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

 

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Responses

  1. Growing up in North Philly, we always ate crabs…newspaper covering the kitchen table, plastic bag in the garbage can right by the table and a roll of paper towels….smiles.

    But now that I have relocated to Maryland, this photo looks like my pic nic table when my relatives come from NJ for a bbq.

    Thanks for the history.

    Btw: I also prefer my husband’s home-made crab cakes or his soft shell
    crab sandwhivches. I am not one to do the work! LOL

    • I’m glad you liked it. My mother loved soft shell crabs and made the best crab imperial ever! 🙂

      • Would you share her recipe?

  2. Cute pic of yyou as a girl. 😀


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