We know Kent Narrows for its dock bars, hotels and fishing charters, but long before that it was home to small enclaves for seafood workers known as “shantytowns”. There’s very little left to see of them, and some fear their history will be lost if they aren’t documented soon.
In the 1930s, Kent Narrows had more than 20 seafood packing houses. These businesses provided housing to their African American workers in the form of one-room shanties. Black watermen and seafood workers lived, built businesses, and formed communities on either side of the old Kent Narrows Bridge. These were “shantytowns”.
Local teacher, artist and historian James Reynolds founded the Choptank Tolomato Legacy Project to teach the history of these communities. Now, Reynolds has announced plans to create a mural that will publicly honor them.
Reynolds, a self-described history nerd, has been an educator for 39 years. Twenty-five of them were at Chestertown’s Radcliffe School, founded to serve children with learning difficulties. “I loved watching the kids get fired up as we created murals while studying the culture of the Chesapeake.” A hands-on experience was the best way for them to learn, he discovered, “but then I’d go out into the community and see how many children (and adults) would never experience this kind of education.”
To change that, he says, “I founded The Choptank Tolomato Legacy Project in December 2021. Our aim is to teach the cultural legacy of the Tidewater region through the arts, working with children, especially underserved populations and children with learning differences, through hands-on public art educational experience.”
The name Tolomato comes from the coastal plains that begin at the C&D Canal in Delaware and ends at the mouth of the Tolomato in Florida. For Reynolds “the story of indigenous and enslaved Africans across the whole of the Tidewater from the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Mose is fascinating and almost forgotten.”
He feared the same fate for the former Narrows community. “I have always wanted to paint a mural of the shantytowns,” he said. In December 2021 Reynolds was invited to a community event held to discuss the proposed History of the Shantytowns of Kent Island Project.
The project, sponsored by the community organization Minary’s Dream Alliance, drew its inspiration in part from Minnie and Mary, former seafood workers and grandmothers of co-founder Doncella Wilson. Yolanda Acree, program coordinator and curator for the project, was also present. Reynolds had a vision of what he wanted to create, but at the meeting, where former shanty residents shared their memories, he learned much more about the community.
From April through June 2023, the Chesapeake Tolomato Legacy Project plans to create a large mural/map, using plywood panels to build a portable 4’x8’ map of the Narrows shoreline. The panels will be taken to community events where former Narrows residents and workers can identify and label the county roads, boat basins, wharves, shanties, businesses, dance clubs, and other locations from Little Creek to the northern tip of Kent Narrows Point.
Once this map/mural is complete, work on the final project will begin—a 6’ x 32’ mural of the Kent Narrows Shantytown painted in sections throughout the region at community centers, schools, and local events. Choptank Tolomato will facilitate the process, but the community will do the painting.
“We plan to install the initial map/mural in Fisher Manor, a Grasonville housing complex run by the Queen Anne’s Housing Authority where many of the families who once lived at the Narrows now reside,” Reynolds reports.
This plywood mural will serve as a model for a larger permanent painting he hopes to have installed under the new Kent Narrows Bridge to honor and remember a community that lived through flooding, winter winds, low pay, exhausting work, and substandard housing conditions. For newer residents, it will serve as a visual lesson on the history of Kent Narrows before it became a tourist destination.
Yolanda Acree shares Reynolds’ vision. “I’m excited about the mural and that people will be able to view it in the place where the community existed,” she says. “I hope that it will spark an interest in people’s minds to earn more about the Black history of Kent Narrows and view our exhibit. Learning occurs in many forms and having an artistic interpretation of the shantytown community available to the public absolutely complements our project.”
Reynolds views their work as an effort to preserve a vanishing history. “Yolanda Acree brought back the stories, he says. “My job is to bring back the landscape.”
Click here for more information on the Choptank Tolomato Legacy Project.