Anne Arundel County

Historian seeks Chesapeake Bay's hidden past

It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

e had always loved the Chesapeake Bay and enjoyed history, but for the longest time, when Vince Leggett tried to blend his twin passions, he was left with some haunting questions.

"I'd read of all the shipbuilders, boat captains and shipping magnates who supposedly made bay history, most of them members of the majority community," says Leggett, a public historian and former schools administrator who lives in Annapolis. "Every book would have a picture of a black crab picker or oyster shucker. The caption would simply say 'crab picker' or 'oyster shucker.' There'd never be a name.


"These people worked," Leggett says. "They must have had families, raised children, lived lives. Who were they? What did they do?"

Rather than wait for a scholarly account to appear, Leggett mustered the resources he had - energy, curiosity and an old pickup truck - and set out to assemble his own.


In 1984, Leggett, a Baltimore native, revved up his 1975 Toyota and set out to visit as many of the bay's port towns and villages as possible, to listen to stories, gather memorabilia and make friends, all in the service of a goal: to piece together a collective story of black life on the Chesapeake.

Fifteen years, 240,000 odometer miles and one warehouse full of stuff later, he had pretty much pulled it off.

In February, Leggett, the founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, an Annapolis nonprofit, shares a chapter of that life's work. On three occasions, he'll present a multimedia program, "Chesapeake Underground: Charting a Course Toward Freedom," a lecture that makes a case he has been building since 2000: that the bay and its tributaries served as part of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of escape routes for runaway slaves, and that it was the nautical skills of blacks that guided many to freedom.

The presentation draws on old maps, documentary video, commissioned art and more to tell the story, a portion of state history some say scholars have overlooked.

The story has never been easy to sell. Stereotypes, after all, die hard.

Out to sea

It's tricky when you're just a kid but you know more about a subject than the teacher. Back in the early sixties, Vincent O. Leggett felt he was in that position. It wasn't always fun, but it helped him choose a life's path.

At Columbus Elementary in East Baltimore, students spent a lot of time learning of famous Marylanders, all of them white. And they often studied the school's namesake, Christopher Columbus.

One week per year, though, teachers focused on prominent Maryland Negroes, to use the vernacular of that time. When they got to Harriet Tubman, they were in Vince's wheelhouse.


He had long read about the Dorchester County woman who had escaped slavery, then made 13 trips back into the South to lead others to freedom. He knew her life so well that when his teacher, a white woman in a newly integrated school, had the class put on a play about Tubman, he asked for the lead role. A girl got the part, but that wasn't what irked him.

One day, he recalls, the teacher told the students to pretend they were escaping from slavery by crawling through the woods, with Harriet in the lead. But Vince had a question. If Tubman operated from the Eastern Shore, and helped get runaways from her own family to Baltimore and beyond, how could she not have traveled on the water at least part of the way? Shouldn't that be in the play?

"Blacks don't sail boats," he remembers the teacher saying, "and blacks weren't explorers." With that, she moved on.

The reply didn't just anger him. It contradicted what he knew. He and his father enjoyed the Cheaspeake and went there often to camp and fish. They knew many blacks who boated there.

There was yet another question: Why would anyone walk all the way around the bay when it was possible to travel across it?

Leggett, he says, bears no ill will toward the teacher; she was probably just trying to press on with her syllabus. But if a 10-year-old is like a skiff heading out to sea, such questions became his rudder.

Creeks and coves

It's hard to catch Leggett in an office. He has as many of them as he has job titles: coordinator of minority engagement for the Department of Natural Resources; founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake; and director of projects for the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center, an Annapolis nonprofit focusing on black history in Anne Arundel County.

Toting a box full of historical documents - "you never know what you might need during a conversation," he says - he takes a seat at the Bates Center, hands over his business card ("Expediter," it reads), and says that, at the heart of things, he's a public historian. And an amateur one, to boot.

He lacks the doctorate and perhaps the research rigor of the trained academician. He respects those in the field, he says, though the writings of scholars can sound like "Ph.D.s talking to Ph.D.s."

Leggett, 56, amasses knowledge by hook, crook and force of personality, sharing it with "the laity" in any form that works: documentary films, brochures, talks at senior centers or fish fries.

He started Blacks of the Chesapeake, a project on Maryland's black watermen, with a grant in 1984. At the time, it pretty much consisted of Leggett, a self-described "country boy who grew up in Baltimore," taking weekends away from his full-time jobs with the Anne Arundel and Baltimore City school systems.

Often accompanied by his wife, Aldena, he tracked down watermen, pored over unpublished letters, discovered artifacts and tramped rivers, creeks and sandbars. He did everything he could to awaken in his mind the world in which African-Americans lived since the first slaves were brought to the region in 1619, a dozen years after John Smith landed at Jamestown.


What he learned opened his eyes.

Blacks were always good seafarers, he found, dating to the Revolutionary War, when the British took to hiring slaves as boat pilots. During the War of 1812, American commanders invited ex-slaves such as Calvert County waterman Charles Ball to become members of their flotillas. Blacks such as Ball fought in the Battle of Bladensburg and defended Fort McHenry.

By the mid-1800s, Leggett found, rich people were moving to higher elevations, leaving the bay's mosquito- and disease-infested coasts to early free blacks. Those who lived in settlements along the bay had to master its shores, learning tidal patterns, prime oystering spots, and the geography of creeks and coves.

Such knowledge of the bay, passed down through generations, helped blacks buttress a lucrative seafood industry, not just as shuckers and pickers, but as boatmakers, restaurateurs and plant owners. Blacks helped build bridges, founded yacht clubs, started resorts.

In time, the outlines of a collective portrait came into view. Scholars from the majority community had written a bay story in which whites were the protagonists, giving rise to a familiar genre of quaint art. To Leggett, that was just part of the story.

To blacks, the waters of the bay meant backbreaking work and danger as well as a means to community and prosperity. They were, he says, the "backbone" of that world.

A fuller story

By 2000, Blacks on the Chesapake was a full-fledged nonprofit with half a dozen workers. Leggett had helped produce films for Maryland Public Television, written two books, and given countless lectures in and around the county.

Its mission included, as it does today, using bay lore to attract more African-Americans to preservation efforts, an area in which few have shown a lot of interest.

Leggett met and publicized blacks of note such as Sam Turner, an octogenarian who had become the first Coast Guard-certified black boat captain on the bay. Leggett wrote of longtime Annapolis oyster shucker Lester Jones and active watermen such as Ben Dennis, a Shadyside crabber and boat-maker whose family has lived in the area for two centuries.

But something still nagged him: What about that whole Tubman business?

Ever since he was a child, Leggett had loved topography and maps, especially the beautiful blue parts that represented water. Any serious look at his state suggested it would have been ludicrous for Tubman to bring slaves from the Eastern Shore to the west without making use of its waterways.

One anecdote especially jazzed him. Sometime in the 1920s, Tubman told biographer Earl Conrad she'd once advised a companion to rent a fishing boat in Cambridge and meet her at Bodkin Point on the bay's western shore near Baltimore.




travel by boat, he thought, just as he'd guessed years before.

He set forth again, donning his amateur-historian cap. Would waterborne escapes have been possible?

He knew that blacks routinely traveled the bay by the mid-1850s, that sympathies with abolitionists were common, and that stowaways could easily have blended in. He found maps through the U.S. Geological Survey that showed small islands dotting the middle of the Chesapeake, islands that no longer exist. He read accounts telling of travelers laying up there at night, waiting until the sun rose to travel on.

He also found accounts of local safe houses on the Underground Railroad that featured tunnels leading to creeks and rivers. The documents can still be found in libraries in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore. There was logic to his theory.

But accepted history changes slowly. Leggett's findings still don't fully answer the demands of traditional scholarship. "I look forward to Vince's presentations [this month], and he's a wonderful guy, but is research his particular strength?" asks Geoff Footner, a historian who serves on the Maritime Committee of the Maryland Historical Society.


At the urging of that organization, Leggett has found himself "declaring" less and inquiring more. "I'm learning to ask, 'How much might the bay have contributed to the enterprise?' " he says, laughing, "and let the research vote it up or down."

The public can judge for itself during Black History Month 2010 as Leggett presents "Chesapeake Underground" twice this week - at an Odenton senior center and the Baltimore National Aquarium - and at the Annapolis Senior Center on Feb. 24.

He expects perhaps 200 listeners total, all of whom will be invited to ask questions.

For Leggett, it's a sign of progress that he can make the subject a part of the public conversation. A lot has changed in half a century.

"I'm an advocate for history telling a full story, not a partial one," he says. "And it belongs to the people who made it."

If you go

Vincent O. Leggett will offer a multimedia presentation and lecture, "Chesapeake Underground: Charting a Course Toward Freedom," at the following:

Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.

Catherine L. O'Malley Senior Center

1275 Odenton Road, Odenton

Admission: free

For more information call 410-222-6227 or go to


Friday, 7 p.m.

As part of the African-American Cultural Series


The National Aquarium in Baltimore

501 East Pratt St., Baltimore

Admission: $8 after 5 p.m.

For more information, call 410-576-3800 or go to

Feb. 24, 1 p.m.

Annapolis Senior Activity Center at the Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park

119 South Villa Ave., Annapolis


Admission: free

For more information, call 410-222-1818.

Discuss this story and others in our talk forums
Most recent local news talk forum topics:
More news talk forums: Local | Nation/World | Business | Health/Science | Computers/Technology
Note: In-story commenting has been temporarily disabled due to technical issues. We are working to correct the issue and will bring back this feature in the future. In the meantime, please use our talk forums to discuss stories.