African American Waterman of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay

African American Waterman of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States which stretches from Virginia to as far north as New York, was first inhabited over 10,000 years ago by indigenous people drawn to its abundant wildlife and expansive waterways. The Chesapeake Bay is also a significant setting for African-American history. Before Emancipation, the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers were important pathways along the Underground Railroad. African Americans in the Chesapeake Bay have also been key contributors to Virginia’s seafood industry.

The bay today is inhabited by both the Native American and African American descendants of watermen; however, the physical presence of their oyster shucking house, marinas, landings, boat building facilities, blacksmith shops, institutional and community buildings, and houses are disappearing as sea levels rise and new development occurs.


Aside from sea level rise and development pressures, environmental damage caused by natural disasters, pollution and shellfish disease have been very detrimental to the bay, its fisheries, the places that hold the history and culture of the watermen and the people who live and work in its environs.

In 2021, 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, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, Commonwealth Preservation Group and R, K, and K Civil Engineering to complete this project. The project involves the African American Watermen of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Survey and the creation of a Multi- Property Document, or MPD, to serve as a basis for evaluating the National Register eligibility of Watermen sites and communities.

African American Waterman of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay was placed on Virginia's Most Endangered Historic Places List in 2023.

For more information contact,Commonwealth Preservation Group,, (757) 923-1900