Black History Month is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the Black community. It’s also an opportunity to learn about people whose contributions are often left out of the history books. With that, we’d like to “dive in” to the story of how Black Americans have shaped the coastal economy through one of the most lucrative commodities on the east coast: the oyster.
In the 1800s, many Black Americans traveled north from the Chesapeake bay, where it was illegal for Black people to own or operate their own fishing vessels without a white man on board. They had gained vast ecological knowledge on how to raise and harvest oysters because the bivalves were used by plantation owners as fertilizer and as a staple in the diets of enslaved people along the coast. During this time, oysters were not nearly as popular to eat as they were, according to historian Anna Marie Gillis, considered “only suitable for a poor man’s pot.”
It wasn’t until 1825 that Thomas Downing, an abolitionist and the son of slaves, opened an oyster saloon in the Financial District of New York City. This helped to elevate the status of the oyster and created a massive demand for the slippery bivalve. More importantly, it helped to create a path to freedom through the oyster industry for those enslaved and oppressed along the coast.
The history of oystering in New Jersey also intersects with another path to freedom through the Underground Railroad and the Vreeland Jackson brothers. Thomas and John Vreeland Jackson became oystermen on the Hudson in 1830 after gaining their freedom from the family that had held them in slavery. Their oyster business funded the purchase of land and a home through which they bravely helped numerous enslaved people escape to the north.
By the early 1900s, the oyster was the crux of the South Jersey economy; at one time Cumberland County had more millionaires per capita than any other part of the state. But, for each of those millionaires, there were many more Black Americans doing the hard labor that generated so much wealth. They managed oyster farms, sailed, dredged and shucked for long hours.
These Black oystermen (and women), who were described by the former oysterman Robert Morgan, as “just as qualified as any white man,” were paid significantly less than their white counterparts and most of the wealth that they generated went to the business owners.
In 2009, 90-year-old Beryl Whittington described his time working in the oyster industry by saying, “I can’t say nothing too good about them because they was slave drivers and I got to say it.”
Still, others acknowledge that oystering was one of the best ways for their Black ancestors to make a living at the time. Income earned from oystering is what supported Sandy Ground on Staten Island, which was one of the first free Black settlements in North America.
Today, Black oystermen are a “vanishing legacy.”
Oyster diseases like MSX and water quality issues from stormwater runoff caused oyster populations to drastically decline and forced people to seek employment elsewhere. This is why people like Mary Hill, the 7th generation Black Oysterman from Virginia, and Ben “Moody” Harney Jr, owner of “Real Mother Shuckers,” a Black owned business whose goal is to make oysters approachable to all people, are working to bring people of color back into the oyster industry.
Learning about the history of the oyster industry and the contributions that Black Americans have made along the coast shows us another reason why a healthy coast is important. At the Littoral Society, we work to restore oyster reefs and prevent stormwater pollution from harming the coastal ecosystem. We also work to be inclusive in all that we do, so that the benefits of a healthy bay are felt equitably, creating a pathway to a better future for everyone.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Black oystermen, please visit the resources below:
The Abundant Oyster: Bayshorecenter.org; Bayshore Center at Bivalve. https://www.bayshorecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/the-abundant-oyster.pdf
Maria Gillis, A. (2011). Oyster Wars [Review of Oyster Wars]. Humanities, 32(3). https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/mayjune/statement/oyster-wars
The Vibrant and Complex History of Black Oyster Culture. (n.d.). Thrillist. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/history-of-black-oyster-culture
Urbina, I. (2003, November 4). They Will Not Be Moved; A Bastion of Black History Amid S.I. Development. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/04/nyregion/they-will-not-be-moved-a-bastion-of-black-history-amid-si-development.html
Wilson, K. (2022, June 21). The Black Oysterman Taking Half Shells From the Bar to the Block. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/21/dining/brooklyn-oysters-real-mother-shuckers.html