Long before any serious discussion of civil rights, free blacks in Sussex County were trusted as the pilots of large ships navigating the Nanticoke River
Concord is an unincorporated community in Sussex County that sits less than four miles east of Seaford. Within the tiny hamlet is a section called Pilot Town, where black families and white have been living together in peace and harmony since before the Revolutionary War. It got its name for the many black pilots who lived in the area and piloted vessels down the Nanticoke River to Chesapeake Bay.
Oral histories exist about the black river pilots of the Nanticoke. These were skilled seamen with enormous responsibilities. They not only guided large ships safely up and down the winding river, to and from its mouth, avoiding hazards and protecting the ship and its crew, they were also responsible for valuable, sometimes irreplaceable cargo that would be worth millions of dollars today. These able mariners worked out of Pilot Town and used Seaford as their key port for supplies. After navigating the Nanticoke to and from the Chesapeake, they would resume their positions as sailors of the Eastern Seaboard before returning home.
Back in 1787, only whites could be pilot apprentices under Maryland law, though there already had been many blacks who were functioning successfully as full-fledged pilots. They were a class exempted from the law. As of 1853, local pilots could be legally used on the rivers of the Eastern Shore irrespective of race, but it wouldn’t be until 1979, 126 years later and only 36 years ago, that an African-American named Avis Bailey was officially granted a license as a pilot in the state of Maryland.
Today, little evidence remains of these stalwart men, only a few names, like Cann Laws and George Laws, and some stories to go with them. A Delaware Public Archives historic marker at Pilot Town in Concord provides the basic history. What is known, however, is that these savvy seamen were able to excel at their vital vocation despite the prejudice that would have undoubtedly confronted them on a regular basis.
The Seaford Museum has created an exhibit in commemoration of these brave barrier breakers that includes a ship’s-helm diorama, navigational game, virtual docent on ships of the Chesapeake and informational signage about being a pilot.
The display will ultimately serve as the entranceway to the museum’s new maritime history gallery.
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