Pride in the City

The Pride of Baltimore II begins a new mission at home

The past year has had most of us turning our attention homeward, and the Maryland schooner Pride of Baltimore II is no exception, as the organization behind the wide-ranging ship looks to better serve its home port. 

The ship was built in the late 1980s as an ambassador vessel, representing Baltimore and its history by sailing to more than 200 ports in 40 countries. Now, says Jeffrey Buchheit, executive director of Pride of Baltimore, Inc., the Baltimore City nonprofit is turning its focus to Maryland’s youth. They’re set to offer several free educational experiences in 2021, in hopes of reaching underserved populations and getting kids of color out on the water. “This summer, we really saw clearly that we need to do more . . . to ramp up our exposure, opportunity, and access,” says Buchheit.

Buchheit says Pride II’s employees and its board of directors are questioning what it means to be an ambassador in the 2020s. Last summer, when protests unfolded around the world calling for racial equality in the United States, the nonprofit’s leaders and staff confronted the question, “What is our new role?” 

The president of the board, Jayson Williams, wrote to potential funders and asked, “How do we make Pride of Baltimore II an agent of change?” Williams is the first Black president of the board, and he’s been in the position since 2018. “We plan to work proactively on helping the broader tall ships community acknowledge that many in the Black comunity see it as an industry/sport for whites and not everyone else.” 

Statistics about the backgrounds of tall ship sailors are hard to come by, but one indication came up over beers at a recent gathering of former Pride crew. Stephen Russell, a former crew member, asked about 20 other alumni, covering the span of Pride’s history, how many other Black crew members they could recall. Around a dozen names were called out—a small fraction of the hundreds who’ve crewed the boat and its predecessor.

Williams says that Pride II is facing its past and shifting towards a more racially conscious mission. “We will work tirelessly to raise more money to educate communities about job opportunities in sailing and port communities. I will also ask the board to direct our staff to focus more of our grant writing to fund programs that will support underserved communities’ access to our education programs for free.” 

Williams wrote in his letter that the Pride II staff will undergo diversity and bias training. “Silence is not an option,” he wrote, “and listening without action is unacceptable.”

As a result, this spring and summer, if COVID-19 safety restrictions allow, Pride of Baltimore II will offer new programs to bring kids onboard the ship and into the world of maritime science. Buchheit says they will focus on kids from underserved communities.

Scott Sheads, a retired National Park Service Ranger-Historian at Fort McHenry who volunteered as a Pride deckhand for 25 years and wrote several books about the War of 1812, says Baltimore became famous, in part, because of the contributions of its privately-armed, U.S. government-authorized vessels—privateers, similar to Pride II. In the ensuing years, the many Black sailors and shipbuilders who played a role were often left out of that history.

“It’s a very important part of our history and it’s certainly not discussed as much as it should be,” Sheads says. “Free Black men couldn’t enlist in the U.S. Army, but they could enlist in the U.S. Navy and they could get a job as a privateer.”

Pride II will host free day sails for students and families in eight different ports: Baltimore, Annapolis, Havre de Grace, St. Michaels, St. Mary’s City, Solomons Island, Chestertown, and Georgetown. If all goes well, that could put 1,620 people out on the water—and 300 of those kids will be from Baltimore City, says Buchheit. 

Many Baltimore kids haven’t had the opportunity to go out on the water and become familiar with this cultural symbol of their city. “These full-day sails will be an on-board, immersive experience in sailing for kids,” says Patrick Smith, program coordinator for Pride II. “We had at least three trips planned for that in 2020,” he says, and he was more than a little disappointed when they were forced to delay the program’s first year. “But we really hope to do this in 2021.” 

Pride of Baltimore II is also partnering with Baltimore County Sailing Center (BCSC) this summer to offer a two-week sailing camp for kids ages 8-18. Donations to Pride’s Junior Sailor ScholarShip will help provide funding. And the Pride of Baltimore Junior Sailor Camp is currently raising money to offer financial aid for
six spots. 

BCSC, a nonprofit organization located at Rocky Point State Park in Essex, Md., accepts kids from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Anne Arundel County. And young people of color will be prioritized, according to Buchheit. 

The campers will learn how to sail and have fun, but Smith also hopes that, “by providing financial
aid to kids who want to learn to sail, we can introduce them not only to
the skills to sail and operate a boat, but [help them] realize that sailing and working on the water can be
a job.”

That’s what happened to Russell, a marine pilot for the Baltimore City Fire Department and a member of Pride of Baltimore Inc.’s board of directors. Raised in Baltimore, Russell was about 13 when a friend invited him to the family’s Annapolis cottage and took him out sailing. Maneuvering the boat through puffs of wind for the first time was an experience like no other. “It was just fun. Like riding a motorcycle, without a helmet,”
he remembers.

The next summer, his mother saw a flyer for a free sailing camp. She signed him up for 10 sailing lessons.

There were kids from all over the city in that camp, he remembers. “Every zip code, every neighborhood—every neighborhood type.” Two people he met that year, in 1977, are still his closest friends. “We learned hard skills like how to make the boat move. And we learned soft skills like personal responsibility, decision-making, working together.” All of it built self-esteem, he says, and “that geometry class—that was the furthest thing from my mind, but I was using it.” Russell says he distinctly remembers thinking, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The sailing school was run by Ed Kane, who for years ran Baltimore’s water taxi service, ferrying tourists from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry and points in between. Jobs aboard the boats formed an entry point for a generation of young mariners, including Russell.

Russell went on to become one of the few Black Pride II crew members, earn his U.S. Coast Guard license, serve on Lady Maryland as a deckhand, and teach at a marine-oriented school for youthful offenders. He looks back at sailing school as a formative experience, and one that gave him direction, pointing him towards a life spent on the water. But that kind of opportunity was a rarity—one Russell was thinking about on April 27, 2015. 

He was on a fireboat in the Inner Harbor when the unrest surrounding Freddie Gray’s death began in Baltimore. “Everybody knows the anatomy of a riot. It doesn’t just ‘happen’,” Russell says. He heard the outrage and walked away motivated to move the needle. He wanted inner-city kids to have the opportunities he’d had out on the water. 

Besides the shift towards educational opportunities, Pride of Baltimore, Inc. is also updating the stories they put out to the public about the ship. “Just like so many others,” says Buchheit, “we’re ‘waking up’ even more to these stories of African Americans who were enslaved and free Blacks who were caulkers. Without telling that part of the story, we’re not telling the whole story.” h