Four young women stand beside their car on a 1958 visit to Carr’s Beach, the most famous of beaches for African Americans in the Chesapeake Bay region, including Sparrow’s Beach (Annapolis) and the beachfront communities of Highland Beach, Columbia Beach, and Arundel-On-The-Bay. These historic beaches were the only ones available to African Americans before segregation began to end with major civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Image: WANN Radio Station Records, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Earlier this month, I took part in a webinar hosted by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Through Ebony Eyes: Preserving the Legacy of Blacks on the Chesapeake. Vince Leggett, the Founder and President of Blacks of the Chesapeake, was the primary presenter. Mr. Leggett is a compelling speaker, weaving in his own experience with tales of a rich history of Black folks’ lives and contributions along the waterways and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

I hail from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a region with no shortage of Black historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Many know of Harriet Tubman’s fearless leadership guiding enslaved peoples northward across land and water along the paths of the Underground Railroad. Fewer may know of numerous Black performers that performed on beaches across Maryland as part of the “Chitlin Circuit”, a safe place for Black entertainers to perform when venues were still segregated.

Access to waterways in the Chesapeake region is still not equitably distributed. And for those with access, predominantly Black and Latino communities are more likely to live near waterways with degraded water quality, along with a host of environmental issues, due to systemic and intentional pollution and industrialization.

While these issues won’t be solved overnight, the solutions require substantial investments in communities of color by state and local governments, the private sector, and non-profit groups. Black folks have a rich history on the Bay and its rivers and streams and their stories past and present deserve to be shared and celebrated across the Chesapeake region.

For now, I’ll leave you with the words of celebrated poet, novelist, essayist, and author, Langston Hughes, in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
By Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.