U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

February 10, 2024

Black History from Bellevue to Baltimore and Beyond

Last week marked the beginning of Black History Month, a celebration of the important roles Black Americans have played in our country. Paying homage to the richness of Black heritage— including learning about the success and challenges Black Americans have overcome—makes our nation stronger. But in recent years, this history has become increasingly polarized and politicized.

The rise of the “war on woke” has led to a growing hostility toward diversity and inclusivity. It has led to the re-writing, and even omitting, of brutal, but significant parts of our nation’s story. We cannot allow this to overshadow our celebration. We must not shy away from studying our nation’s history with thoughtful critique. We should not settle for sanitized lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks and others in America’s classrooms. Because Black History Month, like many of our cultural heritage months, should be a time to illuminate stories that may otherwise get lost.

Overlooking such stories, especially in a state like Maryland, a place rich with Black history, would be a travesty. Maryland—the site of Kunta Kinte’s arrival at the docks in Annapolis, as told in Alex Haley’s “Roots.” Maryland—home to greats like Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall. Maryland—where Black waterman have lived on the Eastern Shore for generations.

This week, I had the privilege of meeting with a few of the Eastern Shore’s Black watermen and their families. Families who were some of the original stewards of the Chesapeake Bay. They were boat captains and admirals, fishermen and entrepreneurs, oyster shuckers and crab pickers. They laid the foundation for the aquaculture and maritime industry that’s so heavily stitched in the fabric of Maryland’s culture.

They were descendants of William Samuel Turner whose family owned and operated seafood processing enterprises that anchored Bellevue, a historic African American neighborhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Frederick Jewett—one of the first in the Chesapeake Bay to sell crabs and crabmeat and developed the crabmeat grading system that we still use today. Capt. Eldridge Meredith Sr.—a waterman and entrepreneur who was honored as the 101st Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay. And Downes Curtis, one of the country’s few Black sailmakers who was renowned for his skillful craftsmanship.

They were descendants of the often-overlooked Black women, like Hazel Cropper also known as “Hurricane Hazel,” who worked in the packing houses picking crabs. Women who became the backbone of Maryland’s crab meat industry. These Black Marylanders left a legacy of progress and success, but their stories also echo a system of inequality that exists today.

Many of Maryland’s Black watermen were redlined. They couldn’t get loans. They weren’t paid fairly. And they lacked access to capital to keep their businesses afloat when they suffered economic hardship. As a result of these and other issues, the once hundreds of Black watermen who sustained Maryland’s Eastern Shore have dwindled to less than 20. It’s clear that more must be done to preserve this history and ensure that their story is more visibly told.

From Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, there are efforts across the state to preserve Black culture in Maryland. Each of these projects is important, but we need a coordinated effort to connect the dots to follow the history of Black Marylanders including Black watermen.

Maryland’s Congressional Delegation has made federal investments in preservation projects like renovating PS103, Thurgood Marshall’s former school and the future site of the Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center. We’re helping the Sister States of Maryland explore how liberation movements abroad and the African diaspora are linked to Maryland. And we’re providing the resources to help preserve the AFRO American’s valuable archives.

But more investment is needed in smaller organizations so that these communities can tell their stories in their own voices.

Getting the proper markers, designations and museums is just as important in Bellevue as it is in Baltimore. From our conversation, it’s clear that we need to do a better job of connecting our local history for future generations of Marylanders and the future of these historic places. One of the most prominent themes in my conversation with the watermen was the importance of the stories we tell and who tells them.

So, as we celebrate Black History Month, let us all recommit to understanding our whole history and never give up hope that through this commitment, we can build a more just, fair and better world.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this or any other issue that is on your mind. I appreciate all the feedback from constituents.

In solidarity,

Ben Cardin