Blacks of the Chesapeake's Semester on the Bay:
An Exploration of Science, History and Culture
African Americans have been plying the waters of the Chesapeake for more than two hundred years, but their contributions have been little known. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, many African-Americans turned to the bounty of the Bay to support themselves and their families. Despite strenuous labor and difficult working conditions, many African-Americans excelled as watermen. Since then, African-American watermen have worked the Bay's waters harvesting crabs, oysters and finfish while hundreds of men and women also worked in the seafood processing industry picking crab meat and shucking oysters.
Several famous African American Marylanders had their early beginnings on the Chesapeake Bay. Frederick Douglass for example was born in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There is also Harriet Tubman the famous conductor of the Underground Railroad who was born in Dorchester County. Both of these individuals' lives were shaped by the bay. Enslaved at a waterfront plantation, young Frederick Douglass watched boats on the Chesapeake Bay. "This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom," he later wrote. Douglass, who worked in a Baltimore shipyard and fled slavery disguised as a sailor, became a leading abolitionist and a statesman. He is one of many African-Americans whose fates and fortunes were steeped in maritime history, a saga largely undocumented. Even for a slave maritime related employment offered more than just an opportunity for slaves to acquire valuable skills and a chance for financial improvement. It also provided an avenue to freedom for many escaping slaves, including Frederick Douglass.
Harriet Tubman used the Bay and its many rivers, creeks, and streams as an integral part of the escape routes when she escorted ran-away slaves North on the Underground Railroad.
Through organizations like the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, Inc. that situation is gradually beginning to change. Increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of the significant roles African Americans have played on the Bay. Throughout history, African Americans have worked the Bay. They would take to the water during oyster, clamming, crabbing, and fishing seasons, and head for the farms during the summer. Crops such as tobacco, which were being shipped on the Bay, enabled African Americans to work as laborers, longshoremen and seafood, vegetable and fruit packers.
African Americans also worked as oyster tongers, and served as dredge crew on skipjacks and other Bay boats. In some cases, African Americans piloted schooners and bugeyes up and down the Bay transporting seafood, farm supplies, lumber, and produce to distance markets.
The Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation is developing a historical, cultural and environmental education center in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Adams Park School located on College Creek. The museum will feature stories, research articles, photographs, interviews, and other video/multimedia products about the men and women who have worked the bay, display tools used for harvesting crabs, fish, clams, and oysters.
The Environmental Education Center will involve hands-on projects for students and teachers to create wetland and habitats, plant bay grasses, and construct Oyster Reefs. The Center will feature oral histories of many of the African American watermen from the area whose lives have been shaped by the Chesapeake
There is currently an on-water program being operated by the Blacks of the Chesapeake which involves sailing on heritage vessels, such as skipjacks, bugeyes, and other bay-built boats. This program utilizes the Blacks of the Chesapeake's unique"Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes School Curriculum and Field Education Program."
The Blacks of the Chesapeake's Science and Social Sciences Curriculum integrates Bay Ecology and Skipjack Heritage with African American History and Culture. Through a series of lectures, seminars, on water and field-based experiences the students and staff of the GCA gained an increased awareness of Bay ecology and learned about effective strategies to improve the water quality of its tributaries. The staff and students were provided training in the practical application of techniques such as Oyster habitat creation and the planting of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation.(SAV's) In addition, they gained an increased awareness of the rich contributions of African Americans have made and continue to make in the maritime trades and seafood related industries throughout the Chesapeake Bay region
Beginning in late September, the approximately 20 students sailed abroad the Skipjack, Nathan of Dorchester, operated by the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, docked in Cambridge. The students ranged in ages, 8- 18 years attended the Genesis Christian Academy(GCA) located in Deale, Maryland, enjoyed the Fall 2001 semester sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.
Each Monday from September to November the students were provided a special field trip to historical, cultural, or scientific sites around the Bay.
Initially, the students and staff visited Cambridge and toured the Horn Point Labs, operated by the University of Maryland Center for Estuarine Studies. They learned about the Oyster Recovery Program located there and received special instruction on the important of Oyster to the successful restoration of the Bay. Captain Frank Newton and his crew provided hands on experience sailing the Nathan. The students also learned about Harriet Tubman and the special role she played as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman was born in the Bucktown section of Cambridge around 1820 and assisted more than 300 slaves escape to freedom including her own aging parents. The captains taught the kids and staff about navigation and aids to navigation, history and heritage of Skipjacks, water quality testing, harvesting oysters and planting of Bay grasses.
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) located in Edgewater was another field visit which the students visited. While there the students received special instruction on important of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV's) habitat restoration, and wetland protection. The students received instructions on canoeing and rowing while exploring the pristine shoreline of the Rhode's River. SERC is also an excellent venue for the integration of ecology, history and culture. The Java Trail has number of interpretative stations informing visitors about the 19th century tobacco plantation primarily operated by slaves.
The young people visited Kent Island where they toured Harris's Seafood Plant and talked with the owners about the state of Oyster industry in Maryland. They also had a chance to see first hand the men and women actually shucking oyster in the plant. Again, the students boarded the Nathan and sailed down Eastern Bay and approached St.Michaels on the Miles Rivers. They docked at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and received a lecture on the Oyster Exhibit. That new exhibit was an excellent example of the integration of the ecology, history, and culture of the Bay.
In Baltimore the students had an opportunity to board two famous vessels and received a lecture from the Captain William Pinkney, Master of the Freedom Schooner Amistad. The students also received valuable information about career opportunities for African Americans in the United States Coast Guard Academy while on board of the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle.
Also while in the Inner Harbor the students traveled by water taxis to historic Fells Point and visited the future site of the Frederick Douglass and Isaacs Meyers Maritime Park and Museum. Fell's Point during the 19th and 20th century was the center of international maritime trade and African Americans were an integral part of that maritime culture.
While cruising along the Inner Harbor the students were provided with a lecture on the Maryland Tributary Strategies Program and were introduced the projects currently underway on the Patapsco-Back River Team which encompasses Baltimore City and surrounding counties.
They also traveled by water to Ft. McHenry and received a lecture on African American involvement in the War of 1812. Mr. Leggett portrayed the character of Charles Ball, a free African American, who served in Commodore Joshua Barney's Chesapeake Flotilla. African Americans such as Charles Ball, William Williams, and George R. Roberts were among those who successfully defended Baltimore in 1814. This was the same battle in which Francis Scott Key wrote the poem the Star-Spangled Banner which later became the American National Anthem.
The culminating field trip was in November to southern Maryland where the students and staff visited the Calvert Marine Museum located on the Patuxent River. This science-based facility specializes in Natural History. The students had their final instructions aboard the Nathan of Dorchester as they sail pass the age-old Calvert Cliffs.
The Genesis Christian Academy has two waterfront campuses. The main campus is located on Rockhold Creek and the second on Broad Water Creek, located in southern Anne Arundel County. During the Spring Semester students will be building their own Oyster Reefs, developing habitats, and planting grasses at their own school. Academy a tuition-free International Day School received a grant from the Verizon Foundation to make this unique on-water learning experience possible.
The program was designed and coordinated by Vincent O. Leggett, Director of Special Projects,and Coordinator of the Patapsco-Back River Tributrary Strategies Team, Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Leggett is also the President and Founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, Inc. based in Annapolis, Maryland. The Genesis Christian
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