Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Albert Jose Jones was given the soil at the ritual in Mozambique. Lonnie Bunch was the actual recipient. This version has been updated.
As soon as Albert Jose “Doc” Jones hit the water, he knew it was a different kind of dive.
The year was 1993, and Jones was placing a 2,700-pound memorial at the wreck site of a slave ship called the Henrietta Marie. “In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people,” read the plaque on the stone. “Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors.” Jones faced the words east, toward Africa.
“It felt eerie,” recalls Jones of the deep-sea dive off the southern tip of Florida. “You felt real sad for the people.”
The Henrietta Marie went down in 1701 with no slaves aboard, but it had ferried hundreds from Africa to the New World before it wrecked. “Whether there are any bodies there or not, we consider it a gravesite,” says Jones.
The founder of the first diving club for African Americans, Jones had been spurred to action two years earlier, when he had seen a collection of iron shackles recovered from the ship. Many were so small that they could have fit only a child’s wrist. That’s when he knew that he had to get involved in finding and cataloguing these slave ship sites.
“We can’t expect somebody else to go out and find these ships,” he says. “You can’t expect somebody to find your history for you. We need to do it.”
The Henrietta Marie dive eventually led to the formation of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a group of African American divers who have made it a mission to find and document slave wrecks in collaboration with George Washington University’s Slave Wrecks Project and federal partners, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Last year, Jones and DWP member Kamau Sadiki dived to the São José Paquete Africa, a Portuguese slave ship that sank near Cape Town, South Africa, after leaving Mozambique in 1794. An estimated 212 of the 500 slaves on board died. Items salvaged from the wreck will be displayed at the African American history museum when it opens later this year.
Slave wrecks have been largely overlooked by marine archaeology until now — much like the little-known history of black scuba divers. It’s a story that can’t be told without Jones, a Washington native who created a welcome place for African Americans who wanted to dive.
As a boy growing up in Northeast Washington, Jones swam in every creek, river or pool he could get to. “I was always interested in anything that’s got to do with the water,” he says. “I had so many aquariums. If it lived in the creeks around there, I had it. Turtles and frogs, fish and tadpoles.”
After learning to dive in the military, he signed up for the Atlantic Skin Diving Council while attending a boat show in 1957. As he walked away from the group’s booth, a man ran after him, asking for his name and number. “They’re not going to call you,” the man told him. “They take people’s names, but they don’t ever call the black divers. I’m going to call you, though.” And he did.
Jones became one of the group’s few black members. As he rose through the ranks, the man pushed him to start a club for black divers.
“I called some folks,” Jones said. “Oh, they were ready to go.”
In 1959, in a pool at Howard University, Jones and five others were certified by a U.S. Navy diver, and the Underwater Adventure Seekers were born. New members would find their way to the club through word of mouth — or a chance meeting. In 1965, Shirley Lee met Jones while admiring his scuba gear at a pool where she was a lifeguard. Jones invited her to take scuba lessons, and she became the first certified African American female scuba diver in the United States.
In 1991, Jones co-founded the National Association of Black Scuba Divers so that similar clubs could form all over the country. Their membership is now in the thousands.
Arthur Miller, the current president of the Underwater Adventure Seekers, says that when he went diving outside the club, he was often met with hesitation and a lack of volunteers to be his dive partner.
“Someone would look at me because of the color of my skin, and think, ‘What is he doing diving?’ ” says Miller. “And, ‘What does he know about diving?’ ”
Little did they know that Miller had been trained by a living pioneer of the diving world. Jones, who earned a PhD in marine biology at Georgetown University and became a Fulbright scholar and a National Science Foundation fellow, has won every major diving award there is. In 60 years of diving, he has gone on more than 6,000 dives in more than 50 countries. He has certified more than 2,000 divers and taught more than 5,000 people to swim.
At the beginning of June, the next generation of Underwater Adventure Seeker divers completed their training in a quarry in Haymarket, Va. The older members were there, too, because Jones holds his divers to a high standard. He runs one of the only clubs that requires all its members to undergo a yearly review of their skills.
“We don’t make it easy,” Jones said. “We want it to be difficult. Nobody is proud of being in something that’s easy.”
If it were about being easy, none of the organizations that have grown out of the Underwater Adventure Seekers would exist. DWP, which also does coral reef restoration, youth programs and trains people in mapping out wreck sites, has logged more than 8,000 volunteer archaeology hours.
Last year, DWP members dived Lake Huron, where a Tuskegee Airman, one of the famed World War II African American military pilots, crashed during a test flight.
Next month, DWP will continue its search for the Guerrero, a slave ship that wrecked in 1827 near Key West with more than 40 slaves aboard. The objects found so far — a piece of bone china, a glass cologne bottle, a cannonball — are small. But the history they hold is huge.
Jay Haigler, a director at DWP, says that the club’s most important role is to add an African American voice in the water, especially at wreck sites.
“The stories that we tell matter, and it matters who tells the story,” he says. “I try to explain to someone who has not experienced racism what it is and how it feels. Therein lies the critical importance of being able to tell this story from the perspective of people who have our experience.”
In Mozambique in 2015, before their journey to the São José, DWP and representatives from George Washington University and the Smithsonian met with chiefs from the local tribes. The slaves who perished in the wreck came from those tribes, and the chiefs had a mission for them.
One took a handful of dirt, a symbol of home, and poured it into a cowry shell. He asked Lonnie Bunch, the director of the NMAAHC, to deposit the soil on the remains of the São José. Later, Sadiki and two African divers returned the dirt to the slave wreck site.
“This is not just divers going down and observing. They’ve got a stake in this,” says Jones. “What you’re doing is, you’re recovering history. And not just our history. This is world history. It’s America’s history.
“You’re paying honor and homage to the people who made the ultimate sacrifice.”