It has been smooth sailing of late for Kermit Robert Lee Travers, world-class oyster shucker and believed to be the last of the African American skipjack captains to work the waters along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At 78, he’s set to be feted Saturday by the Maryland State Arts Council as an “outstanding steward of living tradition.”
“I come up hard knocks,” said Travers, who, along with eight sisters, was raised in a drafty shack near the salty Blackwater River, just outside Cambridge, Md. “I could have drowned, starved, got blown up, shot or cut. But I made it.”
He recalled going to work shucking oysters at a riverside seafood house when he was 8, gripping a knife, learning to pry open a shell without slicing his hand.
“One day, I saw some men getting on a sailboat, and I told my mother that I wanted to get on a boat like that. She said: ‘Son, that’s a skipjack. That’s hard work. They go out dredging for oysters for weeks at a time.’ ”
Skipjack, for those not familiar with the fishing boat, is the traditional sailpowered, oyster-harvesting vessel that is iconic of the Chesapeake Bay.
His mother, Mable, made working on one sound just bad enough for him to forget about it — for a while, anyway. When Travers was 14, his father developed a heart ailment and could no longer work.
“I was in 10th grade, and Mama came up to me and said, ‘I hate to do this to you, but I have to pull you out of school,’ ” he recalled. “I felt bad about it, but she said she needed me to be the man of the house.”
The area where Travers lived on the Blackwater River was not far from where Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist, had been born a slave a century earlier. Judging from old photographs of slave shacks in the area and the kind he grew up in, there wasn’t much difference. Moreover, Tubman had escaped and become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading other slaves to freedom.
Travers, on the other hand, was stuck.
But his mother always tried to keep his spirits up.
“She would tell me, ‘You are taking care of this family. That’s a big responsibility. If you can do this, you can do anything you set your mind to,’ ” Travers recalled.
He worked any job he could find — at saw mills, poultry processing plants, seafood houses.
“Mama would say, ‘Never wait for anybody to give you something. Always show initiative. Always believe in yourself,’ ” he said.
In 1952, his uncle bought a boat and hired him to work on it. He eventually moved to other boats, learning different jobs and earning more money along the way. Despite the racial segregation of the day, life on the water was relatively colorblind, as Travers experienced it.
“Every white person I knew, we helped each other, stuck by each other,” he recalled. “Your lives depended on trust and cooperation.”
In 1967, H. Rap Brown brought the civil rights fight to Cambridge. Riots ensued. The following year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Racial tensions on the Eastern Shore ran high.
Perhaps coincidently, in 1969, the captain of the skipjack Travers was working on decided to give him a shot at the helm.
“Other black sailors had also been given the opportunity to be a captain, but they turned it down,” Travers recalled. “They said they’d rather be deckhands because being captain was too hard. But something in me said, ‘Do it. Step up to the plate.’ I remembered what my mother had said, ‘Believe in yourself.’ ”
Travers would become one of only five known African Americans to captain a skipjack on Chesapeake waters. He’d have his ups and downs. In 1975, another boat collided with his and caused a fire below deck that nearly engulfed him.
In 2013, he was riding on a skipjack with his wife, Consuela, when the boat capsized. Luckily, he’d managed to grab her and two life vests before they tumbled into the waters.
But there were lighter moments, too. He once came in runner-up in the National Oyster Shucking Contest. The skills he had begun to hone as an 8-year-old had paid off nicely.
All in all, he’s had the good fortune of harvesting oysters in the years before pollution and overharvesting began to wreak havoc on the Bay. Now, he spends his days shucking oysters — “just to have something to do” — and sharing his insights and wisdom.
A consummate sailor, reader of wind and tide, keeper of history and culture — all good reasons for the Maryland State Arts Council to give Captain Kermit his due. But given how demanding the life of a waterman has been for him, just surviving as long as he has would be worthy of accolade all by itself.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.