Third Annual Back Creek Bon Fire and Oyster Roast set for Saturday, Jan. 31
Free concert, oral history seminars, shucking & cooking demonstrations
highlight culture of oystermen & shuckers
The Third Annual Back Creek Bon Fire and Oyster Roast, hosted by the friends of Annapolis Maritime Museum, will feature a series of free seminars on stories of oystermen and shuckers, oyster recipes, and a concert of gospel songs that shuckers sang while they worked in oyster houses like the Museum’s historic McNasby Oyster Company building. Admission is free, but you must bring your own beverages.
- Dr. Rita Z. Moonsammy, folklorist from Tabernacle, N.J.
- Beryl Whittington and the Whittington Family Singers, from Port Norris, N.J.
- And a special appearance by members of the Mt. Zion U.M. Church Gospel Choir
- 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. - Oral histories & shucking demonstrations
- 1 p.m. - Foodways demonstration
- 3 p.m. - Concert featuring Whittington Family Singers and members of the Mt. Zion U.M. Church Gospel Choir
- 5-8 p.m. - Bonfire with fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters, raw and roasted, provided by the Oyster Recovery Partnership. There will be a shucking contest, raffles and more.
For communities surrounding both Chesapeake and Delaware Bay, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry in the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain and crew to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers. Generations of families grew up in and around the industry, creating traditions permeating nearly every aspect of life. Settlement patterns emerged in the wake of oystering, particularly the migration of African-Americans from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to southern New Jersey, especially Port Norris.
The folkways that developed due to the oyster industry influenced nearly every aspect of everyday life, including both boat and shore-based traditions. Foodways, including mid-winter oyster feasts and a dizzying array of oyster recipes, are an especially vibrant legacy of the oyster industry for both ports. During work in the shucking houses, workers sang gospel tunes to make the difficult, cold, and dangerous work more tolerable. This project will bring together members of each community to share gospel and recipe repertoire, both in an artist-only setting and as part of public presentations.
Visiting Scholar Profiles
Beryl Whittington, Artist - Beryl Whittington is a longtime resident of Port Norris, New Jersey, a town that has been the center of the Delaware Bay oyster industry since the late 1800s. Beryl’s experience is representative of many of the members of the large community of African American oyster shuckers in that area. Most of the families migrated north from Maryland and Virginia when the shipping of shucked oysters began early in the 20th century. They continue to keep their ties to towns such as Crisfield, Maryland through homecomings and shared church celebrations.
Beryl’s parents came to Port Norris from Crisfield in the 1930s. He, like other members of his family, worked in the shucking houses from an early age, but he also learned other skills to equip him for the slow times in the oyster industry and the instability of jobs. He has worked on the decks of many oystering and fishing boats, as well as in the galleys, where he would prepare three meals a day for crews of twelve to fifteen men. Beryl is also an accomplished gospel singer and has a broad repertoire of traditional spirituals that the shuckers used to sing to lift their spirits during the cold and dirty work. In recent years, he and his children have become noted in their community and beyond for their singing. Beryl has presented foodways traditions and oral history of the occupation, as well as singing, in numerous local venues as well as at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of Folklife. He is 88 years old and is still going strong.
Rita Moonsammy, Folklorist - During her 30-year career as a folklorist, Rita Moonsammy has worked extensively, with the residents of Port Norris, New Jersey, a town on the Delaware Bay with a long history of oystering. Her work there has included the documentation and presentation of African American oyster shuckers, many of whom migrated from areas such as Crisfield, Maryland. Her research there introduced her to the traditional music, work skills, and foodways of the African American community, and she has presented some of those artists at the Smithsonian Institution Festival of Folklife as well as local venues. She has a long acquaintance with the Cisrow –Whittington Family, who are skilled and respected spiritual and gospel singers. Moonsammy holds a Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania.
Funding for this fun Winter Festival project comes from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts Folk & Traditional Arts Infrastructure Partnership.
Sponsors for the oyster roast include Schooner Woodwind, Main Ingredient Catering, Bakery & Cafe, Morton’s Steakhouse, Phillips Seafood Restaurant, Parthenon Restaurant, Even Keel Wellness Spa and the Hudson & Fouquet Salon. A special thank you goes out Peninsula House B&B and the Inn at Horn Point for their hospitality to our out-of-town presenters.