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Groundbreaking Partnership to Document African American Historic Sites in Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass’ youngest son established the first African American beach resort in Maryland in 1893 after being denied entry from a Chesapeake Bay restaurant because of his race. Just thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared, Charles Douglass and his wife visited a restaurant at the Bay Ridge resort in Annapolis, Maryland, but were refused service because they were African American. Mr Douglass, an infantry veteran of the Civil War and long-time employee of the Treasury Department, decided that he would purchase the 40-acre plot of land directly next door to the restaurant in 1893. He bought the land for $5,000 – the equivalent of about $130,000 today.
He established the land as Highland Beach, which became the first African American vacation town in the United States.(Photo: Library of Congress)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – A new project has been funded to map African American Historic Sites in the Chesapeake Ba,y and brings together Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to make it happen.

With a common goal of telling a fuller American story, 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 region 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 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,” says Julie V. Langan, Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Long before the collapse of slavery at the end of the Civil War, significant numbers of blacks turned to the water in search of freedom. Hundreds of black watermen made the oyster business thrive. (Courtesy photo)

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, will be 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 goal is for this project 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.

On the Eastern Shore, visitors can currently travel the Harriet Tubman byway, which covers roughly 225 miles from the riverside town of Cambridge, Md. — about 85 miles southeast of Baltimore — to Philadelphia. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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.  It 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.

Related: Journey Through Alexandria, Virginia’s African American History with New Interactive Map

Mary Wadland

Mary Wadland is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Zebra Press, founded by her in 2010. Originally from Delray Beach, Florida, Mary is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA and has lived and worked in the Alexandria publishing community since 1987.

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