60 Years on the Bay with Earl White
Throughout history, blacks have worked the Chesapeake 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 blacks to work as laborers, longshoremen and seafood, vegetable and fruit packers. Blacks also worked as oyster tongers and served as dredge crews on skipjacks, deadrises and other Bay boats. In some cases, blacks piloted schooners and bugeyes up and down the Bay, hauling seafood, farm supplies and produce to distant markets.
During the steamship era, blacks worked as stokers, firemen, stewards and deck hands. Some of the best oyster tongs in Maryland and Virginia were crafted along the Bay settlements by blacksmiths, who supplied many other tools for use on land and sea. To the surprise and fascination of many, blacks were also sail makers, boat builders and owners of seafood processing plants.
My odyssey to document and commemorate the role African Americans have played in the Bay region's maritime industries began in 1983. Through the collection of memorabilia, photographs, and written and oral histories, the Blacks of the Chesapeake project was born.
One thing I found during this journey is that searching for black maritime history is similar to visiting yard sales or antique shops. The best deals are not in the window but tucked away behind a heavy dresser, suspended from the rafters or nestled among clutter and confusion.
Among the treasures I have uncovered, those most noteworthy have undoubtedly been interviews with watermen. And, during these 15 years, none have been more memorable than the time spent with Earl White, former waterman and currently the first mate of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) flagship educational vessel, the skipjack Stanley Norman.
60 Years on the Bay
Born November 17, 1918 in Dames Quarter, near Deale Island, Earl White was practically baptized in the Chesapeake Bay. Following the traditions of his father and grandfather, Earl started hand-tonging for oysters at age 14 on a deadrise workboat in Tangier Sound. Back then, Earl spent most of his time oystering, crabbing and occasionally clamming, a task he admits he did not really enjoy. He also worked the commercial fishery in the Atlantic Ocean, fishing from Virginia to Connecticut. During 60 years on the Bay, Earl experienced its beauty, tremendous bounty and sometimes, its wrath.
"Don't let anybody tell you that it can't get bad on the Chesapeake Bay... I've been out there in storms when the lightning hit and ran right up the rigging¯POW!" Fierce weather was always a factor for watermen. As Earl tells it, watermen had to work hard and fast. "I've seen the Bay when the weather was so bad you couldn't catch nothing but cold."
One of the worst storms Earl can remember was back in the 1950s. They were traveling from Crisfield at 4 p.m. on a small two masted bugeye called the Clarence and Eva. "We were heading up the Bay near Herrington Harbor when the wind struck out of the northeast. We were on the western side, and the first thing that happened was the high seas sunk the yawl boat, which was used to push the larger boat. The yawl boat went straight down but she was hung to the "davit" attached to the back of the main boat used for raising and lowering the yawl boat. We had to wrestle with that little boat all night, love you Jesus. The wind blew and it blew so hard that when the seas would break, it looked like streaks of fire running right across the water... After that we trimmed the sails as small as possible, and scudded all that night reaching Solomon's Island at eight the next morning."
The first skipjack Earl ever oystered on was the Ralph T. Webster from Tilghman Island. "We worked the middle deck of the boat handling the dredges and tending the jib sail out on the bowsprit... we loaded her twice a day, 400 bushels each time. We really used to get a lot of oysters off the Hanes Oyster bed off of Deale Island... back then, you had to help unload every bushel that went off the boat at the oyster packing houses. You shoveled the oysters into a big tub and you had to really be careful because those heavy buckets and booms would swing all over your heads."
Jimmy Murphy of the famed Tilghman Island family, noted for their skill in handling the few remaining skipjacks still plying their trade under sail, has this to say: "Earl, his brother Ralph Junior, and Bunny and Floyd were one of the best four-man crews that probably ever worked the oyster bars of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the crews were made up of six men, but those White brothers were stronger, especially that Junior, and they had more knowledge than most of their counterparts."
According to Earl, there was no class system on the Bay, everybody worked hard. Knowledge and safety were a must. The work on an oyster dredge boat was very specialized and each member had to know how to do his job or everyone would starve. What Earl liked the best was, "Everyone got paid the same. You take out for the expenses, take a share for the boat and then "whack-up" the remaining money with the crew... out on the Bay if you were the best at your trade it didn't matter whether you were black or white, old or young. Race was never a big deal on the water, but once you came back to land, that was another matter."
Earl recalls how the old skipjack captains didn't care how many oysters were on deck or whether you had finished culling them, separating shells and checking the oysters for size, because the next load was coming in. "We would load them skipjacks up and then go to the oyster houses. It was a lot of oysters around there then. People don't shuck oysters like they used to, they don't go to the oyster houses anymore. There were mainly black men and women working in the shucking plants. If you go around maybe you would find one or two whites working. I know because I used to dredge oysters all day long and then shuck oysters half the night down on Tilghman Island. I wouldn't want to see all the oysters and crabs I have handled in my life."
Earl dredged for oysters from November to April, during the dead cold. "When you are working on the Bay you have on plenty of clothes, but you still get cold. There's an awful lot of bending and pulling on an oyster boat and most of the time you are working on your knees in the ice, mud and shells, culling oysters on the deck of the boat. We used to beat our hands, stomp our feet... anything to keep the circulation going. Sometimes we would fill our gloves up with water and place them over the exhaust pipes from the motor."
Sharing the Wealth
For the past 10 years, Earl has served as CBF's first and only mate on the Stanley Norman. Working with several captains over the years, Earl has taken thousands of school children out on the Bay to learn about its history, aquatic life and conservation. Earl even worked on the boat when it was privately used for oyster dredging with Captain Ed Farley of St. Michaels, Maryland. "I've done it all on this boat. I even remember the guy that had her built in Salisbury. He named the skipjack after his two sons, Stanley and Norman."
Since Earl has been working for CBF he doesn't keep-up with the oyster reports like he used to. Earl laments, "This Bay has been good to me, but I have seen a lot of hard times over the last 60 years on the water... talking to other watermen, they tell me if the oysters don't die, they should have a good harvest." The hard times have resulted in the near demise of the famed skipjacks; only six worked this past season. Earl recounts that 500 to 600 skipjacks, schooners and bugeyes used to work the Bay.
To look into Earl's ebony eyes is to catch the spirit of the Chesapeake Bay. His memories, and those of other black watermen, are a priceless piece of the family tree documenting the historical lives of blacks working and living on the Bay. It is through these stories that we glean a unique, human glimpse of black history on the Bay for future generations to learn from, marvel at and enjoy.
Governor Glendening in November 1996 commissioned Earl White "Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay," the highest honor a Maryland Governor can bestow.
Vincent O. Leggett is the director of the "Blacks of the Chesapeake" project. He is also an academic advisor for Anne Arundel Community College, specializing in recruitment and retention of minority students.