The Old Man and the Bay

On February 23, 2017, Captain Eldridge Meredith became the 101st Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay and the fifth African-American to receive this designation. Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford presented the award at a community and family event celebrating the Captain’s 91st birthday in Grasonville, Md., near the slip where he keeps his boat, the Island Queen II.

Captain Meredith is the Dean of the Black Captains of the Chesapeake and the oldest person to be appointed and commissioned an Admiral of the Chesapeake, a prestigious award instituted by Governor J. Willard Tawes in 1959 to recognize individuals for lifetime commitments to the conservation and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay. Meredith’s nomination was submitted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and approved by Governor Larry Hogan.

Meredith is a fourth-generation waterman and has lived most of his life on Kent Island and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His paternal great-grandfather, Captain Benjamin Meredith, owned land in Queen Anne’s County since before the Civil War. His grandfather, Captain Richard Meredith, father Captain Earl Meredith and his uncles worked the Bay and built log canoes, which they used for hand tonging oysters. His maternal grandfather William Lynch came to Kent Island as a stowaway on a ship from Barbados and married Emma Turpin. Meredith’s mother, Evelyn worked in the seafood packing houses along Kent Narrows. You might say that Captain Meredith was born with brackish saltwater running through his veins.

Meredith was reared among boat captains. His foreparents owned boats and harvested the bounty of the Bay. They were people of distinction in their communities where they invested capital, took risks, fought the natural elements, and endured segregation as they made hard livings for their families by working the water. They developed a reverence and respect for the sea, their unpredictable workplace, toiling daily without witnesses other than Almighty God. Captain Meredith does not romanticize about beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the Bay.
He knew firsthand that for some, the Bay was a watery grave with unmarked headstones.

Meredith is a griot* who maintains a tradition of oral history developed in West Africa and transported to the Caribbean Basin and on to the Chesapeake Bay. He is a storyteller with skills appropriated to him from a time when some members of his race were not allowed to read or write. Meredith’s life story is similar to that of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea character, Santiago. He is the protagonist fighting against the odds.

When his father took sick, he quit school to care for his grandparents, mother, father and five younger siblings. He took to the water to provide for his family. In 1942 when his father’s health improved, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to improve his chances of success. During World War II, the Navy offered more opportunities for negroes than other branches of the segregated Armed Services. Meredith started as a mess hand and then became a cook. By the time he left the Navy in 1944, he was a chief petty officer, the highest rank for an enlisted seaman. Back home on Kent Island, he incorporated his life-lessons from the Navy in his work as a waterman. He would work Chesapeake waters from September through April and move to Delaware Bay to plant oysters from the decks of schooners from June to September.

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Meredith recalls the challenges and struggles for African-Americans living on the Eastern Shore and the sharp divisions between blacks and whites. He talks about railroad tracks that separated communities, and sometimes those tracks were invisible and always rigid—socially, economically and politically. He remembers how life was before 1952 when the first Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built, and the only way to get to Baltimore was by ferry boat, or by driving an hour and a half around the top of the Bay. He remembers when hundreds of African-Americans worked in the seafood packing houses and the awful living conditions among the piles of shells. 

Meredith and his father built a night club and restaurant called the Weeping Willow Inn to provide entertainment for the community. The place could accommodate over 600 people, and it became a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit for black entertainers such as Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. (Meredith’s sister Emma married Lloyd Price.) The inn succumbed to a fire in 1974, and Meredith suffered terrible facial burns in the blaze, which incapacitated him for months. Once he recovered, he went back on the water to focus on his burgeoning fishing business, buying one larger boat after another until he acquired the Island Queen, which was licensed to carry 110 people. As his charter business developed, he built Captain Meredith’s Seafood Restaurant, which was owned and operated by his wife, Margaret Ann until her death in 2011. Over the years, their six children worked at the restaurant and on the Bay supporting the charter fishing business. His son Captain Tyrone Meredith followed in his footsteps and has his own fishing boat. Meredith’s daughter Vera works as a mate to gain the experience and hours to achieve her U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License. Eldridge Jr. is a head chef in a hotel restaurant and his youngest daughter Shelia owns a baked goods business. They all live on Kent Island except Tara, who lives in Charles County and is a top performer in the real estate industry. Before moving away, Tara worked in law enforcement in Queen Anne’s County and as a Kent Narrows Draw Bridge Tender.

Captain Meredith remains active and clear-minded as the patriarch and now Admiral of his domain. Looking back, my favorite Captain Meredith quote from this event is, “I love the Chesapeake Bay. She has been good to me. And, I have been good to her.”

—Vincent O. Leggett

 

Vincent O. Leggett is the Founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake (BOC) and was the third African-American to become an Admiral of the Bay in 2003. The BOC recommended Captain Meredith to the Governor’s Office and coordinated the event.

Talk of the BayMike Ogar