‘It’s not well understood, but the role is huge’: Virginia working to preserve and document historic Black coastal communities

Southeast Region

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia is working to preserve and document Black coastal communities in Virginia that greatly impacted the seafood industry.

Earlier this year, the Department of Historic Resources announced the African American Watermen Project in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership.

Julie Langan, who is the director of DHR, says they’re working to document these historic locations before they disappear.

“We feel like we’re racing against the clock a lot of times because of climate change, weather events, storm surge, which in [the Hampton Roads] part of the state is a huge issue, flooding. We certainly feel like we got to go get out there and document properties as quick as we can,” she said.

Langan has been at DHR for more than 20 years and says African Americans played a crucial role in the Chesapeake Bay and seafood industry.

“I think it’s not well understood but the role is huge. They were fishing. They were crabbing. They were processing. African Americans played a pivotal role in the seafood industry. We want to capture that in this project,” she said.

Hobson in Suffolk is one of those communities.

At one time, it was a thriving Black coastal community but Mary Hill, who grew up and still lives there, says the seafood industry started to decline during the mid-20th century after the Nansemond River and other waterways were polluted with the chemical Kepone.

Hill says her father and others, who had built homes, churches, and more with money they made from the seafood industry had to go out and find other employment at the shipyards or military.

“When the men used to sit out and talk about how passionate they were about working the river, we were listening but not listening. I think it was entering into our subconscious minds. It wasn’t falling on deaf ears,” she said. “They were like ‘Don’t let those oyster grounds go. You pay those taxes. You keep those oysters.’ We were playing hopscotch and they were telling us not to let those grounds go.”

In 1999, Hill, who is a veteran, returned to Hobson after her father passed away. She now takes care of her 100-year-old mother, Marie.

But, she also works as a waterwoman.

“For me, it’s an honor. It’s a legacy. It’s my legacy,” Hill said. “They always told us not to let those grounds go because we’re going to need them for survival one day and we do.”

Hill believes the project is necessary to educate others about the role Hobson and similar communities played.

“I hope that even though they’re preserving, recording on Black watermen and the history, we continue to still thrive and maintain that industry. That’s my hope is that the state will continue to advocate for restoration and preservation and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and the restoration of oysters,” she said.

While Hill continues on her legacy, Langan says historians will be out researching and documenting these communities.

Langan says they haven’t always told diverse stories but recent funding and renewed interest in the agency is allowing them to initiate projects like this.

“There’s a lot more demand in historic justice and understanding all facets of our history and not just focusing on presents and battles and things of that nature,” she said. “We feel like we have a lot of catching up to do with the properties that have been well documented and, what I hate to say is, ignored for a long period of time. We’re incredibly busy but everyone here is passionate. They love what they do and they work very, very hard.”

The project will last a year. DHR is asking for the community’s help to identify historic communities.

Click here for more information.

As for Hill, her goal is to employ the underemployed and offer skills to those who want to learn agriculture and oyster harvesting so they can be economically empowered.

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