My, short, time documenting African American Cultural Landscape Along the Chesapeake Bay.
I took some time off of work to participate in a field school program in Bellevue, Maryland. The work as a Vernacular Architecture was new for me but only by title, including gathering material culture. Material culture is things left behind that give clues as to who, what, and when occupied a space. I’ll give you the highlights of my time in Bellevue and Tilghman Island with pictures.
Tilghman Island-Langdon Farm
There’s something to be said about entering a place you’ve never been and yet knowing everything that took place there. That’s how I felt driving down the long driveway of Langdon Farm. The grounds and the house were respectively beautiful. However, after taking a tour of the house and entering the attic, it became apparent to me, if not for those who rented our stay, that Black people slept in the attic as there was a built-in room with a window opening to the window of the house. The house was big enough for all twelve of us to have a room of our own. Now, the air circulated better in certain parts of the house–not our rooms and the Wi-Fi
was terrible but it was nonetheless impressive. The basement, an area we were specifically asked not to go to, but I digress, was as long as the house with just as many storage areas/rooms as there were upstairs. There were also basement stairs that led to the kitchen–service stairs for sure.
Outside of family functions, this was the first time I shared space with anyone in years. Living with strangers for a month felt like we signed up for the MTV show The Real World–Maryland Edition.
Fourth of July
Once you cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, you will be met with history at every turn. The most prominent of them are Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. I visited a few museums and saw in person the famous Harriet Tubman mural floating on IG. So imagine our surprise when we met Harriet Tubman's Great(4x) nephew, Douglas Mitchell.
On our first weekend there we went fishing with Captain Tyrone on his boat Queen. There, my cohort and I met a gentleman named, Mr. George. He came to fish alone but instead helped us fish. As we told him why we came to fish with no fishing poles, we watched him tie the knots in the line. "Welp, got to do it over, try again" cutting the line with his knife to begin again. He was kind enough to teach us how to bate our line with bloody worms. Mr. George also shared his Doritos as we listened to his playlist of 70s music. We spent some time talking to him about his life; retired from the military after thirty-three years and proud Omega man for fifty years.
A small world between the two of us as he knew about Goldsboro and still had a buddy who lived there. "Fishing is a pastime of relaxation, patience, and reward--when you catch a good fish," we both laughed. Mr. George's been going out on the water ever since Captain Tyrone's father (a former captain) was alive. The news called for a storm thirty minutes out while we were on the water. Soon after, Captain Tyrone let everyone know that we would be turning around and heading back to the docks. “I like going out on the water with Captain Tyrone. He’s a good Captain. Don’t take any chances. Better safe than sorry.” I agreed. Since Mr. George shared his 18-dollar bag of worms, I gave him the five fish I caught as a thank you.
Towards the end, I asked if I could photograph him. He hesitated at first, “I usually don’t do photos but today I will. Too much going on with the internet you see.” Even still, Mr. George's face isn’t completely shown in the picture–I smirk at the thought this might have been done on purpose.
After our boat ride, we sat with Captain Tyrone and asked him a few questions. As one of five Black Watermen left in his area, Captain Tyrone doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. He was featured in the short docuseries Water's Edge: Black Watermen of the Chesapeake
I haven’t been fishing since I was a child with my mom and step/bonus dad so, I hope I made him proud.
Bellevue was familiar; a small village with front porches and people waiting to wave back and speak as you walk by. Warm hugs, tight handshakes, and the occasional "I made this (food) for you." It was those moments we felt of the community and not just a part of the community.
St. Luke Methodist church, one of the original buildings, hosts a small congregation but large in spirit. ‘I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it’ a parting of words from the pastor at the end of service. I enjoyed his sermons. At church, I met Ms. Debra Potts, a former resident who was born (delivered by the town’s midwife) and raised in Bellevue. A gentle smile exchange became a thirty-minute conversation about her life growing up; how vibrant it used to be and how all the best athletes came from Bellevue. She spoke with such warmth about her upbringing and gave us the privilege of showing family photos.
Just about everyone in the town worked at the Valliant Seafood and Packing Company or at the Bellevue Seafood Company when the first one burned down. Bellevue was, and still is a family-type community. They worked together, went to school together and the adults partied together in the town's juke joint and, later, clubhouse.
Gentrification happens everywhere and seeing it happen in Charlotte over the past 12 years makes it real. However, working in the community and forming relationships with residents hit me differently. This time, I was forced to pay attention. You see the look of fondness for a community they remember, you hear the hurt and resilience in their voice. Unlike Charlotte, it’s not obnoxious apartment buildings taking over the space, but million-dollar homes taking up the communal waterfront of an African-American community.
An open grassy where children could play and families could walk to the water is now reduced to a single narrow path. Historically speaking, this was an area where White people wouldn't dare live. Lower-class individuals and oftentimes Black people were the ones living next to the water as their way of life and food (shrimp, oysters, crabs. and crawfish) were considered poor man's food.
“Those who write history, control history.” I can’t remember where I heard this quote but it never rang more true than when we learn how to do a deed search. In deed search, you will find family relations, amounts sold which can be as low as one to five dollars, and suspicious timings of when a person buys and sells a property.
Here is a link to the story map of the work we did in Bellevue including the story, Belle’s View, I wrote. Bellevue Storymap
Oh, we also stood outside in the blazing heat measuring houses. As interesting as it was, I liked measuring the inside of a house better. My team was lucky enough to be assigned houses with AC and one of the homeowners made us fresh a Blueberry pound cake. The purpose of drawing the houses was to document the original structures in the community that are in danger of being sold or dilapidated. I also understand what my brother, Travis, does for a living…finally.
Third Haven Friends Meeting House
One of my favorite adventures included going to the Quaker Friends Meeting House. The first thing you need to know is they do not use the word church. AT ALL. A cohort, and now lifelong friend, had an idea to go and I’m so glad I went. The experience is different, to say the least. Think of it as joining others in silent meditation and people speaking ONLY when the spirit compels them or quakes from within with a message.
Completely different from my Baptist/COGIC background. There were a few times I dozed off and fully expected to be jerked awake with a pinch instead of jerking awake from my head dropping down. This, for me, is the importance of new experiences. There’s more than one way to connect with God and they are all right.
After the Meeting (service) was over, we were given a tour by Molly and that’s when the nerdy side became ecstatic. So, this Friends Meeting House (pictured above) is the oldest building in Maryland and the oldest Quaker Meeting House in the United States. As history has taught us Quakers being essential allies in the Underground Railroad, this particular Meeting house was unlikely to be involved because of its popularity with visitors and was often a target.
We weren't able to go upstairs to the attic during our first visit. On the second visit, we not only went upstairs to see the original plaster and graffiti, but we were also able to go inside the small two-story house of the one African-American woman who lived on the grounds–Annie. A two-story home now used as a shed, was still something to admire. The narrow and steep stairwell led upstairs to an open space with windows at both ends.
An interesting fact, while Quakers were against slavery because of their religious morals, they were not very inclusive. This is why you see very few African Americans as Quakers.
While I missed my own space and bed, coming back home after such an adventure was bittersweet. My love of research and observation was renewed and simply being close to the water restored my soul in a way that’s hard to explain.
Enjoy the rest of my photos!