Beautiful Swimmers & Black History
By: Niambi Brown Davis
For many of you, it’s the most wonderful time of the year - not Christmas, but crab season! Tables in waterside restaurants, dock bars and back yards sit covered with brown kraft paper or newsprint. Nearby, trash cans lined with black garbage bags stand ready to hold picked-clean shells of this iconic summertime delicacy. And how about that state of the art crab feast table? With a built-in can and liner in its center, you never have to leave your seat.
I was raised on the Shore, and love the hours-long camaraderie of a crab feast, but all that banging, cracking, and picking is too much work for me. Give me my crab meat in a broiled, well-seasoned cake. I like Old Bay, but only a pinch in potato salad or rimmed around the glass of an Eastern Shore Bloody Mary.
If you’ve already made plans to cross “America’s scariest bridge” and brave long lines of traffic to dine on jimmies (male crabs) or sooks (female crabs) on the Shore, here’s a bit of Eastern Shore black history behind the seafood industry that makes your dining pleasure possible.
Frederick Jewett was the son of a United States Colored Troops vete
ran, born and raised on the family farm on the Eastern Shore’s Somerset County. In the summer, with his widowed mother, Jewett sold produce from the farm. In the winter he shucked oysters. In 1902, a $500.00 bank loan changed Jewett from oyster shucker to business owner. Jewett, William Colbourne and Rev. Charles Downes formed a company that at its beginning, processed oysters and fish products. Reverend Downes later sold his interest, leaving the company in the hands of Colbourne and Jewett. It became one of the first seafood houses to focus on the bountiful blue crab, the “beautiful swimmers” of the region. At one time, Colbourne and Jewett was the largest employer in the town of St. Michaels, with over 100 people on the payroll. As further evidence of the company’s success, It was reported to be the only seafood house in the state to pack over a million pounds of crab meat from 1935 to 1940.
Possessing a head for business was a family trait. Jewett’s son, Elwood graduated from Princess Anne Academy (my mother’s alma mater) and Wilberforce College. He became Co
lbourne and Jewett’s bookkeeper while running a successful packing house of his own. Elwood Jewett was said to ship 12,000 gallons of oysters to Baltimore each week. Here’s an account from a former employee of Elwood Jewett’s personal dress code: “He would always wear a white jacket … a black bowtie or black tie, and black pants and black dress shoes,” Alice Palmer told The Star-Democrat of Easton. “He always said, ‘A businessman should look like a businessman” - even when unloading workboats.
The company’s achievements were many, but one of its accomplishments stands out among them all. Frederick Jewett is credited with the crab meat grading system - backfin, claw, and lump - still used by the seafood industry today. When you purchase a can of graded crabmeat, give thanks to Frederick Jewett.
Due to challenges facing the entire seafood industry, Elwood Jewett sold the company in the mid-60s. The land that housed the old packing house is now part of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. If you’re on the CBMM campus, don’t leave without a visit to the Mitchell House. This home was once owned by Eliza Bailey, sister to another son of the Eastern Shore, first known as Frederick Bailey, later as Frederick Douglass. A few miles down the road in Dorchester County is the birthplace of Harriet Tubman. Whenever I’m asked about the land of my childhood, I say there is power in the land and waterways of the Eastern Shore.