Black Fishermen are the Cornerstone of America’s Commercial Industry – But Where Are They Now?

There were nine hundred Black commercial fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay. Today, there are nine.

Imani Black, founder of Minorities in Aquaculture, hosted a Zoom in 2021 with two remaining Black boat captains on the Chesapeake Bay – author, historian, and educator Admiral Vince Leggett and third-generation fisherman Captain Lamont Wright. In this captivating interview, the fishermen speak on their family’s history of enslavement and ties to the waterways, personal experience on the Chesapeake Bay, reasons for the decline of Black fishermen, and how they plan to reverse it.

“It’s crazy to me that we’ve gone from covering 90% of the commercial fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay to being (almost) non-existent. People see us as this ‘unicorn’…and not as major contributors of the Chesapeake Bay history.” – Imani Black, Founder of Minorities in Aquaculture.

black fishermen in America
Fishermen dredge for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, c. 1905. Image: Keystone View Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress via NOAA.gov

This may be a trigger to some, but there is no doubt that America’s commercial fishing industry is rooted in slavery. And rejecting this history – our history – is like cheating ourselves from honoring a trade that we love. The beautiful thing is that we are linked to generations of fishermen, partners of commercial fishermen, and their families of all backgrounds. And with that shared spirit of the water, may we acknowledge the past with respect and embrace it.

Like how the slave trade sought artisans, farmers, and fishers from Africa *for* their specific knowledge in sustainable living to sell and buy them *for* those distinct skills. From then on, generations of enslaved people worked on farms and plantations, perfecting the trade, only to hand over the harvest for others to profit. After the Civil War, farmers were pushed off the land and onto the sea, but with passed-down knowledge of the waterways, Black fishers could find new independence in fishing and running boats. But as Admiral Leggett and Captain Wright tell us, challenges remained and still do.

African American black oyster fishermen
An oyster fishing family and fisherman outside their home in Sherwood, Maryland, c. 1905. Image: Keystone View Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress via NOAA.gov

The stories go on, but most are untold. As Admiral Leggett put it, not only were the Black men and women on the Chesapeake Bay ignored, but time almost erased their history.

Almost.

Off the dock, Leggett made a career as an author, historian, and educator and founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation to bring awareness of African American and Black history on the Bay. Captain Wright has mentored and guided Black youth on the Bay for decades. And Imani Black founded MIA to inspire minority women into aquaculture careers. Today, the Admiral, Captain, and Black are joining forces to change the course of history in inspiring new ways!

black commercial fishermen Vince Leggett and Earl White
Mr. Leggett and his mentor, Captain Earl White, have been honored as “Admirals of the Chesapeake Bay” by the state of Maryland. Image courtesy of Vince Leggett via NOAA.gov
Excerpts from Admiral Leggett’s book, The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes. Courtesy of Vince Leggett via NOAA.gov
Black-fishing-captain-Wright
Captain Wright commercially fished the Bay for 30 years. He is now a 100 ton USCG Certified Master and charter boat captain in the Chesapeake Bay. Courtesy of Off Da’ Hook Charters.

 

Black-fishing-captain
Charter guests in front of Captain Wright’s vessel, Off Da’ Hook. Courtesy of Off Da’ Hook Charters.
imani-black-commercial-fisheman-woman
Imani Black, the founder of MIA, is a graduate student on track to be the first Black female captain on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Caroline Phillips for Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
Imani-Black-oyster-fisherman-commercial-fishing
MIA founder Imani Black with women of the Billion Oyster Project in NYC. Courtesy of Minorities in Aquaculture.

Taken from MIA’s YouTube channel, this compelling interview is outlined in 15-minute increments below. (Note: this is a safe space to talk about race, so please share your thoughts or any questions you may have in the comments section.) Let’s dive in! 

ZOOM: MIA Chesapeake Bay Excellence Black History Edition, 2022

Part 1: Meet the Captains

  • Admiral Leggett on his introduction to fishing and the connection to his family’s enslaved history in North Carolina, his extensive educational background, and creating literature to inform youth on the legacy of African American fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay
  • Captain Wright on being a third-generation captain and fisherman, a childhood working with his father – who is the oldest living Black captain of the Chesapeake Bay – and the importance of bringing family into the fold.

Part 2: Why Did Black Captains and Commercial Fishers Leave & Where Did They Go?

  • Captain Wright discusses firsthand experience with pay inequality, the differences in local fisheries, and what he’s done to bring Black youth on the water.
  • Admiral Leggett on researching for his book, The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes, and discovering shared obstacles among Black fishermen.

Part 3: What Is the History of African Americans in the Commercial Industry?

  • Admiral Leggett on how “Black fishermen are the backbone of the maritime and seafood industry on the Chesapeake Bay from the time of enslavement,” and the legacy of Black & African American female captains and fisherman’s wives.
  • Imani Black on the fishing industry during the Jim Crow era, why White captains were fined for exploiting Black fishermen, and the challenges up-and-coming Black fishermen face.

Part 4: What are Your Fondest Memories on the Chesapeake Bay & What Inspires You to Continue a Career?

  • Admiral Leggett and Captain Wright speak on the highlights of their careers.
  • “We need to find our own heroes. We need to identify our own pioneers because, here to fore, the system has not done that for us.” – Admiral Leggett.

Part 5: Q&A and “Resume of a Waterman” poem by Melanie Redding

  • Imani recites a piece of “Resume of a Waterman,” a memorable poem by Melanie Redding featured in Admiral Leggett’s book. (Must hear!)
  • Q: How can people not in the industry support Black fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay?
  • Q: Where can we locate Admiral Leggett’s educational literature?
  • Q: Are there other costs to a waterman (fees, insurance, etc.) that aren’t obvious to “landlubbers”/people not in the industry?
  • Q: How many marine mechanics do you know in the industry?
  • Q: Do you know of other Black commercial fishermen in different fisheries around the country?

Bonus: a feature on Imani Black, Admiral Leggett, and the Wright family legacy by WUSA9 News called A Vanishing Legacy: Black Captains of the Chesapeake Bay.

For more resources on African American and Black Fishermen in the U.S.

What are your thoughts after hearing the fishermen? What questions do you have? This is a safe space to talk about race, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!

To learn more about supporting Chesapeake Bay fishermen, visit Blacks of the Chesapeake or contact Imani Black at Minorities in Aquaculture through their website, Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter.

If you liked this, you’d love our interview with Imani here! 🐟

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  1. I am a black captain in Florida. I travel a lot because I sell blue crabs commercially and I captain my own crab boat.I only know of two maybe three blue crab captains in Florida and one in Georgia. We need more awareness in Florida and I would love to work with anyone willing to bring awareness to the lack of black presence in commercial fishing. Especially in Florida and Georgia.

    • Hi, Eric! Thank you so much for your comment and for reading! I’d love to share your experience with readers. This seems like a great fit for National Fisherman magazine. I’ll reach out separately with the email you used on the backend to get the ball rolling for an interview. Thank you so much again for your time and I look forward to connecting with you!

      Megan

  2. Extremely honored to call Capt. LaMont Wright a former classmate and longtime friend!

    • Hi, Jane! How wonderful that you know Captain Wright. It truly is a pleasure to hear his story in MIA’s interview. You can immediately notice his passion and big heart. Thank you so much for your comment. I hope you’re enjoying a lovely weekend! – Megan