The object I selected was an oyster can from a company in Wicomico County, Maryland that is on view in the “Cultural Expressions” exhibition. At first glance, this item seems unrelated to African-American history. However, I selected it because I know exactly how it fits in with the rest of the museum’s objects.
Many African-Americans were involved in the recovery of oysters, bringing them back to oyster packing facilities, the shucking of oysters, cleaning, and ultimately packaging into cans such as this one. I work part-time at Annapolis Maritime Museum, which is located in the former building of McNasby’s Oyster Company. Here, I learned about the involvement of African-Americans in this process. At the McNasby location and locations such as H.B. Kennerly, African-American men would head out on boats around 4-5am, use hand-tongs to grab oysters off the bottom of the bay, and would unload later at the building. Inside the building, both African-American women and men would clean, shuck, and package the oysters for consumption.
I actually was able to speak to former employees of McNasby’s one day at the museum. I was told that many African-Americans were specifically involved at McNasby’s because it was one of the few jobs that they could earn decent wages.
Here’s a great photo I found from Annapolis Maritime’s collection. I was hoping to find a photo they have on the exhibit floor of two men using hand tongs as icicles are forming on the side of the boat, but I don’t think it is available online.
Prior to working at Annapolis Maritime, I was pretty clueless about oysters in general. But I certainly didn’t know how hard watermen worked to harvest oysters. All of this work would take place in the winter months during harsh and cold conditions. Oysters, if harvested in the warmer months, take on a gritty taste because they are in the midst of reproducing.
I’m interested to see how the museum highlights African-American watermen. I am curious if they will focus on watermen simply in the Chesapeake Bay or if they will branch out and speak to other locations. Regardless, I’m glad that the contributions of African-American watermen are recognized.