Black American watermen dominated the oyster fleets in Virginia during the late 1800s. This photo was taken along the York River around 1900. (Photo: The Mariner’s Museum)
Almost a year ago, we reported on the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s 2019 Annual Meeting which focused on conservation strategies for the coming decade. A principal theme was engaging a new, intentionally inclusive generation of conservationists. To get there, we set out two goals:
- collaborate with communities historically underserved by land conservation and public lands to identify a conservation agenda for the future;
- fill critical gaps in documentation of sites and landscapes in the watershed important to communities historically underrepresented in land conservation.
Today, five of the Partnership’s member organizations announced a major new project supporting these goals.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay; the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership will collaborate to map and identify sites and landscapes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed significant to African American history and culture.
The project will map African American cultural sites in an effort to support their conservation and to enable the three states and their localities to fully consider them in their land use and development plans.
The initial funding, a $200,000 award, is provided by the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Additional support, bringing the total project value to $400,000, is provided by Maryland state funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
The project aims to lay the groundwork for future mapping efforts for African American historic resources by assessing the effectiveness of different project methodologies. This multi-state partnership will undertake unique pilot projects in each of the three states to identify sites and landscapes of relevance to African American history and culture, gathering baseline GIS data on these historic places. Once collected, this data will be publicly available through state-level and Chesapeake Conservation Partnership Cultural Resource Information Systems to inform land use and planning decisions. The project will also be guided by an advisory committee of professionals dedicated to preserving African American history.
Here’s what our partners are saying about the project:
Wendy O’Sullivan, Superintendent, National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, says “The Chesapeake Bay watershed has long been the focus of one of the most significant and effective conservation efforts in the nation. While 18 million people live here, there are important sites and stories that have not received equal attention and need to be elevated and remembered. This partnership to document African American sites and landscapes is crucial to ensuring these places are honored and reflected in the Chesapeake and American stories.”
Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer of the National Trust, says, “Mapping African American historic places within the Chesapeake watershed is a critical first step in making sure that these places are protected and that their stories are told. We look forward to identifying the places that are deeply meaningful to both their communities and our shared national heritage.”
Elizabeth Hughes, Director of the Maryland Historical Trust, says “The Chesapeake watershed is a dynamic cultural landscape, and the Maryland Historical Trust is committed to documenting, preserving, and interpreting the diverse places that generations of African Americans have imbued with significance and meaning.”
Andrea Lowery, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, says “The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) is excited to partner with NTHP, NPS, MD and VA as we continue our work to identify, document, and celebrate the places associated with Pennsylvania’s African American history. Using our recently developed guidance for listing African American churches and cemeteries in the National Register of Historic Places, we will focus our pilot project on surveying churches and cemeteries associated with African American history in the Chesapeake Bay watershed counties. Adding this information to state and federal GIS databases will help preserve these important places that tell Pennsylvania’s underrepresented stories.”
Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, says “For all of human history, people have come together around their sense of place. As an agency dedicated to conserving these important places and landscapes, DCNR is thrilled to be a part of this project. Highlighting the rich history and culture of Black/African American communities in the watershed enriches our understanding and experience of American history. Black voices have not been represented enough in documenting culturally important places and landscapes, so mapping these will be a first step in correcting an incomplete history of the watershed.”
Julie V. Langan, Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says “The role of the African American watermen in the development of the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay, from oystering and crabbing to processing and boatbuilding, cannot be overstated. As many of the places associated with this legacy vanish from the landscape, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources welcomes the opportunity to document this important aspect of our region’s past.”
As home to some of America’s first colonies, the Chesapeake Bay watershed region is already known to have a significant meaning to African American culture. Many major tobacco plantations were located there, as were many stops on the Underground Railroad. It was the place where Harriet Tubman and both Frederick Douglass and his first wife were enslaved.
The watershed includes many battlegrounds of the Civil War, as well as places of notable activism in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Generations of Black Americans have made their living from the waters of the Bay and have also used special places along the Bay and throughout the region for recreation.
Historic sites and landscapes important to people of color are widely underrepresented in documentation and conservation priorities. This work will take one small step towards addressing that deficit.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.