Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States? It is a cornerstone of environmental and economic activity of the more than 18 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from Virginia and West Virginia to as far north as New York.
We’re in the center of it, giving us the good fortune to take advantage of its generous bounty and beauty. It provides livelihoods and sustenance for countless communities, businesses and individuals, influencing so much of our lives right down to the air we breath.
Oysters ready to be shucked at the Annapolis Maritime Museum. Image courtesy of Visit Annapolis.
“Waterman” (a term for both men and women) have been working the Chesapeake Bay since the 1600s. They’ve been making a living crabbing, fishing and oystering, and other jobs that support those activities on the Bay. When we are enjoying our beloved blue crabs, oysters, rockfish, and dozens of other varieties of delightful fish from the Chesapeake, these are the people to whom we owe our gratitude.
Black Watermen - History
Black watermen became prominent in the Chesapeake in the mid 1800’s, being issued Seamen’s Protection Certificates, and classified as citizens years before the Emancipation Proclamation.1
Their presence and contribution as independent sailors was so valuable on the water that laws put in place to restrict their ability to work were largely ignored, in spite of the penalties imposed on white watermen who worked with them, including a loss of livelihood.
Their history and legacy is documented and available in large part due to one of today’s black watermen, Vince Leggett, author of the book, The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes, and founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation.
Black Watermen - Today
In 2003, Leggett became the third African-American to be named Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay, a prestigious achievement award recommended by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and bestowed by the Governor to an individual who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the conservation and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2017, Kent Island resident Captain Eldridge Meredith, known as the “quintessential waterman”, became the fifth African-American to be presented the award and became the 101st Admiral of Chesapeake Bay, on his 91st birthday.
Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford presented the award saying, “Captain Meredith has spent a lifetime on one of America’s most treasured resources,” said Lt. Governor Rutherford. “His unwavering commitment and dedication to the Chesapeake Bay, which is both his home and livelihood, makes him the quintessential waterman and worthy of this prestigious honor.”2
Captain Tyrone Meredith, Captain Eldridge Meredith’s son, is a fifth generation waterman working the Bay today.
Tyrone Meredith of Queen Anne's County, son of Captain Eldridge Meredith, hand tonging for oysters in the Choptank River near Tilghman Island © Jay Fleming
Today’s watermen have had to adapt to the changing environment with fluctuating catches. It’s not an easy life, whether working the water from sunrise to dusk in good weather and bad, or shucking oysters every day. So much depends upon the catch. In the best of times many have to work second jobs.
There is no better way to depict the life of today’s black watermen than through the camera lens of renowned Chesapeake photographer and Annapolis native, Jay Fleming:
The late Cornelius White working on the skipjack in the City of Crisfield, MD 2019 © Jay Fleming
In this picture of Cornelius White, I see a welcoming, good-natured man, working on the skipjack City of Crisfield during Maryland’s wild oyster season in 2013. The life takes its toll…sadly, Cornelius drowned while working on the water in 2019.
Darrel Roy and his brother Vaughn Roy harvesting wild oysters © Jay Fleming
The Roy family works together. Here, Darrel Roy suits up his brother, Vaughn with gear to dive for wild oysters. While Vaughan is diving, Darrel and his brother Terrance Roy sort through oysters.
Women picking crabs at Metompkin Seafood in Crisfield, MD © Jay Fleming
Women hard at work picking mounds of crabmeat.
Building crab pots at Eddie Heath Crab Pot Company in Crisfield, Maryland © Jay Fleming
Two men building crab pots at Eddie Heath Crab Pot Company in Crisfield, Maryland, one of the largest suppliers of crab pots and crabbing equipment on the east coast. The crab pots are all made by hand.
The Life of an Eastport Shucker
My favorite way to learn about a person’s experience is to hear it in his or her own voice. In 2005, Jeff Holland, then Executive Director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, interviewed Lyle Smith, a man who shucked oysters at McNasby Oyster Company in Eastport before the business closed in 1985. It is an interesting and in-depth interview about his life as a shucker, the changes in the Bay and his way of life. Listen to it here.
There are numerous resources available to learn more about the rich history and current life of African-American watermen, such as the Annapolis Maritime Museum, in person at 723 Second St., Annapolis (Eastport) or online; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at cbf.org; and the Chesapeake Bay Program.
1 Reference, “Life on the Bay, through ebony eyes”, Chesapeake Bay Program,
Jay Fleming Photography, www.jayflemingphotography.com