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As Maryland crab houses face labor shortage, Black crab pickers recall legacy of struggle and dedication on the Eastern Shore

Christina Tkacik, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Senior Living Features

BALTIMORE -- Marylanders often debate the best method for picking crabs. Let Joyce Fitchett settle the matter.

Fitchett’s technique has been passed through generations of Eastern Shore women. It’s won her eight crab picking contests at the Crisfield Crab Derby. It’s safe to say that this is the way it’s done.

Holding a sharp knife, its handle wrapped in duct tape, she cuts off the crab’s mouth, slices its legs and scrapes off the lungs. At 76, Fitchett is not as fast as she was when she was putting in hours a day at Crisfield’s crab-packing house. Still, her speed as she scoops out lumps of crab meat from the shell would impress guests at any crab feast. In minutes, she’s picked through a dozen crabs, leaving more than enough meat for two crab cakes.

Such skill is in short supply on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Though the state’s famed seafood industry has for generations depended on Black women like Fitchett to pick blue crabs, in the past few decades, many local pickers have left the crab-picking industry for new jobs.

After leaving crab picking in the 1980s, Fitchett spent much of her life working at Eastern Correctional Institute about 17 miles north of Crisfield. While working in a prison intimidated her at first, the job offered benefits and a retirement pension. “You pick crabs, you’re not going to get benefits,” Fitchett said.

Crisfield’s MeTompkin Bay Oyster Co. Inc. is the last crab-packing house in a city once called the seafood capital of the world. The company still employs locals to pick crabs at a rate of $5 per pound of picked meat, but “none of the younger generation in Somerset County wants to do this job now because of the seasonality,” owner Casey Todd wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

In Dorchester County, many former crab pickers took jobs working at factories like Airpax, a circuit breaker manufacturer. “You couldn’t blame them,” said Jack Brooks, owner of the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company in Cambridge. Picking crabs, he said, is “not a glamorous job. It’s tough work. It smells.”

Fewer workers and fewer crabs

Today, most of Maryland’s crabs are picked by seasonal workers from abroad, typically women from Mexico. They come on temporary H-2B visas, passed out to employers by the federal government through a lottery system. On the Eastern Shore, 10 crab houses applied for the visas, The Sun reported in March, but only one facility received them.

The shortage of crab pickers has become a rallying cry for the Eastern Shore’s crab houses, whose owners have spoken out about the issue. Without foreign workers to staff the crab houses, “You’re just going to see a particle of the industry left,” said Brooks, whose company lost out on this year’s visa lottery.

The owners of W.T. Ruark & Co., a Hoopers Island crabmeat packing house, decided to shut down the company and put it up for sale after being unable to attain visas. “It broke my heart” to close the business, said Vice President Darlene Ruark, whose father and grandfather opened it in 1948.

Within Hoopers Island, the sale of W.T. Ruark is a reminder of just how precarious Maryland’s crab industry is, says Kelly Ellis-Neal, the real estate agent for the property, which includes worker housing.

She said the effects will be felt beyond the community. “It’s going to spread way larger than just a little 1.4-mile island on the Chesapeake Bay,” Ellis-Neal said. “It’s going to spread to the whole state of Maryland.”

Another factor in the decline in crab-packing houses is the low number of crabs themselves. Maryland’s crab season is getting off to a slow start. A cool and windy spring coupled with a recent storm has hurt this year’s catches, Brooks said. That could be a blessing given the shortage of workers.

But it’s a foreboding indicator for the local crab industry, which Brooks said has already “shrunk quite a bit” in the past three decades. In the mid-1990s, Brooks says, the state was home to 54 crab processors. Today, there are fewer than 20 in all of Maryland.

At Faidley Seafood, a stall in Lexington Market that dates back to the 1800s, owner Damye Hahn worries how they’ll find local crabmeat this year, given the worker shortage.

Hahn wonders about the implications for the state’s larger seafood trade — and by extension, its identity. “What is Maryland known for if you take crab out of the equation?” she said.

‘It was just like having church’

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, workdays at Crisfield’s crab-packing houses began with a 9 a.m. prayer. Participants might hop up and down as they connected with the Lord. “They lit it up,” Fitchett recalled. “It was just like having church.” They sang gospel songs as they worked.

The joyful atmosphere belied harsh conditions. Packing houses lacked air conditioning, so workers sweated in the heat. By the end of each crab season, Fitchett’s hands were covered in shallow cuts. After coming home from work, she’d soak them in hot water and bleach or alcohol to prevent infection.

 

Fitchett remembers when she earned as little as 75 cents per pound of crabmeat picked. She worked three jobs, cleaning houses and babysitting, too, but barely made enough to get by.

“There wasn’t a lot of money to be made in picking crabs,” said Darlene Taylor, a Crisfield resident who grew up picking crabs — she started with the claws as a kid — but chose to make her career elsewhere. After graduating from Old Dominion University, Taylor spent 20 years working for defense contractor Raytheon, before coming back to Crisfield in 2005.

After years away, the town’s decline stunned her. Buildings became vacant and run down. There was nothing for kids in the area to do. “I came back home and decided this was not the home I’d left,” said Taylor, who founded a nonprofit called It Takes a Village to Help Our Children to offer after-school and summer programs to Crisfield’s youths.

Now 59, Taylor is running for mayor of Crisfield, hoping to become the town’s first elected Black mayor. In an area with a history of racial segregation, that victory, she thinks, “would mean our community has come a long way toward working together.”

‘This is history that you don’t hear about’

Crisfield has come a long way since the crab picker strike of 1938, a worker movement that has all but been lost to history.

That year, Crisfield’s packing houses slashed the rate paid to pickers from 35 cents per gallon of picked crabmeat to a quarter. In protest, a group of around 600 workers, mostly Black women, but a few white women as well, launched a strike in early spring. Together with organizers from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, they held meetings in the parish hall of Shiloh United Methodist Church on Route 413.

White mobs raided the home of two strikers and set a CIO organizer’s car on fire just outside the church. They stopped food from being delivered to the Black community. Vigilantes ran a federal mediator out of town. In coverage from the time, The Baltimore Afro-American termed it a “reign of terror.”

Yet the strikers stood strong. After seven weeks, most of Crisfield’s large packing houses gave in to their demands, restoring the higher pay rate and recognizing the CIO as their union.

The Rev. Emanuel Johnson took over leadership at Shiloh United Methodist last year. His congregation includes several retired Black crab pickers, including Taylor, the mayoral candidate. To help preserve their legacy, Johnson helped organize a group called “The Holy Pickers Union.” Among their top priorities is informing others about the 1938 strike.

“This is history that you don’t hear about,” Johnson said, comparing the silence around the 1938 strike to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which only recently has gained attention.

Through letter-writing campaigns and outreach efforts, the Holy Pickers are lobbying local leaders to get a roadside marker outside the church to honor the strikers.

Former crab picker Milkey Brown, 84, said her mother-in-law and sister-in-law both had participated in the 1938 strike. Still, she knew little about the protest until recently.

When Brown first learned about the strike, “It hurt me,” she said, to know what her forebears went through. “I thought it was awful.” After spending her career shucking oysters in the winter and picking crabs during the summers, she retired from MeTompkin just a few years ago.

Taylor, who first learned about the strike during a Black History Month celebration a few years ago, said hearing about it made her proud of the strikers for standing up — and proud of her church for supporting them.

Inside that same parish hall where the strikers once organized, the Holy Pickers sing gospel hymns as they work stuffing envelopes with letters to spread the word about the strike and the roadside marker.

After she’s done picking crabs, Fitchett washes her hands and joins them in the task, her soprano voice rising in song.

“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

____

 

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