RK&K’s Cultural Resources team was recently part of an ambitious three-state effort with Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to recognize and trace the significant and historic contributions made by African American watermen to the Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry.
RK&K served as a subcontractor to Commonwealth Preservation Group to document architectural resources for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership.
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Their work contributed to the preparation of a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) Multiple Property Document (MPD) entitled Historic Resources Associated with African American Watermen of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay.
Together with Commonwealth Preservation Group, the team identified 82 architectural resources associated with Virginia’s African American watermen communities, including shucking houses, marinas, boat building facilities, and blacksmith shops, and evaluated each for potential National Register of Historic Places eligibility. This documentation included field survey, photography, and preparing written architectural descriptions and eligibility evaluations for historic significance.
“By identifying these sites and bringing awareness of their significance, preservation planning efforts can make sure to incorporate these important places so their history is preserved and can be conveyed to the public. Threats like erosion, development, and pollution have been leading to the decline of fishing industries in the Bay,” said Architectural Historian Meghan Sullivan. “Tracking these sites can provide insight into why, how, and when these places were built and their significance to local communities along the Bay.”
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Project Architectural Historian Laura van Opstal added that since there had yet to be a comprehensive identification study of relevant sites, there was not an extensive list of known sites or research with which to start and build upon. The team worked around this by speaking and coordinating with the local community and scholars of local African American and watermen community history to identify relevant sites worth documenting.
Another challenge is that the project began at a time when the watermen population had already been aging and dwindling in size due to larger corporations replacing smaller seafood businesses.
“By identifying these sites and bringing awareness of their significance, preservation planning efforts can make sure to incorporate these important places so their history is preserved and can be conveyed to the public.”Meghan Sullivan, Architectural Historian
In May 2023, Preservation Virginia named African American watermen sites of the Chesapeake Bay one of the state’s most endangered historic spaces. This designation and the survey’s findings provide a historic context for architectural resources in these communities and will encourage more historic designations of African American watermen sites. By bringing this history to light, van Opstal hopes to inspire individuals, organizations, and local and state governments to advocate for their preservation and find solutions that will save these unique locations for future generations.
“We were honored to be included in this important project. Projects like this one highlight the diversity of cultural resources and brings visibility to under-represented and little-known communities,” said Sullivan.