In the marsh-bound causeway to Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, cars and their drivers seemed to float across the still waters of Queens Sound. As I made my way across, I thought of how, in centuries past, skiffs drifted through the region’s bays, channels and coves in search of shellfish. Back then, before fish-farming became popular, the land itself functioned as a sort of natural pier for its residents who wrangled clams and oysters and terrapin, as thick as treasure, from beds in the brackish water.
My visit to Chincoteague last September was part of an exploration of an American tradition rich in history and lore. A few weeks after that trip, I would head to the opposite side of the Chesapeake, to Leonardtown, Maryland — home of the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival and National Shucking Competition. On my journey through the region, I wanted to delve into something that had been a part of my childhood: the culture surrounding oysters. I was curious about the difference between the tradition, here, along the eastern Virginia coast, and in places like New York City and New Orleans, where I’m from. As an African American and native Southerner, I also wanted to explore how Black culture figured in — to see if the world of oysters reflected something larger about the American experience across racial lines.
Years ago, growing up on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, I’d watch oyster shuckers, usually Black men, popping open shell after shell, joking with guests on the opposite side of the bar while they worked. They reminded me of my uncles at our family seafood boil, who shared stories as they stood around an 80-quart pot. In New York and other cities to the north, the lifestyle surrounding oysters seemed altogether different, from the well-attired shuckers at fancy restaurants, down to the serving plates and wine pairings. I wanted to know more about this difference in attitude toward the shellfish and the kinds of experiences they conjured.
A Black Oysterman From Coastal Virginia
Chincoteague was quiet on this clear blue day in September, but between the succession of seafood shacks and ice-cream parlors I felt the pulse of a town aware of its history. The regional boom in oysters that began in the mid-19th-century still hangs over the place whose nearness to waters that were once rich with oyster reefs allowed the industry to thrive.
I stopped at the town’s museum, where I found rustic oyster tools and shells, and exhibits in the front room on the boats that were used for various maritime activities, such as duck hunting and shellfish dredging. Past the “Misty” exhibition (about a beloved wild pony), I fiddled with a pair of traditional oyster tongs, which are rarely used these days and resemble a pair of rakes slanted across one another and bolted together, and tried my hand at raking loose shells from beneath a mound of boxed-in sand.
In one corner, there was an area dedicated to the African American experience on Chincoteague Island. I read through the text on the wall and then examined a photo of Black men shucking oysters in an adjacent section. Strangely, I didn’t come across any mention of one of the area’s most famous Black oystermen — Thomas Downing, who would eventually become the acclaimed proprietor of Downing’s Oyster House, a 19th-century oyster cellar in New York City.
Downing was born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1791 to a Black family whose freedom had been granted after a traveling preacher convinced the Downing’s slaveholder that it was bad faith to be both a member of the Methodist Church and hold enslaved people. Post-enslavement, the Downings stayed in Accomack County on the Virginia shore and eventually acquired a small plot of land. The family became a part of the Chincoteague community where they were said to have regularly hosted prominent whites of the county before and after church on Sundays — a relationship that at least appeared to approach being neighborly, though it still evoked a resemblance to antebellum culture, in which enslaved Black people cooked meals for white plantation families.--NYT