MLK Day 2018: PortSide plans for African American Maritime Heritage program

African American Maritime collage.jpg

by Carolina Salguero, PortSide NewYork, Founder & President

Our African American Maritime Heritage program: Why, what, who

Our 1st event will be a History Challenge for Red Hook 5th and 6th graders, on Wednesday, May 30, 2018 from 4-6pm at Summit Academy in Red Hook.  We seek harbor experiences as prizes. If you can donate a boat ride, kayak lesson, port tour, etc, please email us at chiclet@portsidenewyork.org.  We also seek judges. If you would like to be considered to be a judge, please send an email saying why you are interested. Thanks!

On Martin Luther King Day 2018, I am sharing my thoughts and some news about the launch of PortSide's African American Maritime Heritage programs this year. 

PortSide's African American Maritime Heritage program will encompass stories of black achievement, struggles against the sea, struggles against racism, and aspects of daily life and work (it’s not all derring-do) at a national level. Many of these are forgotten stories; and many, I think, have been deliberately erased. 

PortSide is launching this program because these are fascinating and relevant WaterStories all Americans should know. 

PortSide is also launching this program to engage black residents of Red Hook who are the majority in our neighborhood but not very present on the waterfront or in maritime spaces. That is a pattern in many parts of NYC. 

I've been involved in NYC’s waterfront since 1998 as reporter, advocate, activist, and then founder of PortSide. I find that boats, waterfront planning meetings, maritime clubs and maritime cultural events are some of the whitest spaces in NYC. That does not reflect who lives in NYC.  NYC maritime spaces were not always so white.  There was a time when many crew on vessels were black. 

In case you're wondering, I’m white. In my former career as a photojournalist, I reported on race issues in multiple countries, and I'm always on the look-out for racial dynamics. It's a life-long thing of mine.  Back to PortSide.

One of PortSide's African American Maritime Heritage program ideas is being developed in conversations with Natasha Campbell, the founder of Summit Academy in Red Hook.  We are working on another program to do with NYCHA, NYC's public housing authority.  We have a lot of other work on our plate this year and limited funding, so please give this program time to grow and get involved if you want to make this happen.

In the meantime, I can recommend the book that I finished yesterday: “Complicity, How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery.” 

It’s an accessible 2005 history book written by journalists at the Hartford Courant.  Its short chapters are snapshot investigations into separate regions, people and historical episodes.  Taken together, they demonstrate that the North was deeply involved in slavery and often thoroughly horrific in its racism to black folks.

The book has many maritime or, as we say at PortSide, “WaterStories” aspects: Venture Smith (who dictated a biography covering his life from captured African prince, to slave, to freeman captain on Long Island Sound), and exceptional black and white individuals. Many chapters reveal uncomfortable truths about how the maritime sector in New York and New England, from the colonial period to the Civil War, was heavily dependent on the slavery economy and worked with those businesses, eyes wide open.  The North and maritime circles have whitewashed this history, all puns intended; and also said little about the accomplishments of black mariners of many types.

I felt personally connected to how the book “Complicity” ended when it explored one aspect of how the reliance on slavery continued after slavery ended in the USA. According to the book, the American appetite for ivory combs, knickknacks and then piano keys (for a surge in middle class piano buying) depended on a huge slavery industry that continued in Africa.  Whole villages were captured and forced (men, women and children) to walk elephant tusks to the coast (and often to their deaths) since railroads did not exist there and pack animals could not survive the tsetse flies.  Some two million Africans were enslaved this way, and Connecticut men were in Africa in the 1800's to see it, participate and benefit. Starting in the mid-1800's, just two piano key factories in two small villages in Connecticut received 75% of the USA’s ivory imports. Those were Ivoryton (now part of Essex) and Deep River, Connecticut where the ivory piano key business boomed until the early 1900's and petered out in the 1950's.

After I left this part of Brooklyn in the early 1970's, I moved with my family to Ivoryton, and I went to junior and senior high school in Deep River. The ivory piano key factories were mentioned a lot, my school bus passed the one down the hill from our house; but no one talked about the connection to slavery. History is often right under our nose, and no one is telling it. 

It's Martin Luther King Day, and there is much from current news to the book that I just finished that makes me reflect on how American race history has been told and not told.  As a nation, we need to tell it better, especially given the political climate these days.  So, in 2018, PortSide will launch an African American Maritime Heritage program. We will also continue expanding our e-museum Red Hook WaterStories.