Article by Debra Freeman
“I didn’t know I had a story to tell.” – Mary Tyson, J.M. Phillips Seafood, 2013
After the Civil war, the city of Hampton rose from the ashes (literally, as most of the city was set on fire in 1861), became known for seafood, and even eventually earned the nickname of “Crabtown.” As a result, many free blacks were able to make a living by working on the water, either by shucking oysters, fishing, crabbing, or becoming sailors.
Historian Robert F. Engs, author of Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Va., 1861-1890, wrote, “The members of Hampton’s ‘free colored’ community were a remarkably resourceful group.” Engs also noted that in 1880, more than 35 percent of the town’s black workers made their living in such independent water-related trades as oystermen, fishermen, boatmen, and sailors.
Over the years, the role of picking crab fell primarily to black women. Their workday started early; 5 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on Saturdays. They worked over long stainless steel tables and picked crabmeat to put into three categories; regular, deluxe, and claw. The meat was weighed three times a day; 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and at the close of the day. Afterward, it was shipped out to buyers along the east coast, often 500 pounds each day.
Many of these women were able to create a living for their families by working in the seafood industry. Workers were paid by the amount of crabmeat picked, and skilled and quick workers could make up to $100 per day. “Many families were pulled out of financial devastation by working in this industry. We were encouraged to pursue higher education and this offered opportunities to young blacks,” said Doris Green, a worker at J. M. Phillips Seafood. This labor intensive and precise job enabled them to provide more opportunities for their children, often sending children to college on their modest earnings, and even provided food to those same families if needed.
In addition to providing a better life for their families, the workplace provided a sense of community for them. Not only were they coworkers, many of them were related, and it was not unusual for many family members to work side by side.
Interestingly, most women worked for the grandson of John Mallory Phillips, a free African American waterman who came to Hampton in the 1860s. About a decade later, Phillips bought his own oyster beds, which was a major difference from other oyster tongers, regardless of race. Over the years, he built upon his success by helping other African Americans purchase homes through the creation of the People’s Building and Loan Association and also helped to finance the nationally known seaside resort, Bay Shore Hotel, in Buckroe, that was a destination for black vacationers during Jim Crow.
These days, the crabs are picked by women from other countries (largely from Asia or Mexico); after 1986, the rise of the H-2B visa program allowed employers in the United States to supplement workers with temporary workers that are actively recruited for non-agricultural work.
Although this is a rarely told story, in 2013, the Hampton History Museum spotlighted this history as part of their “Our Story, Our Time” oral history series, where women discussed their stories and lives working in the crab houses. Mary Tyson, Doris Green, and Pearlie Brown had their experiences recorded, and now we finally have a glimpse into the lives of these hardworking women who fed countless tables across the East Coast. Because of them, and of those countless names we may never know, they turned our community into a thriving economic engine that endures, even today.