The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black boating tradition on the Chesapeake ran into racism — then tragedy

The Claud W. Somers sails in waters near its berth in Reedville, Va. (Lynn Kellum/Reedville Fishermen's Museum)
8 min

On March 4, 1977, Capt. Thompson Wallace maneuvered his skipjack, the Claud W. Somers, out of a Deal Island harbor on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. Aboard were his seasoned crew of six, all but one of whom were members of his family. The Chesapeake Bay had finally thawed after weeks of a solid freeze, and the captain, like many of the island’s watermen, was hoping for a good workday.

They never came home.

A March gale sank the Claud W. Somers — and ended a tradition of Black skipjack captain-owners on the Chesapeake Bay. Thompson was one of the last two Black captains to dredge for oysters under the shallow-draft, two-bateau wooden sailboats built for Chesapeake oyster dredging. Many of the remaining skipjacks are now berthed at Chesapeake maritime museums. The restored Claud W. Somers is on display outside the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum on Virginia’s Northern Neck, where tourists peer into her sleeper cabins during organized sails.

Before Old Bay Goldfish, a man fled Nazi Germany with a spice grinder

Stories abound about the majesty of skipjacks, but little has been written about one of the worst accidents in Chesapeake history, and how it hastened the dwindling of Black watermen’s participation in a once-robust oyster fishery. At the Skipjack Heritage Museum on Deal Island, which opened a year ago barely a mile from where Thompson was born, there are no exhibits on him and almost nothing on Black watermen. Even the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum docents didn’t know Thompson was Black; they found out only when the family visited before the museum rededicated the boat with a ceremony and concert this spring.

“For a long time, I didn’t know that story,” said Vince Leggett, founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, which has been chronicling Black maritime achievements for the past 40 years. “It was a story buried in an unmarked grave.”

‘Don’t let him have it’

Wallace was born in 1922 on Deal Island, one of 14 surviving children out of 23 in a family of watermen. He quickly became known as one of the best boatwrights. He could fix anything, recalled the Rev. William Wallace, one of his sons. Thompson Wallace wanted to buy his own skipjack. The local banks rejected him four times; to get the boat, William Wallace said, his father had to travel 45 minutes away. And the boat’s owner, Jack Parkinson, had to be willing to sell it to him, mostly because he knew Thompson Wallace could fix it up and run it.

“There were those who didn’t want him to have it because they wanted him to work for them, those who whispered, ‘Don’t let him have it,’ ” said William Wallace, now 71, who often oystered on his father’s boat and was involved in the discussions. “That had to do with his race. They didn’t want him to be enterprising. They wanted him to work for them.”

According to William and his brother Kevin, oyster buyers sometimes refused to take their father’s catch but bought everyone else’s. In the spring, Thompson crabbed, and when buyers counted crabs, the brothers said, his father often got shorted.

Leggett calls such discrimination “sharecropping the bay” and said it was common in the Jim Crow era for White watermen to block Black watermen from owning boats. In 1916, there were 13 Black captains among the 178 watermen who applied for dredging licenses in Somerset County. By 1977, only two Black captains had dredging licenses there, though many Black men worked on boats as cullers and deckhands. The decline in boat ownership had much to do with a reluctance from White bankers to lend money to Black watermen, and White watermen often preferred to keep the skilled Black watermen working for them.

“The idea was to keep Black people subservient,” said Clara Small, a Salisbury University history professor emeritus who has written several books about the Eastern Shore’s Black community. “Not being able to get loans — that went on for years.”

‘We’re going to try to save her’

Thompson Wallace spent the summer of 1976 preparing his skipjack. He was ready on March 4, 1977, having been unable to dredge for oysters for weeks because the bay froze over. Oyster-dredging season would end in two days. One of his sons, Gerald, was home from his Navy service.

Joining Thompson, 55, and Gerald, 23, were Thompson’s older brother, George, 65; his nephew, Carter, 33; his wife Esther’s cousin, Thomas James, 20; and a friend, Levin Johnson, 44. William said he, too, was scheduled to go, but he had to help a friend. Kevin, the youngest of Thompson’s eight children at age 15, showed up, but his father told him to go to school instead.

Desperate for freedom, 77 enslaved people tried to escape aboard the Pearl. They almost made it.

About 11 a.m., Kevin felt the walls in his 10th-grade class in Princess Anne shake. School let out early because of the squall, but by the time Kevin reached home, he said, the winds had calmed. He wondered if his father had come in.

Around the same time, waterman Buddy Jones spotted Thompson’s boat drifting. The motor to the skipjack had failed, and the cloth sails were wet. Jones found a line to tow the boat in, but it wasn’t thick enough. Meanwhile, in the span of about two hours, the wind gusted from 10 knots to hurricane-like gales, and Jones wasn’t sure he could get back. He told Thompson he couldn’t take the boat and offered the men passage on his vessel, according to an account in the Salisbury Times. But they stayed with their captain. “We’re going to try to save her,” Thompson told Jones, according to the newspaper.

That evening, Esther called William to say the boat hadn’t come home. After midnight, they learned there were no survivors.

The boat itself was more fortunate. Rescuers pulled it up, and investors bought it to restore. Eventually, it landed at the museum.

William had already decided to enter the ministry and leave the waterman’s life. But the accident ended Kevin’s plans to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“For me, it was like a dream stolen,” said Kevin, who entered the military. “My mother was distraught, and she totally abandoned everything about the water. She lost a husband, she lost a son, she lost a nephew, a brother-in-law and her cousin. Five people. So I respected that. I found other things to do.”

‘Not like a car’

Members of the Wallace family have heard the questions. Why did Thompson go out that day? When things got bad, why didn’t he save himself? If he wouldn’t, why didn’t the crew go without him? Kevin and William both noted that other watermen went out that day, and that the storm was not forecast until the afternoon. He should have been back by then.

As for why Thompson didn’t get on Jones’s boat, William said he was hoping to run it aground and wait out the storm.

Thompson wasn’t reckless; he was relying on his encyclopedic Chesapeake knowledge, said Gerhard Staub, the current captain of the Claud W. Somers, who takes tourists out on sails when they visit the museum. He did his best to save his crew and his boat. Just as any captain would.

“People often look at a boat like a car, or any possession someone has. But if you’re captaining a boat that’s yours, and you’ve poured your heart and soul into it, it’s sort of like a family member. You want to do everything you can to save it,” Staub said. “As they say, ‘Any fool can run an engine — it takes brains to work a sail.’ ”

Staub recalled the “magical, amazing” feeling of meeting Thompson’s children at the museum. He thinks about the former captain every time he sails. “If you have an interest in maritime history,” he said, “you can’t not be touched by being on that boat.” His cellphone ringtone is the chorus of musician Janie Meneely’s song “The Claud W. Somers”: “But the Bay can be rough as a riot/Shove the wind straight into your bones/And sometimes come hell or high water/The skipjacks don’t always come home.”

Meneely, who in 2005 wrote the most complete account of the accident in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, lives in England. She returns to the Chesapeake every summer for concerts.

“The song took me years to write, and I am sure I still haven’t finished it,” she said. When she began interviewing islanders three decades after the accident, “they remembered it like it was yesterday. It was still incredibly alive in their brains. This is shared community trauma. It gets in your bones, and it’s hard to shake.”

When he was 17, Kevin Wallace said, he saw his father in a dream. Thompson was with his crew out on the bay. They were on a skipjack, but it was not the Claud W. Somers; it was called Heavenly Host. The dream has helped calm Kevin. “They died,” he said, “and now they are in a better place.”