Sailing Old Seas

Sailing Old Seas

Artwork by Marylu E. Herrera

For far too long, the outdoors have been unsafe for people from underrepresented communities, a space where women face harassment while hiking, where people of color encounter racism while road-tripping, where disabled people are gawked at as they merely try to enjoy the pleasures of nature. But we all have the right to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, and the industry is shifting to accommodate people who want to enjoy the vast, open spaces from which they’ve long been tacitly excluded.

“The New Outdoors” is a weeklong series about adventurers from underrepresented communities who are grabbing their compasses, ice axes, dog sleds, and Instagram-ready vans and staking a rightful claim to the freedom of the outdoors.

I wasn’t raised in a family that traveled a lot, though I often joke that I inherited the travel bug from my father, who has seen much of the world. This made all of our family vacations during Spring Break and long, humid Southern summers particularly special. We would load up our station wagon and set off for a destination hours away from our home in Atlanta, a cooler at my feet and snacks in the hands of my three younger sisters. Our family vacations were always centered on water since we spent most of our time on land. For us, there was something magical, foreign, even, about spending a few days with sand climbing up between our toes, hearing the crashing of waves against the shore, and submerging ourselves in massive bodies of water. It made us feel just a little closer to God.

My mother grew up in northern Alabama, and she never learned how to swim for obvious reasons—Jim Crow racism segregated public swimming pools during her childhood. She made sure all her children learned, though, because water represented something spiritual for her. Freedom, maybe. I took her gift of swimming lessons and swam all over the world: in oceans, lakes, streams, rivers, and even in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain during one birthday trip. Swimming came natural for me, and I often imagined myself as a fish exploring the underwater world. While I swam through bodies of water, vessels for exploring the seas seemed more elusive, especially since I rarely saw people who looked like me, or families who looked like mine, sailing—charting the water on boats, ships, or yachts, and being captains of their own destinies.

Though boating seems to be a luxurious activity reserved solely for the rich, famous, and otherwise wealthy, there’s one group that has long fought this misunderstanding, specifically for Black people. The Seafarers Yacht Club of Washington, D.C. has always been organized and run by ordinary Black people who lived and worked near water and wanted to chart their course. Lewis T. Green, Sr., a man with an affinity for boats, created what was then known as the Seafarers Boat Club in 1945. Green was an unadulterated hobbyist: When he wasn’t educating young people as a vocational arts teacher in DC Public Schools, he skillfully built boats and carved wood, including a 49-foot vessel that he needed to store in a dock.

He knew the government owned land along the Anacostia River that could be publicly used by local boat owners, so he asked the U.S. Department of Interior for permission to lease some of that land and turn it into his personal dock. But it was 1945, two decades before the Civil Acts Right of 1964 gave Black people the ability to legally enter the same restaurants, department stores, buses, barbershops, hair salons, as white people, so Green encountered many obstacles. The Department of Interior told Green that he’d have to create a club before they’d consider leasing land to him. So, he and a handful of other boat and water enthusiasts from the D.C. area formed the Seafarers Boat Club with the intention to help other African Americans safely enjoy the Anacostia River’s waterways.

Though boating seems to be a luxurious activity reserved solely for the rich, famous, and otherwise wealthy, there’s one group that has long fought this misunderstanding, specifically for Black people.

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Green was certain that the Department of the Interior would keep its word after he created the Seafarers Boat Club, but their recommendation was simply an uphill battle in disguise. He was met with silence as he repeatedly attempted to contact the Department of Interior about leasing the land. Green became increasingly frustrated. It would take an act of God, it seemed, to make things move forward. And that it did, in the form of the kinship with Mary McLeod Bethune, a fellow educator who’d cultivated a rapport and friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Bethune, who also served as an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt, convinced him to lease land to the Seafarers Yacht Club so they could officially have a place to gather.

However, Green’s Boat Yard, the land leased to the group, wasn’t exactly ideal; it was situated between two bridges: south of the CSX Railroad Bridge and north of the John Philip Sousa Bridge. “Of course they gave Mr. Green about the worst piece of land on the river, way down at the very end, next to the railroad tracks, where there was nothing else,” Bob Martin, a former student of Greens, told Boat U.S. Magazine. Martin, who was a student of Green’s and a child when the Seafarers Boat Club was first getting started, picked up the torch. In 1965, Martin became the president, or commodore, of the Seafarers Yacht Club. Now that the club finally had an actual space, the challenge then became making the area tenable and usable—transforming the marshland that lay adjacent to the Anacostia River. From those efforts, a steady clean-up of the local area distantly ballooned.

Since 1985, the Seafarers have participated in an annual Anacostia Earth Day clean-up. Since the clubhouse and the docks, built by Seafarers own hands, sit on the banks of the river, they consider it their responsibility to tend to an often forgotten river. A river that is often clogged with trash and other pollutants. Though Martin is no longer the president of Seafarers Yacht Club, the organization’s work still continues: The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, ran “Belonging: Stories From the Seafarers Yacht Club,” a 2018 exhibit about the Seafarers that included an assemblage of portraiture of past and present members.

In 2018, the Seafarers Yacht Club honored Debbie Smith for being the club’s longest-standing female captain. Boating and sailing on any body of water, whether in St. Tropez or Miami, might be considered out of the norm for average Black families, including my own, but recognizing, remembering, and honoring the Seafarers Yacht Club might help us all realize that our lives can include worshipping on the water. Like these boaters, we, too can feel more connected to the world and become the master of our own fates.

There’s more…

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