these places are honored and reflected in the Chesapeake and American stories."

Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the ingenuity, perseverance, and productivity of African Americans has played a critical role in the viability and cultural heritage of our nation.

"Yet the pervasive impact of African American communities on the legacy of the Chesapeake Bay watershed across four centuries has been underreported, which does not do justice to these vital and varied contributions or the deep and layered significance of this cultural landscape," she said. "That is why the National Trust is honored to take part in telling a fuller story of the Chesapeake Bay region by recognizing and documenting the rich history of African American communities in the states that surround the watershed."

black and white photo of people on a boat
A group of African Americans pose aboard the bugeye Thomas Blades in the harbor of St. Michaels, Maryland, c. 1910. Image courtesy gift of Mary V. Thomas to the collection of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Clarissa Lam, a student at Reed College and a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, contributed to this report.