Documenting Sites of African American Watermen in Virginia
A closer look at the work of the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative.
The Chesapeake watershed region has significant meaning to Black history. From tobacco plantations to stops on the underground railroad—this is a landscape of enslavement, civil war, and activism. It is also where generations of Black Americans have made their living from the waters of the Bay while also looking to the watershed as a place of gathering and recreation.
However, like many resources connected to historically excluded communities these sites have often been undocumented. The Chesapeake Mapping Initiative (CMI) looks to change all that. Since 2021 the National Trust for Historic Preservation, through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, has worked in collaboration with National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, and the states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to identify and map landscapes significant to Black history in the watershed.
In Virginia, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, this initial phase of the project focused on the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck, and Eastern Shore. The project included multiple avenues of outreach and public engagement activities—virtual meetings, online surveys, and follow up phone interviews, and direct descendent engagement. While many told the researchers that, “this project was 5-10 years too late” due to the loss of these valuable assets and the living watermen who can tell their story, the result was a much-needed context study which found a total of 97 sites associated with African American Watermen, with an additional 51 needing further research.
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As Seri Worden, senior director of preservation programs said “Lack of data regarding Black history resources is a self-perpetuating issue, as it leads to these resources being underrepresented or underfunded in historic preservation, conservation, and interpretation efforts. The Chesapeake Mapping Initiative is dedicated to centering the Black community in understanding what is significant to these communities.”
Below are 7 sites that illustrate the breadth of information and the types of sites found along the Chesapeake Watershed in Virginia.
Cook’s Oyster & Seafood Company (Gloucester Point, Virginia)
Eldridge Cook (1915-2014), an African American waterman, businessman, and community leader owned and operated Cook’s Oyster & Seafood Company on this site from 1939 to 2010. Cook first entered the seafood industry at age 17, when he purchased a truck to deliver oysters from Gloucester Point to the Northern Neck. He later purchased this property on Sarah Creek in 1939 and formed a Chesapeake Bay seafood transporting company by 1940. In the 1950s, Cook expanded into processing after forming Cook’s Oyster Company, also known as Cook’s Seafood Company. At its height, Cook’s Seafood employed up to 250 people. The site is representative of a mid-twentieth-century oyster and seafood processing facility. At the time of the survey the property retained most of its historic buildings in good to poor condition.
Antioch Baptist Church (Susan, Virginia)
Antioch Baptist Church was historically and is currently a home church to the local African American waterman community. African American watermen and captains such as Captain Charles Forrest and Captain Coleman Johnson attended and served at Antioch Baptist Church during and after their careers as watermen.
Bayside Historic District (Near Onancock, Virginia)
With a period of significance spanning between 1880 and 1955, the Bayside Historic District has important historic resources in the areas of domestic architecture, commerce, and industry. The area, also known as White Rabbit, was historically an African American watermen community that stretched along Bayside Road from the Metropolitan United Methodist Church at the southern end, to the sharp turn at Doe Creek Road to the north. African American pickers (mostly women, but some men) who worked at Jack Johnson’s Picking House on Bayside Road lived in the Bayside community and walked to work. The Metropolitan United Methodist Church served as the spiritual and social center of the Bayside community.
Samuel D. Outlaw Blacksmith Shop (Onancock, Virginia)
Samuel D. Outlaw was a local African American blacksmith whose business represented the changes in blacksmithing from the early-to-late twentieth century and provided services to local watermen, farmers, and neighbors throughout the Onancock community for over 60 years. A prominent member of the Onancock community, he was one of the most successful and long-lasting blacksmiths on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The shop which includes the tools traditional craft includes a forge, cast iron vessels, vises, and planers to fabricate specialized metal tools with wood handles for watermen as well as wheels, axles, plows, and other implements—an increasingly rare, specialized shop type. Constructed in 1927, the Blacksmith Shop was in continuous use until 1972 when Outlaw’s operations were scaled back. Over the next twenty years until his retirement, Outlaw’s work focused on repairing hand tools and lighter tasks fabricating specialized pieces for watermen, farmers, and other workers. The site was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mathews Gaskins Sr. Residence (Weems, Virginia)
The house was the home of Mathews Gaskins Sr., an African American waterman, who built the home while working in the Chesapeake Bay area. According to his son, Captain Mathews Gaskins, Jr., Gaskins Sr. was an African American Menhaden (a type of fish) boat captain in Louisiana for what was then the Zapata Haynie Company (ZHC). Because they occur in alternate seasons, many African American watermen in Weems, like Gaskins, worked for the ZHC in Louisiana during fishing season, and returned to oyster in Virginia during oyster season. One of the first African American captains to work for the company in Louisiana—and one of a handful of African American captains from Weems—Gaskins Sr. lived at this residence during oyster season. While other families were watermen, he and his son were the only father-son Black captains in Lancaster County.
Burrell’s Marina (Near Urbanna, Virginia)
Burrell’s Marina was owned and operated by Alexander Burrell, Jr. Burrell was a second-generation African American waterman and boat builder; his father, Alexander Burrell, Sr. worked in the oyster industry. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Burrell returned to Middlesex County. His successful career as a waterman allowed him to establish Burrell’s Marina, which by the 1970s was noted for its amenities including a cement boat ramp, boat marina, and snack bar, as well as services including a marine railway, boat and motor repair, and served as a sub-contractor to the United States Coast Guard. Burrell operated the marina until his death in 1979; his wife, Elsie Earlene Homes Burrell continued to operate the marina until the early 1990s. Burrell’s Marina is an example of an early marina and watermen complex and is representative of the contributions of African American watermen.
Captain Harry Wilson Property (Sandy Point, Virginia)
This property was owned by Captain Harry Wilson, an African American waterman, and is part of the property owned by his family since 1877. Most of his family dating back to the 1870s were watermen, as well as his children’s generation. In an oral history interview with James Douglas, a waterman and relative of the Wilson’s, and his wife Daisy, they indicated that the dock (which they referred to and remember as a wharf) has been present for at least 90 years. The site was previously home to Harry Wilson’s oyster shucking house along the water, but all that remains are the dock, pilings, and crushed oyster shells. The family also built crab pots here. This section of Sandy Point was purchased in 1877 by brothers David Wilson and Mitchell Wilson II. The Douglases noted that the family was a free Black family, not enslaved.
Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Kayla Halberg is the director of survey & research for Commonwealth Preservation Group (CPG), and served as the project manager for the African American Watermen Project. She specializes in architectural and historical research, architectural survey, National Register nominations and historic context documents, public engagement, and preservation planning.
Ashlen Stump is a preservation associate at CPG, specializing in historic and architectural research and survey, oral histories and community outreach, and data analysis and flood mitigation for CPG and their joint venture, Building Resilient Solutions (BRS). For this project, Stump was involved with research, survey, oral history interviews, descendant outreach, and content development.
Laura van Opstal and Meghan Sullivan, architectural historians with RK&K, contributed to the architectural survey for the project. RK&K is experienced in conducting architectural surveys throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
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