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Black History and Ocean History are Inexplicably Tied

In every year since 1976, February has been officially recognized as Black History Month. It was originally intended by President Gerald Ford to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Although we should celebrate the achievements and endeavors of Black Americans all year long, February is the perfect opportunity to set aside some time to reflect on Black history and the future.

Countless stories of the Black experience in America are connected to the sea. In fact, you can’t tell the African American story without it—it was on transatlantic ships that the first African slaves were brought to the colonies. The ocean was a stage for horrific cruelty, where Africans were stolen and crammed into cargo holds, barely able to move. Many would not survive the journey—nearly 2 million of the 12 million people shipped in the transatlantic slave trade died before the ships ever reached North America.

There is much that remains unknown about the specific histories of slave vessels, and many of the stories of those transported below their decks have been lost to history. But thanks to dedicated historians, scientists and volunteers, we’re learning more about those who lived—and died—on those ships. Diving with a Purpose, a group founded in 2003 by members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, is committed to finding, documenting and protecting underwater archaeology sites, including sunken slave ships. Their work, alongside other dedicated groups like the Slave Wrecks Project, helps give voice to those who were lost, and reconstructs a painful and critically important part of our nation’s past. In interviews, divers have reflected on the anger, sorrow and pain that comes from exploring these sites, but also of the dedication to telling the stories of these lost slaves.

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© Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Just as the ocean is a critical part of the origin of Black Americans, it remains a part of the Black experience in America throughout history. From the segregation of beaches to the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that disproportionally affected Black residents, the ocean is an undeniable part of the Black American narrative. Throughout this history, the ocean has been both a source of great joy and deep sorrow.

In celebration of Black History Month, here are some stories that highlight the connection between our ocean and the experience of Black Americans.

19th Century Mariners

The 19th century brought a growing number of Black Americans involved in maritime industries. Working as sailors, fishers and crabbers allowed for upward mobility, and by the end of the century, the maritime industry represented the best employment opportunity for Black Americans. According to historian W. Jeffrey Bolster, about one of every five seamen in the United States during the 19th century was Black, with some in positions of leadership that were unmatched in other industries at the time. In some jobs, Black workers dominated the field—and in some counties, there were four times as many Black oystermen as white oystermen.

The Underground Railroad

Maritime routes played an important role in the Underground Railroad—a web of secret routes that allowed enslaved African Americans to escape to freedom. Some slaves impersonated crewmembers or were hidden by captains sailing from southern ports to northern cities. One ship in Boston was said to operate as a tourist boat in Boston Harbor but really made secret missions in the dead of night to take escaped slaves from cotton ships to shore. The Chesapeake Bay played an important role in transporting fugitives over the Mason-Dixon Line, and people would sneak onto docked vessels that would navigate them through the Bay’s rivers and tributaries.

Civil Rights Statement at the Beach

Last year, Historic Virginia Key Beach Park celebrated its 75th anniversary. It started with a group of Black Miami residents who staged a “wade-in” at a whites-only beach in 1945. It was reflective of lunch counter sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience that arose during the Civil Rights Movement. Following their protest, the Virginia Key Beach Park was established—the first place in South Florida where Black families could enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach. Now, the park is open to all who wish to enjoy its sandy shores and reflect on its important role in history. And every year, August 1 is celebrated as Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Day in the state of Florida.

Human history and the history of our ocean are inexplicably tied. This Black History Month, join me in celebrating the incredible legacy of Black people in America and reflecting on the great work that needs to be done to combat racial inequalities in this country.

Want to learn more about Black Americans and our ocean? Check out some of the blogs from our distinguished Roger Arliner Young fellows:

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