Vince Leggett Discusses Mapping Initiative to Tell Bay’s African American History
The National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are partnering with the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to identify, map, and protect African American historical and cultural sites across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This $400,000 mapping project is called “Documenting Chesapeake Watershed Sites and Landscapes Important to African Americans,” and Chesapeake Legal Alliance Board member, Vince Leggett, will serve as a partnership advisor.
As the founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation and the author of The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes, Mr. Leggett has worked for decades to discover, archive and tell the story of the African American experience in the Chesapeake Bay region. As he says, “Black history is American history and American history is Black history. They cannot be told separately or considered complete without the other.”
Erin Mezgar, CLA’s Director of Philanthropy, recently sat down with Vince to discuss his important work.
Erin: What is the mission of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation?
Vince: I started Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation (BOCF) in 1984 to share the legacy of African American achievement on the Chesapeake Bay, to foster the preservation and conservation of the environment, and to facilitate the economic success of the Chesapeake maritime trade and seafood related industries. At BOCF, we do this by providing a broad range of historical and experiential learning activities through quality research and culturally diverse programs to inform and inspire all people.
Why do you think storytelling is such a powerful tool in conservation?
From an African American perspective, the oral tradition has been the backbone of our history. During the period of enslavement we weren’t allowed to read or write, and we were denied schooling even after slavery. The only way to share our stories, setbacks, ideas and inspiration was through spoken word. Mainstream historians look for written records to determine authenticity. As a result, many heritage sites are minimized or marginalized as hearsay because their stories are not written. By combining oral histories with written records that have been unearthed, we get a more complete story of African Americans on the Chesapeake and can conserve these sites.
What can we do now to make sure these stories and sites are preserved?
Without champions, the stories that these sites tell won’t see the light of day. One of the best ways to make sure they are preserved, is to ensure those leading the process represent the communities that are tied to these sites. The conservation and historic preservation community needs to be deliberate about including African Americans in their organizations and leadership structures, as well as providing community mentoring opportunities.
Is there a role for the community?
The community can use their influence and connections to make sure these stories don’t end up on the cutting room floor. This partnership is part of a long-time effort, and more experts and financial resources are needed to document and preserve the countless African American heritage sites around the Chesapeake.
How can CLA help?
These types of land preservation projects require legal assistance for complicated negotiations and contracts. As you know, lawyers can be expensive! But if we are able to hire pro bono lawyers, like those at CLA, we could increase the number of these places being conserved through land and historic preservation. Moreover, CLA lawyers could help represent the interests of the community members at the negotiation table to ensure the preservation project tells the complete story of Blacks of the Chesapeake.
Organizations like CLA need to make an internal effort to be inclusive of people from underrepresented communities — both in their leadership and their staff as well as in the communities they serve. I’m proud to be part of the CLA Board of Directors and serve on its Diversity Committee. Although our work is far from done, we have made good progress over the past year. I’m pleased that CLA has committed to serving overburdened and underrepresented communities first; we have to be honest about the fact that some communities have historically suffered — and continue to suffer — far more than others. Throughout the Bay watershed, in both urban and rural areas, people of color bear the burden of pollution, and its health effects, far more than Whites. And our heritage sites are threatened by environmental issues like rising sea levels.
We want to extend a special thanks to Vince Leggett for taking the time to share his wisdom with us!
Chesapeake Legal Alliance is honored to have Vince as a Board leader who has helped to shape CLA’s core values, which include Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. At CLA, we believe in the equal value of every human being. We know that to solve the Bay’s most complex problems we must embrace differences and actively include a variety of voices. We look forward to keeping you posted on all of CLA’s efforts to weave diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into the fabric of our organization and our work.
If you would like to support this important effort at Chesapeake Legal Alliance, please consider making a gift today!