Posted by: beachchairandabook | September 26, 2017

The British Virgin Islands – A Reunion and Rebirth

I was going to write a recap of the 2017 BVI Reunion; the places we visited and the good times we had at each of our familiar, much-anticipated stops. But then Irma and Maria roared across the Caribbean, turning  the places we loved into  piles of debris recognizable only by before and after pictures posted on Facebook. So instead of a day by day recap of  “what we did on our BVI Reunion”, this will be a different story. It’s the story of  what could have been the worst day and how it turned out to be the best.It’s a metaphor for what has already begun to take place all across the British Virgin Islands.

Since last year Anegada has become my favorite British Virgin island. As soon as I saw its beautiful blue water, cotton candy clouds and silky white sand, the small island became a magical place for me.I was reminded of the Yoruba orisha Yemaja, whose signature colors are blue and white. If she had to choose a favorite place to make her presence known, this place would stand at the top. The flowing blue and white top I found while shopping for the trip would be perfect for the day, especially since I planned to join with a couple of friends to pour a libation in honor of our late friend Marvelle Manga.

The morning of our sail to Anegada, the sun was shining, the sails were raised and the wind was in our favor. The crew of Otterside looked forward to liming on  the beach and lobster dinner with the full BVI Reunion group later that evening. Our perfect day was underway.

Great conversations are a hallmark of our group – some serious; so some hilarious we couldn’t catch our breaths, and some  “what would you do” scenarios.  Last year someone posed this question: What we would do if our captain could no longer sail the boat? My answer: “grab Rhonda Gilbert – quickly!” To me, she has always been our first mate. So when Rhonda quietly and calmly asked another crew member to leave the trampoline and come back to the cockpit, something had to be up. When I saw her and Captain Andrew in a quiet conversation, I knew something was really up. As cool and calm as always, he told us we’d have to turn back. A strong wave jerked open the floor hatch in the salon, and water shot up from the opening straight up to the ceiling. After one quick fix, Captain Andrew took the wheel and turned Otterside back in the direction of Trellis Bay.

We’re called No Drama for good reason. Nobody panicked. Instead, Geri McNair, our innovative master of meals, put together a  quick lunch. This unexpected occurrence definitely called for Dark and Stormy’s and a glass or two of  Malbec or Pinot. At Trellis Bay we lounged, laughed, talked, ate and drank. We  took pictures of the Burning Man out in the water, waiting to light up the beach on the next full moon. Our Voyage tech arrived, and lying on what looked like a toddler sized surfboard, he slid under the boat  and installed a brand new hatch. “We can make it,” Captain Andrew assured us. Once again, we were on our way to Anegada.

Out in the water, we spotted the British Royal Navy’s RFA Mounts Bay in the distance.Soon it drew close enough to sound its horn. I don’t know much about the “right of way” or “give way” on the water, but the sheer size of the Mounts Bay ruled.It sailed past our bow, on its way to somewhere in the BVI.

A few minutes later, sullen gray clouds puffed up ahead. Thin sheets of rain fell, but we chose to watch the weather outside, sheltered by Otterside’s wide cover. It was a scene too beautiful to miss. As we sailed through the rain, the spectacular scenery merged – a sheet of rain on the starboard side, clear skies up ahead and a rainbow on our port side.

At dusk, just before we caught our first sight of land, the flaming ball of sun descended slowly into the sea, framed on either side by a long gray curtain of rain. I stood in the galley, watching Otterside ride the waves through the channel into Anegada Harbor. We made it. We came through a rainstorm into a rainbow, a metaphor for the destruction and rebirth we had no idea would come in less than a month.

Right now, there is still widespread devastation across the British Virgin Islands. For many days, people searched frantically for unaccounted for relatives. There was no power and few means of communication. People who sheltered elsewhere returned to homes that are no more, with no means to earn a living.But gas stations, grocery stores and banks are open, even if supplies and hours are limited. The RFA Mounts Bay that we encountered on the way to Anegada has returned, along with the HMS Ocean to provide aid and supplies to the devastated islands.The group of sailors known as the Puerto Rican Navy came through in a major way. Sadly their island was struck by Maria’s Category 5 destruction. Some restaurants are open for business. Others have set up stands to offer free food. One of my friends returned to her destroyed home to retrieve whatever belongings she could. Outside she found a small green shoot that had begun to grow on a tree limb. To me, that’s an indication that the British Virgin Islands is on its way to rebirth, and that they will emerge #bvistrong .



Posted by: beachchairandabook | February 1, 2017

Running to Freedom (To See What the End Will Be)



Image of Sam Hawkins in Custody

I was supposed to be in Sarasota. I looked forward to live music at Marina Jack’s and  Asian food at Yummy. I would miss a walk along Lido Beach and Siesta Key. I wouldn’t get to  buy Cuban coffee and Sangria mix at Columbia Restaurant in St. Armand’s Circle. I wouldn’t  feed my passion for history with a quick run up to Tampa’s Ybor City where  I hoped to visit the site of the Marti-Maceo Cuban Social Club and the  home of Paulina Pedroso. Pedroso was an Afro-Cuban woman prominent in  Cuba’s revolution against Spain. She and her husband Ruperto hosted Jose Marti whenever he came to Tampa..

Instead, a conflicting commitment kept me in Maryland. But there was still sunshine and history to be found in nearby New Castle,  Delaware.It was the landing place of  William Penn in the New World. A border dispute between Penn and Maryland’s Lord Baltimore was was solved  by surveyors Mason and Dixon, resulting in the boundary line that bears their name. When Delaware broke from Pennsylvania, New Castle became the seat of colonial government.

Beyond those founding facts, I discovered a piece of close-to-home history. At 3:45 that Friday afternoon we took the last tour of the day of the colonial era New Castle Courthouse Museum. Composed of three sections, it was constructed  between 1730 and 1845  over the remains of the 1680 courthouse. Until 1881, when Wilmington became the county seat, it was home to the Federal and State courts.  At one time it became the New Castle Tearoom..(Shirley Temple sipped there). In 1848, however, it was the site of a trial of two of the  most storied station masters along the Maryland/Delaware route of the Underground Railroad.  



The tale began with Emeline Hawkins and her husband Sam. Emeline  was an enslaved woman in nearby Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Sam, a free man, owned his own home near the land where Emeline was enslaved. She and their children were the property of many slave owners in the area but they were all able to live in Sam’s home. Through death and inheritance, the status of the younger children was murky, but the two older boys were proven to be slaves of one of the area’s farmers.

When Sam’s attempt to purchase his wife’s freedom was rejected, the family decided to run. First to aid them on their journey was Samuel Burris, a free black man from Delaware and one of the area’s most dedicated Underground Railroad conductors. This commitment was particularly dangerous for Burris. A black person convicted of aiding escaped slaves would be arrested, fined  and subsequently sold into slavery. Burris took the family to the home of another free black man in  Delaware. There, four enslaved  men joined the group. With the men on foot and Emeline and the children in a wagon driven by Sam, they traveled more than 20 miles through a snowstorm to the home of the Quaker John Hunn in Middletown. About Hunn it was later said “In my day it has been more to John Hunn’s labors and preaching that the Underground Railroad was kept running through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland than to any other person.”

A nosy neighbor caught sight of the group and reported them to the Constable of Middletown. He came to Hunn’s home, followed shortly by two slave catchers from Queen Anne’s County. Although it was confirmed that Sam was indeed a free man, he was arrested for aiding the escape of slaves. Sam was taken to the Middletown magistrate’s office where he learned the cost of freedom  for him and his family. Turn over his two older enslaved sons and he, Emeline and the younger children could go free. He reluctantly agreed, but it didn’t matter. When Emeline arrived with the children, they were all taken to New Castle.



Replica of Emeline Hawkins, New Castle Courthouse Museum

Meanwhile, Burris and the four men made their way to Wilmington  to the home of heroic station master Thomas Garrett. Soon after, the sheriff of New Castle sent for Garrett. The sheriff, who was said to hold anti-slavery sentiments,released the  Hawkins family into his custody.  After a trial, the Chief Justice of Delaware dismissed the charges. When the Queen Anne’s County slave hunters returned with a legal document, they were too late. By the time the men arrived, the Hawkins family was on their way to freedom in Pennsylvania.

After aiding the four men to escape, Burris returned to Hunn’s Middletown home with a letter from Garrett. It read “My joy on this occasion was great, and I returned thanks to God for this wonderful escape of so many human beings from the charnel house of slavery.” The story of the Hawkins family’s escape didn’t end there. They settled in Pennsylvania where their descendants took  the name of Hackett.

Anyone who’s read my blog knows how much I love history – reading about it, talking about it, visiting the places where it was made.I knew of Burris, Hunn and Garrett, but the Hawkins family was new to me and even closer to home than Harriet Tubman. I encourage anyone interested in ”freedom seekers” to learn more about these people.A short blog post can’t do the justice their story deserves, but I hope it inspires further exploration. If you can, visit the places (near and far) where their heroic actions were literally a bridge our ancestors crossed over.   

By the way, there’s more to the story of the three men who aided Emeline and Sam Hawkins. Part of it took place in the New Castle Courthouse in a trial presided over by the infamous Roger Taney. Yes, that Roger Taney – the Maryland judge of  the Dred Scott decision who stated “that the Negro had no rights the white man was bound to respect.” Look for my next post to “see what the end will be.”


Posted by: beachchairandabook | October 7, 2016

End of Summer by the Sea: Shipwrecks, Seacrets and the Wawa of Wine

Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland I understood Ocean City to be a sundown town – we were more than welcome to work, but never to stay and play. My first visit to OC was a mid-January weekend in the late 1990’s.Even in winter it was everything I love about a beach town. I’ve been going back ever since.

As usual we lucked up with little advance planning.We got in and out before Bike Weekend. And in spite of the early biker arrivals and a convention at the hotel, we scored an oceanview room at the Princess Royale. In mid-September, there’s no denying the slow march of fall, but the bright blue beach umbrellas, silver blue water, bright sun and sand helped us hold on to our favorite season a little longer.

For me, there are two mandatory stops on any Ocean City visit. Number One on arrival is Sea Shell City, just over the Maryland line on Fenwick Island in Delaware. If there can never be too many sea shells in your world (as in mine), this is the place to see. One whole section of the coastal/nautical gift shop is dedicated to shells of all kinds, from the very tiny to the magnificently large and very pricey.

On each previous visit I spent so much time among the sea fans, conch and Babylon shells that I never paid attention to the small Shipwreck Museum up a flight of stairs from the main floor. What an incredible surprise to find a display of  items recovered by Mel Fisher, the legendary Key West treasure hunter and his “Golden Crew” of divers. On a previous birthday trip to Key West I made it a point to visit the Mel Fisher Museum, but had no idea that some of his treasures were so close by. A few pieces of the over 40 tons of gold and silver from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita were right there, practically in my backyard! Even more meaningful were a set of shackles from  the slave ship Henrietta Marie, “the English ship”  Fisher’s divers discovered while searching for the Atocha. When I mentioned my Key West visit  to the sales associate, she told me that the Shipwreck Museum’s owner had been one of Fisher’s crew. It was only fitting that in the guestbook comments section I wrote “today’s the day.” It was Fisher’s never-give-up mantra. Although this was strictly a fun in the sun trip, the history fix was an extra bonus.

Number Two on the must-see list is Ocean City’s iconic Seacrets. Even on a Tuesday night, the entertainment complex known as Jamaica USA welcomed a steady stream of people looking to enjoy its brand of Caribbean-inspired food and drink. Inside, across the lot from a Jamaican bobsled, an oversize postcard welcomed visitors.  At the outdoor Rock Bar, a dock stretched out into the Bay next to tables set out into the water. Cocoa Tea’s reggae classic “Rikers Island” and other Caribbean  tunes floated out over  the palms, sandy beach and its bars. With the sun setting over the water and a Seacrets rum float in hand, it was the next best thing to sunset  somewhere in Caribbean.

After Seacrets, it was time to buy a bottle of bubbly to toast the birthday girl. Every store we found was on the other side of the Coastal Highway. A few more blocks and a u-turn later we came upon something I’d never seen before.  I call it the Wawa of wine – in addition to the usual offering of snacks, the main product of this Exxon station/convenience store is wine.The presence of hot dogs, hot coffee, and cold drinks is secondary.The words “food”, “express” or “quick stop” are nowhere to be seen in the sign over the store – only The Wine Rack. And there are more – so if you’re on the lower shore and need a bag of ice, a dozen eggs, a tank of gas and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc before you reach the beach, check the Rack.

The next day’s weather was  just as perfect as the first. After coffee on the beach, it was time for a real birthday morning breakfast.There are as many breakfast places in the OC as there are miniature golf courses with dinosaurs, waterfalls, giant Tiki heads and pirate ships. Google “Ocean City breakfast” and take your pick. (Apparently, Ocean City nights call for more than coffee and a doughnut for the next morning’s  meal). Our choice was Bayside Skillet – who wouldn’t love the  pink and white decor and bright pink, yellow and blue fringed umbrellas over outdoor tables? Before a drive down to the boardwalk we feasted on coffee, Old-Bay rimmed Bloody Mary’s and a breakfast big enough to carry over into lunch.

We walked off some of that big breakfast on the Boardwalk. It was close to the end of season, but lots of souvenir shops were still open. (Hide your kids, hide your wife – who comes up with those T-shirt slogans??)  To my ever increasing beach town mug collection, I added a cup painted with sea shells, sea grass and an Adirondack chair looking out over the water. It was mid-September, but still a bright, hot, splendid summer day.The Ripley’s shark bared its teeth over the boardwalk. The Giant Ferris Wheel stood high over the Pier. Flags fluttered around the Ocean City Firefighters Memorial. Beachcombers lounged on the wide sandy beach under bright red umbrellas. It was the perfect way to celebrate a birthday and wish an almost-farewell to summer by the sea.





Posted by: beachchairandabook | September 8, 2016

Why We Keep Going Back to the British Virgin Islands

Late on the night of August 3,  I had just drifted off to sleep in preparation for a 2:00 am wake up call. When my phone chimed at 11;30 pm  with a  text from American Airlines, all hope of sleep was lost.  August 4 was not a hurry-up and wait day – it was hurry up and run all the way day.  After four gate changes,  a dash from the St. Thomas airport and a skin-of-our-teeth check-in at the Charlotte Amalie dock, a fellow traveler and I finally boarded the Native Son ferry to Tortola’s West End. I had never been on the water between St. Thomas and Tortola so late in the afternoon. The blue, gold and silver streaked sunset from the vessel’s top deck was Mother Nature’s spectacular welcome to the BVI. It was after 6:00 when we pulled into West End. And in case you’ve every wondered, Customs and Immigration officers can be courteous and welcoming even after a long day of correcting errors on immigration forms,  stamping passports and inspecting luggage.

Our final stop was “home” to cozy and colorful Sopers Hole  and Voyage Yacht Charters.  I have loved  this Caribbean-colored marina since my first visit in 2006. After the customary first meal of conch fritters and a Number 2 Painkiller, we greeted our crew mates, and the  long day ended in a welcome night’s sleep.


Sopers Hole and Voyage Yacht Charters

For the next week, every single day was the best answer  to the question: “why do you keep going back?”

Rain fell on our first day out. It was  not the quick shower, followed by a blaze of sun that defines the Caribbean’s rainy season. This was a relentless, all day downpour. But there is no whining in No Drama. Plan B quickly fell into place. Instead of fish sandwiches and a round of Painkillers at Seddy’s One Love Bar on White Bay, we rafted up for an impromptu welcome party under the cover of Moonshadow’s cockpit. With raised glasses of Dark and Stormys, we toasted the great beginning of No Drama Vacations 2016.

The next morning on Cane Garden Bay a few early risers shared cups of coffee, tea and morning conversation on deck. Although the sun was out in full force, a brief shower fell.  We watched in awe as the column of rain made its way across the mountain and through the sun, blessing us with a perfectly arched rainbow over paradise.


Rainbow over the BVI

The Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor was our next stop. In the pool at the island’s famous Top of the Baths, a spirited soul train line took the place of swimming. If more confirmation is needed that NDV is a portable party, that celebration of  love, peace and soul is proof. Meanwhile, I was determined to track down a bowl of a local delicacy.  Bullfoot soup had been  sold out of the Spanish Town dockside restaurant by the time we arrived last year. This year the Caribbean food gods were on my side. Thanks to one of our local captains, a container awaited me at the bar. Bullfoot you say? It’s a Caribbean thing – you wouldn’t understand.:)  Local was the way to go that day; at a produce vendor’s stand we purchased ripe plantains for frying and sweet pineapple for snacking.

Later that afternoon, the beautiful  Grand Cru from Aventura Florida sailed into the slip across from Moonshadow.  Not too long after tying her up, one of the crew of three set a table and served  food and wine to the yacht’s owners.The casually elegant couple could have graced the cover of Yachts International. Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life” played in my head.


Gran Cru



Virgin Gorda Seventh Day Adventist Youth Band


Gran Cru and Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor at Sunset

Later that afternoon the sound of drumming floated down the dock, but not the Afro-Caribbean drumming we might have expected. This was Drumline, Grambling, Florida A&M rhythm. We ran down to catch up with the band as they marched from the street to their final stop. We were on  Virgin Gorda, but in musical sound and style, those kids could have been members of the Largo High School Marching Machine (shout-out to the Prince George’s County band and its Eastern Shore director). From a woman in the crowd, we learned that the talented youth were members of a Seventh Day Adventist Youth Group..

On every BVI sailing trip there is that one day when the gods of wind and water join forces to show us Nature’s Little Secret in all its glory. This year for me it was our sail to Anegada The sun shone on water rippling with shades of aquamarine,  turquoise, teal and sapphire. Our true sailors clocked the wind at 8.7 knots. I imagined Oya, ruler of the winds, guiding us on our way.  On arrival, we were met by the dockmaster and three of his young helpers. The boys lived in Florida but were “home” for the summer;  the Caribbean version  of going down South as soon as school let out in June. At the outdoor bar of the Anegada Reef Hotel, we put in our order for the night’s lobster dinner. On our way to the beach, we caught a glimpse of the islands’s flamingos and salt ponds.  And who knew that tiny Anegada had an airport? Two of our fellow taxi passengers, a father and daughter,  were headed there to board a plane for Tortola. I’ve heard that the flight takes only ten minutes. And  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he  was the also the puddle jumper’s pilot.


Ottertude Under Sail

Another brief shower sent us for temporary shelter under the cover of the Big Bamboo Bar. I took the  opportunity to grab a glass of Chardonnay and toast what was already turning into a magical day.  It might have been the hour, the position of the sun  or some kind of secluded beach magic.  I stood on the sand of Loblolly Beach, contraband glass of wine in hand and stared at the beautiful blue and white perfection of the water, sky and sand. I’ve always been interested in the history and culture of the Diaspora; those customs and practices that survived and thrived. On that beautiful blue and white day on the island of Anegada, I was reminded of the orisha Yemaya,  the mother of waters, and ruler of the seas whose  colors, coincidentally, are also  blue and white.


A Toast to Anegada!

Further down the beach, I saw a man enter the water. I thought he was going  in for a late afternoon swim until I saw him drag a full lobster trap from the water. We talked briefly, and as is my way, I asked to take a picture. This time the picture taking tables were turned.  I turned into  the subject as he handed me a big, wriggling Anegada lobster for my own snapshot of the famed island delicacy. Later that night we ate grilled lobster under the stars on the Anegada Reef Hotel sand.  C’est Magnifique was my mental musical inspiration for the night.


Anegada Lobster Harvest

The next day we set out for the sailing paradise that is the Bitter End Yacht Club. One of my favorite sights in the entire BVI is the sign over the red-roofed lobby building : Welcome to the Bitter End.  As usual, we headed for the pool for afternoon drinks and a swim. That evening I fried those soft, ripe Virgin Gorda plantains and  made barbequed chicken as my contribution to the community meal  of fried chicken, yellow rice and potato salad. And our NDV breakfasts of salmon cakes, fried apples, potatoes, grits and turkey bacon? We’ve made a lot of culinary magic in those galleys over the years.


Welcome to the Bitter End!

Tuesday was our White Bay make-up day. This time the weather was perfect for a walk up and down the beach, a fish sandwich and the usual fake tarantula drop from the ceiling of Magic Man Seddy’s One Love Bar. Two new establishments were on our radar – Hendo’s Hideaway and Manjack Ice Cream. It was a resounding yes for the creamy, sweet soursoup. In 2017 I’ll go for the  the coconut and strawberry Tiger’s Blood. My internal music machine played the Beach Boys Kokomo the whole time we were there.


Walking Down White Bay

After a short stop in the renovated, very lovely Norman Island we headed for Nanny Cay, the last sailing stop for No Drama 2016. More than a marina, Nanny Cay could be considered  a small beach town within a town. The marina holds  a 40 room hotel, cottages and separate private villas perched over their own waterway. Guests can shop for groceries, cigars and fine wines, dive gear and “island attire” (including a very beautiful, very glamorous, very expensive 250.00 swimsuit).  According to our server, Nanny Cay has “de best roti on de island, mon.” During our two days on land we took a taxi to the new Tortola Pier Park, lounged around the Nanny Cay Pool, had drinks by the bar, ate saltfish and johnny cake at the Moorings Marina, visited Captain Tonic’s  bar, bought a painting from a local artist at his studio, ate more local food and visited a cigar and martini bar in Road Town.


Nanny Cay Cottage

Following the tradition we began last year, the end of No Drama 2016 took place at St. Thomas’ Island Beachcomber Hotel.This year we experienced an unexpected treat. Kevin Campbell, our St Thomas connection, introduced us to Hook Line and Sinker, a seafood restaurant in the Frenchtown area of Charlotte Amalie. On a beautiful warm Saturday night near the water and lights over St. Thomas we feasted on seafood, toasted each other and the joy that was  No Drama Vacations 2016.


No Drama at Hook, Line and Sinker; Frenchtown, St. Thomas


Posted by: beachchairandabook | April 29, 2016

Black History: 17th & 19th Century Britain and Brown Women in Disguise


To paraphrase a popular potato chip commercial, I’ll bet you can’t click just once. I certainly can’t, especially when I’m caught up in the world wide web of information. A search for Africans in India led me to links on Britain’s East India Company, its Royal African Company and then to John Brown – not the warrior abolitionist who took his personal sword to slavery, but the 17th century black woman who sailed from England back to Africa. Although her real name is a mystery and her reasons never made clear, this woman disguised herself as a man, took the name “John Brown” and enlisted as a soldier in the Royal African Company.

Was Brown’s story true? Instead of relying on the University of Facebook and its many posts, shares, and likes disguised as truth, I conducted my own research. The author of the first article I discovered is the  unimpeachable Dr. Steve Murdoch, a professor of history at the UK’s University of St. Andrew. In addition (to make sure none of my words would come back to bite me),  I followed the advice of a friend who makes her living from research. I  went straight to the source – the 17th century journals of Captain Thomas Phillips, commander of The Hannibal, the ship on which Brown made her voyage.

Here’s some background on how Brown was able to enter the service. In the 16th century, England’s black population was substantial, populated by enslaved and free blacks as well as those from the empire’s colonies. Queen Elizabeth became alarmed at the growing numbers of “blackamores.” Since, in her opinion too many of them had “crept into the land”, the Queen issued an edict for their deportation. It was an empty threat, however. Too much of English society depended on their labor and the  slave trade. The importation of Africans continued, supported in part by the slave ships of the Royal African Company. King Charles II granted to the Company “…the whole entire and only trade for buying and selling, bartering and exchange of, for or with any Negroes slaves, good, wares, merchandise whatsoever between Africa and the West Indies.” The Hannibal was part of the fleet that sailed from Bristol and Liverpool to the West African coast and the Caribbean.

Brown raised no curiosity. According to Captain Phillips’ diary, she served “without the least suspicion, and had been three months on board without any mistrust, lying always among the other passengers, and being as handy and ready to do any work as any of them.”

On Saturday November 18, 1693, when Brown became ill, Captain Phillips made a shocking discovery. “This morning we found out that one of the Royal African Company’s soldiers for their castles in Guiney (now part of Ghana) was a woman.” When she was examined by the ship’s surgeon, Captain Phillips notes “he was surpriz’d to find more sally-ports than he expected.” According to the Captain’s detailed journal, “in charity as well as respect to her sex” he set up private quarters for Brown, had the ship’s tailor fashion women’s clothes for her and re-assigned her duties from those of sailor to laundress.

When the Hannibal anchored in Africa, instead of forcing her back to England or on to certain slavery in Barbados, Captain Phillips left John Brown at a Cape Coast castle. Did she take back her name? Did she remain on the West African coast ? Was she eventually enslaved and sent back to England or the Caribbean? Unless some diligent, dedicated historian uncovers more about her, the fate of John Brown, black female soldier, will remain a mystery.

John Brown was not the only Brown woman to take to the high seas. In 1815 a black woman who called herself William Brown joined the Royal Navy as a sailor on the HMS Queen Charlotte. Her birthplace was listed as Grenada, and her rank was landsman, the lowest rank for a crew member. One source dates her enlistment as May 1815 and her discharge “for being a woman” in June of 1815. Another version of William Brown’s career on board the Queen Charlotte gives her credit for 11 years as a higher ranked seaman, describes her with “features rather handsome for a black” and as a strong, “smart, well-formed woman” who could handle her duties and her grog. In this version of her story, this Brown woman had freedom on her mind as well – her reason for going to sea was a quarrel with her husband!

Although her duties and length of service (and its reasons) have been debated, her presence on board HMS Queen Charlotte is undisputed.

When I think of John Brown and William Brown – their  physical and mental strength, and resolve to make their own way in world that could  prove  challenging for the best of men at sea, I’m reminded of Sojourner Truth’s words:  “I could work as much and eat as much as a man….And ain’t I a woman?”

Posted by: beachchairandabook | April 14, 2016

Black History and Blue Crabs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Rock Hall All You Can Eat

All You Can Eat

For many of you, it’s the most wonderful time of the year – not Christmas, but crab season! Any day now, tables in waterside restaurants, dock bars and back yards sit covered with brown kraft paper or newsprint. Nearby, trash cans  lined with black garbage bags stand ready  to hold picked-clean shells of this iconic summertime delicacy. And how about that state-of-the-art crab feast table?  With a built-in can and liner in the center, you never have to leave your seat.

I was raised on the Shore, and love the hours-long camaraderie of a crab feast, but all that banging, cracking, and picking is too much work for me. Give me my crab meat in a broiled, well-seasoned cake. I like Old Bay, but only  a pinch in potato salad or rimmed around the glass of an Eastern Shore Bloody Mary.  

If you’ve already made plans to cross “America’s scariest bridge” and brave long lines of traffic to dine on jimmies (male crabs) or sooks (female crabs) on the Shore, here’s a bit of  Eastern Shore black history  behind the seafood industry that makes your dining pleasure possible.

Frederick Jewett was the son of a United States Colored Troops veteran, born and raised on the family farm on the Eastern Shore’s Somerset County. In the summer, with his widowed mother, Jewett sold produce from the farm. In the winter he shucked oysters. In 1902, a $500.00 bank  loan changed Jewett from oyster shucker to business owner. Jewett, William Colbourne and Rev. Charles Downes formed a company, that at its beginning, processed oysters and fish products. Reverend Downes later sold his interest, leaving the company in the hands of Colbourne and Jewett. It became one of the first seafood houses to focus on the bountiful blue crab, the “beautiful swimmers” of the region. At one time, Colbourne and Jewett was the largest employer in the town of St. Michaels, with over 100 people on its payroll. As further evidence of the company’s success, it was reported to be the only seafood house in the state to pack over a million pounds of crab meat from 1935 to 1940.

Possessing a head for business was a family trait. Jewett’s son, Elwood, graduated from Princess Anne Academy (my mother’s alma mater) and Wilberforce College. He became Colbourne and Jewett’s bookkeeper while running a successful packing house of his own. Elwood Jewett was said to have shipped 12,000 gallons of oysters to Baltimore each week. Here’s an account from a former employee of Elwood Jewett’s personal dress code: “He would always wear a white jacket … a black bow tie or black tie, and black pants and black dress shoes,” Alice Palmer told The Star-Democrat of Easton. “He always said, ‘A businessman should look like a businessman”  – even when unloading workboats.

The company’s achievements were many, but one of its accomplishments stands out at the top of the list. Frederick Jewett is credited with the crab meat grading system –  backfin, claw, and lump – still used by the seafood industry today. When you purchase  a can of graded crabmeat, give thanks to Frederick Jewett.

Due to challenges facing the entire seafood industry, Elwood Jewett sold the company in the mid-60s. The land that housed the  old packing house is now part of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. If you’re on the CBMM campus, don’t leave without a visit to the Mitchell House. This  home was once owned by Eliza Bailey, sister to another son of the Eastern Shore, first known as Frederick Bailey, later as Frederick Douglass. A few miles down the road in Dorchester County is the birthplace of the Harriet Tubman.  Whenever I’m asked about the land of my childhood, I say there is  power in the land and waterways of the Eastern Shore.

I couldn’t talk about the Shore’s packing houses without including this picture from an elementary school class trip to old Kent Narrows. It was taken long before the days of Annie’s Paramount Steak House and the infamous Red Eye’s Dock Bar.  In those days  Harris  was a shucking house instead of the landmark Harris Crab House and Restaurant, to which crab-loving pilgrims flock from April to  December. Then, black workers imported from other states lived in shanties where restaurants and marinas now stand. The picture is blurred, but check out my Brownie camera. I’m not sure if it’s a Hawkeye or Starflex. I still have both.  Even then, I never left home without a camera in my hand.

Elementary School Field Trip


Posted by: beachchairandabook | April 6, 2016

All Hail the (Pinkster) King


I came upon this resplendent figure a few years ago at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in Southeast Washington, DC. I’d seen similar portraits in books about the black presence in 16th century Europe. Could he be an African musician or court page for European royalty? A nearby plaque identified him briefly as the Pinkster King. That nugget of information was just not enough for a need-to-know-it-all black history lover. I searched  the internet (and that old school research tool known as The Library) to find out as much as I could about Pinkster and why this man was its king. Some accounts differ in detail, but here’s what I learned. It had everything to do with royalty, but not in the way I expected.

In the language of the Dutch who settled in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the city of Albany and nearby regions of the state, pinkster (pinksteren) meant Pentecost. Celebrated seven weeks after Easter, it was time for the residents of New Netherlands to attend church services, celebrate baptisms, visit with friends and family and celebrate the return of spring. The azalea (the pinkster flower) became associated with the festivities.

At the same time, enslaved African Americans were given time off from their masters’  farms and households. Some traveled as far as New York City to sell produce and crafts in the city markets. In Albany they set up stalls and booths on Pinkster Hill, now home to the  New York state capitol building. Both enslaved and free black people celebrated with dancing, rhythms beat out on “the Guinea drum” and singing in an 18th century mash-up of African and European cultural expressions. According to historian William Dunlap The blacks as well as their masters were frolicking.” It was a well-loved tradition, a temporary reprieve from the reality of slavery, a time to reconnect with their own friends and family. A claim exists that Sojourner Truth considered risking her freedom just to be reunited at Pinkster with those she knew and loved.

Central to  the multi-racial celebration of Pinkster was crowning of the king.  By all accounts he was an Angolan named Charles, a slave of the mayor of Albany. During Pinkster, however, he became King Charles. The Pinkster King, dressed in European-style finery, made his grand entrance to the festival at the head of a procession of dancers and drummers. King Charles was described by many sources as tall, strong, athletic; an excellent dancer and drummer. “His authority is absolute, and his will is law during the Pinkster holidays.” For the duration of the merriment,  slave became king – he was master of ceremonies, the settler of disputes, collector of tributes and a monarch who reigned over the Pinkster celebration from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.

Gradually, Pinkster became more  African American than Dutch. African Americans were said to slyly mock the dress, manners and dance of their masters.  Satire and anti-slavery sentiments found their way into the celebration. In 1803,  a poem dedicated to King Charles was published –   “A Pinkster Ode for the Year 1803: Most Respectfully Dedicated to Carolus Africanus Rex; Thus Rendered in English: King Charles, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Pinkster Boys.” Here’s a sample from the poem whose title is nearly as long as one of its verses:  

“A song that’s fit for Charley’s praise.

Tho’ for a scepter he was born,

Tho’ from his father’s kingdom torn,

And doom’d to be a slave; still he

Retains his native majesty.

O could I loud as thunder sing,

Thy fame should sound, great Charles, the king.

From Hudson’s stream to Niger’s wave,

And rouse the friend of every slave.”

In 1811 Albany officials  passed a law that led to the gradual demise of the festival. Pinkster  faded into obscurity until 1978. That year, the Hudson River Valley Association revived the celebration at Phillipsburg Manor in historic Sleepy Hollow. True to its origins, the 21st century Pinkster festivities include both Dutch and African American traditions. This year Pinkster falls on May 14th. And here’s a suggestion to fans of the Sleepy Hollow series. If you’re in the area, you can participate in this traditional rite of spring and imagine yourself in the company of Ichabod Crane and (“Leftenent”) 🙂 Abbie Mills as they rid the world of evil!


Posted by: beachchairandabook | March 1, 2016

The Last Lynching in Maryland : A Personal Account


(Photo courtesy of the Archives of Maryland, Biographical Series)

In 1933 my mother,then Marie Elise Johnson, was a student at Princess Anne Academy, a school established in 1886 under the auspices of the Delaware Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Academy was located in Princess Anne; Somerset County, Maryland. Later it became University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, a Historically Black University and College (HBCU). If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll remember that she owned priceless photos and shared stories of 1930s life at the school. I had never heard the one she told me that day. “I waited until you were older,” she explained.

What follows is her recollection of the events of October and November 1933. In October that year a black man was arrested for attacking a white woman. Local authorities, fearing vigilante justice, had him moved to a Baltimore jail until he could stand trial. For some unknown reason, he was sent straight back to Princess Anne. That decision sent the man to his death.

According to my mother, the students were in Chapel when they learned of the lynching. She described their fear, and with good reason; this was the 1930s Eastern Shore where Jim Crow reigned supreme. They were an all-black campus with an angry, hate-filled mob nearby, and their principal, Mr. Thomas Kiah, was away from school on business. That night, according to my mother, instead of sending them to their dorms, a teacher gathered all the girls and kept them in her on-campus lodgings throughout the night.

I never forgot that story. Just last week, while searching through a box of old pictures, I found a few notes she had written when she was in her early 80s, in an attempt to keep both her memory and history alive. The discovery prompted me to do some research of my own. Over the years, a story can change in the telling. This one may be no different. What I found matched most of her recollections.

The lynching victim was George Armwood. He was a laborer who had been hired out for work since the age of five; a man described as “feeble.” He was accused of raping and robbing Mrs. Mary Denston, an elderly white woman. When Armwood was taken to Baltimore, Maryland’s Governor Ritchie advised State’s Attorney John Robins and Circuit Court Judge Robert Duer to keep him there. But it was not to be.

According to reports, for some misguided reason, two Somerset County police officers brought Armwood back to Princess Anne. The day of Armwood’s unfortunate return, a mob stormed the jail. In the first of the horrors Armwood suffered, his ear was cut off. He was dragged through the streets, strung up near Judge Duer’s property, beaten, kicked and lynched. In a last act of triumphant barbarism, the mob doused Armwood’s lifeless body with gasoline and tossed it on a bonfire. Later his charred remains were thrown in a nearby lumber yard.  Some newspapers referred to the lynching as a demonstration. Not so the Baltimore Sun. Legendary journalist H.R Mencken, writing for the paper, described the culture that could condone such acts as “sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia.” Needless to say, the paper lost popularity with certain Eastern Shore readers.

As I read on, I found more that compared with my mother’s account. In November, a month after Armwood’s lynching, Governor Ritchie sent the National Guard to arrest those responsible for the crime. Four of the nine suspects were taken to the National Guard Armory. Again a mob gathered. In the chaos and confusion, a fire alarm was set off. Could this be the fire alarm she remembered or did an alarm also sound the night Armwood was lynched and burned?

Instead of a blaze, the responding firemen were met with a violent mob intent on freeing the men they considered heroes. To keep crowd at bay, firefighters turned their hoses on the crowd. Ironically, it was a scene that would play out many times over in years to come, except the “unruly mob” would be demonstrators marching for justice and equality; the exact opposite of what took place in October 1933.

My mother may not have known that she was a witness, of sorts, to what was considered the  last lynching in the state of Maryland. There is however, an earlier Eastern Shore lynching I have to investigate. According to the stories handed down on the paternal side of my family, my great-grandfather was lynched somewhere in or near the town where I grew up. His crime – having a relationship with a white woman and with her, giving life to the child that would become my grandmother.


Posted by: beachchairandabook | February 24, 2016

Black History Tribute to My Mother

Marie Johnson Brown

“I should have been a history teacher.” It was my mother’s mantra, especially during Black History Month. Instead, she became a home economics teacher, but African American history remained her passion. She was born in 1915 and lived through the eras of colored, Negro, black and African  American. It was African American that she embraced, especially since family lore placed what is modern-day Ghana as her maternal ancestral homeland. (The genealogical research continues.)

Marie Johnson Brown was born in 1915, a “late baby” and only child to her 55 year old father and 44 year old mother. Her love of history began as a Daddy’s girl. My grandparents owned a 68 acre farm in Harford County, Maryland. They called it Mt. Pleasant and while following her father around on his chores, she heard stories about “Hat Tubman”, Frederick Douglass and the Quaker who would bind his horse’s hooves with burlap to ferry slaves across the Maryland/Pennsylvania border at night. According to my grandfather’s tale, this man could be heard whistling on his way back in the early morning hours. Each time we traveled to our family reunion across from Asbury Church in Bel Air, she would point out the spot where his journey was said to have begun.

After graduating from Princess Anne Academy (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) and Virginia State,  my mother came by train in 1937 to teach at Kennard High School in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. She was offered a job with a salary of $80.00 per month to teach home economics and science at the school built for the county’s African American students. During her 70 years in the county, she collected almost every article she could find on the achievement of local African Americans.  She filled cardboard file boxes with  high school yearbooks, graduation programs, lessons plans, prom, graduation and sports team pictures. She was passionate about the school where her teaching career began and until she passed away, determined to keep its legacy alive.

My mother was a well-known, minor hoarder. We laughed at her reluctance to throw anything away – folded up newspaper crosswords, recipes, the Soap Opera Digest, Jet and Ebony magazines from the 1950s and greeting cards stretching back to the Year One. If there was an article written about the championship games of the Baltimore Colts (yes, those Colts) and Orioles, my mother owned it. I can’t count the number of times she played the DVD of Iron Man Cal Ripken’s 400th home run. If anybody in the family needed a childhood  picture from when they were toothless or in pigtails  they knew to ask Aunt Marie.

There was a bonus to her compulsion. She owned invaluable pieces of African American history including a 19th century graduation program from Howard University, photos from early 20th century life on an HBCU campus, a 1916 course catalog from Hampton University, and a program from a recital by the great Roland Hayes. I don’t know how she came to  own it, but among her collection was the 1930s ledger from a local church, listing members, their tithes and those considered “backsliders.” One of her most prized possessions was a letter to her parents from the office of their Baltimore lawyer, Thurgood Marshall.

One February my mother decide that more exposure was necessary for local African American history. By then she was in her 80s, and although she had suffered three strokes, still owned enough of her mind to put this project together. She put in a call to our county library. When they agreed to host the exhibit, she and I went to work. From her many file folders and boxes of articles and pictures, she chose those of local interest – segregation-era black businesses, a newspaper article on a World War I veteran, an honor given to a long-time municipal employee and of course, her beloved Kennard. There were pictures of the original old Kennard (which became Kennard Elementary) and new Kennard High School built just across the street.

She chose the pictures and articles. She wrote the captions. I typed the text and mounted each item. When the display was done to her satisfaction, I took it to the library, along with a sculpture of a proud Buffalo Soldier in full uniform. It was placed at the entrance where everyone could enjoy her efforts. Later, she was interviewed by a local reporter. If my mother had her way the call would have gone on for hours, turning into an impromptu introduction to local African American history.

I have inherited those boxes, file folders and photos, all in need of better preservation than I can give. Whenever I  discover a long-lost, forgotten treasure, or sometimes new treasure, I’m reminded of her straight-ahead, unwavering dedication to our history. Well done, Miss Marie!







Posted by: beachchairandabook | February 16, 2016

The Revenant, Cut-Nose and Five Scalps

The trailer and the title was enough to capture my attention – The Revenant and a wild-eyed shaggy man stranded in the white wilderness. (I call it the Game of Thrones, White Walkers effect).  When I learned that DiCaprio’s character was based upon real-life mountain man Hugh Glass  I was all in.  Actually, I learned about Glass through research on black trapper and mountain man Edward Rose. Could the Revenant  be the story of their ill-fated confrontation with the Arikara  near the Yellowstone River?   I hoped so. As I listened to the masterful narration of Holter Graham, I discovered it was not. But Rose’s story needs telling, too.  Just in case you missed my post last year, here’s the rewind on a man known as “a mountain man’s mountain man.”

I was drawn to the tales of mountain men after reading the exploits of legendary trappers Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger and their black contemporary Jim Beckwourth. True to the times, in the 1951 film Tomahawk, instead of casting a black actor, Beckwourth was played by white actor Jack Oakie. What a joke – if Beckwourth was white, so was Frederick Douglass!

As always,  when faced with misinformation, I didn’t get mad, I got a book.  There had to be more than one black mountain man. And what a mountain man he was! Born to a white trader father and an African-American/Cherokee mother, Edward Rose was an outlaw, guide, hunter, interpreter, and war chief. In his youth Rose was part pirate and part highwayman, robbing travelers on land and water, from the Mississippi River to New Orleans. When the law put a halt to his life of crime, Rose settled in St. Louis.

With Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery came the development of the fur trade in the West and the need for men to trap, trade and negotiate with  Native Americans. According to one source “the old fur traders always got a Negro if possible to negotiate with the Indians because of their pacifying effect. They could manage them better than the white men…” Edward Rose was one of these men. Jim Beckwourth said of Rose: “He was one of the best interpreters ever known in the whole Indian country.”

It must have been so. When the Pacific Fur Company hired Rose as a guide, their leader Wilson Hunt (a man with no frontier experience) distrusted Rose because of his amicable relationship with the Crow. Near the Black Hills of South Dakota, Hunt fired him. The Pacific party promptly became lost, but was saved by Rose when he returned with a group of Crow to guide them.

Rose was often described in negative terms – sullen, silent and sinister; big, strong, hot-tempered, self-serving and dishonest.  Even so, his skill as a guide and hunter could not be denied. More than once Rose’s knowledge of Native American customs and language was in part responsible for the success of an expedition. On the Ashley-Smith exploration, Rose was counted, along with legendary mountain men Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass and Jedediah Smith, as “the most significant group of continental explorers ever brought together.”

Rose became part of a frontier militia formed to fend off attacks on traders by the Arikara. General Henry Leavenworth, in his report of a battle, described Rose this way: “I had not found anyone willing to go into those villages except a man by the name of Rose…He appeared to be a brave and enterprising man, and was well acquainted with those Indians…The Indians called to him to take care of himself before they fired upon General Ashley’s party.” Another described “the old Negro” in battle: “One foot was on the pile of muskets to prevent the Indians from taking any from it…his eye gleamed with triumphant satisfaction…(the) scars on his forehead and nose all united in forming a general expression, that…seemed to paralyze the nerves of every Indian before him.”

Eventually Rose rejoined the Crow who named him “Nez Coupe” (Cut Nose) because of the scars on his nose. By some accounts, he became a war chief, and for killing five Blackfoot in one battle, was given the name “Five Scalps.”

Edward Rose, Hugh Glass and Hailan Menard were “shot, scalped and plundered”  by a group of Arikara  on the banks of the Yellowstone River in the winter of 1823. 

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