Exclusivity defines the Maryland shoreline: large homes with gazebos and private beaches, quaint towns chockablock with designer handbags and chic dresses, restaurants serving $25 crab cake dinners.
Less likely to be seen are the tight-knit African-American communities that have endured since slavery. They are off the main roads. They are lower to the ground — often on land they got because few others wanted it. Vulnerable to both rising waters and declining populations, they struggle for resources to fix roads, rebuild homes, repair churches and protect what remains.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, the most-desired settlement areas were away from the Chesapeake Bay’s edge. Low-lying land close to the water was often unsanitary, its adjacent marsh filled with mosquitoes and its soil less hospitable for farming. The land flooded; its residents occasionally became sick from drinking polluted well water or from contact with sewage and industrial waste. A water view from on high was fine, as long as residents didn’t get too close.
Because no one wanted that land, it went to African-Americans, who farmed its banks and plied its waters for fish, crabs and oysters. They could buy it cheaply — and they did — building country churches and seafood plants that still exist today.
Sea level rise doesn’t discriminate based on race or income, and certainly the tony areas of the Eastern Shore have reason to worry based on recent predictions. But sea level rise places an added burden on the African-American pockets of the Chesapeake region — communities that are both lower to the ground and less wealthy.
Four years ago, Christy Miller Hesed, a University of Maryland doctoral candidate in anthropology, began to examine these communities. She worked to document their histories and to determine better ways to connect them with the resources available to more affluent white communities. These include grants for shoreline stabilization and protection, money to rebuild after flooding, and low-interest loans for property improvements.
She’s visited more than a dozen communities and interviewed more than 30 residents about their experiences living on the water’s edge.
“Some would say, ‘well, people just need to move,’” she said. “But it’s not as easy for the communities that are so rooted in their place.”
African Americans came to Maryland as slaves to work on the vast tobacco plantations. After emancipation, many left for opportunities in Baltimore. But many also stayed. On the Western Shore just south of Annapolis, Frederick Douglass’ son developed Highland Beach as a summer resort for African Americans at a time when they couldn’t visit whites-only beaches. In Prince George’s County, MD, developers turned the tiny community of Trueman Point into an incorporated summer resort in 1929. They named it Eagle Harbor.
Even as these communities provided a sense of identity for the African Americans who settled there, many were vulnerable because they did not incorporate. (Both Highland Beach and Eagle Harbor did, and they are among the smallest incorporated towns in Maryland.) Without incorporation, communities didn’t have their own building codes or zoning rules that might have helped to lessen the risk of coastal flooding; instead they were beholden to laws that governed the whole county. For unincorporated areas, assistance is harder to come by. State grants often require a government sponsor or a match; counties are more likely to support populous towns that need help than small hamlets with few voters. That meant residents had to help themselves in times of disaster. The Methodist church helped to feed the hungry and coordinate rescues in floods. They were proud, self-reliant communities, where men worked the water and women picked crabs and raised families.
Now, many of these towns face the dangers of rising waters. Residents of Smithville, in lower Dorchester County, worry about losing the graves at their church cemetery.
Nearby, in Crisfield, the African-American community felt forgotten in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Crisfield was flooded, and much of the rebuilding attention and dollars went to more-affluent areas downtown.
Somerset County, where Crisfield sits, has the lowest median income in the state. More than 40 percent of Crisfield’s population is African American according to the 2010 Census. Many African Americans live in the Tyler Street area, where water quickly flooded the streets. In the city, more than one-third of public housing units were declared uninhabitable.
Rev. James Lane, a one-time mayoral candidate and public housing commissioner and associate minister of Enon Baptist Church of Deliverance in the Tyler Street community, said African-American leaders had to keep pushing for help. The recovery money, he said, was headed downtown, to the condominiums that newcomers had bought. He and others stepped in to make sure African-American enclaves in the city were not left behind.
“There’s a population in our city that needs attention, and they’re not always able to express that, and my job was to make sure their voice is heard,” Lane said. “If we had not rallied, we would still be in dire straits. We’re still trying to fight our way back to survivability.”
Miller Hesed wanted to make sure that, as communities adapt to sea level rise, policy-makers don’t forget about African-American towns. She organized a workshop in summer 2014 at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and support from her adviser, University of Maryland anthropology professor Michael Paolisso. In attendance were representatives from African-American churches, heads of environmental organizations, and state and federal policy-makers who have a hand in granting money for adaptation and mitigation. On the agenda were the needs of unincorporated African-American communities, such as help with applying for government assistance.
Kate Skaggs, a community planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said what she heard at the Blackwater meeting and others since then is helping to inform policy, albeit slowly. Skaggs is funded by NOAA to help communities improve their resiliency to coastal hazards like flooding. She said she’s had many conversations with different partners about how to help unincorporated communities access the resources they need. The partners are trying to come up with more creative ideas on how to make that happen, whether it means relocating residents or building structures to help them stay where they are.
“There’s no final end goal,” she said. “We don’t know what fixing looks like. We don’t know what that means. This is our job, to continually work on these things.”
Miller Hesed said she plans to graduate in the next couple of years and would like to publish her research in some scientific publications and maybe even get it out to a wider audience.
“The people,” she said, “have such rich stories to share.”