|Tag(s):||Agriculture, Arts/Leisure, Church/Religious-Activity, Crime/Violence, Health/Death, Economy, Urban-Life/Boosterism|
|Course:||“Rise And Fall of the Slave South,” University of Virginia|
Haynie Bradshaw thanked God every time he arrived back on shore. Oystermen were reputed to be daring and unscrupulous men, who regard[ed] neither the laws of God nor the laws of man, but Bradshaw was a devout Methodist who sometimes led services on Sunday. As an oysterman, Bradshaw dredged the Chesapeake Bay aboard one of the infamous bugeye boats. It was a terrible living. Crews received one third of the gross income, with the other two thirds going to boat maintenance and to the captain. Bradshaw helped push a windlass that scraped the bottom of the bay. According to those in the trade, it was like pulling in anchor while the boat was sailing. His shabby clothes froze to his body out in the frigid ocean surf. Bradshaw knew men who lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Others were plagued with oyster hand, an infection that developed if one cut one one's hands while culling oysters.
Crisfield was an oysterman town, and to the town the oystermen bought prosperity as well as debauchery. All the buildings had holes in the floors to toss away emptied shells. The entire town smelled of dead oysters. Girls on the street corner outside Blizzard's were hardly discreet about their employment. The town's residents used guns to disperse the rowdy drunks prowling the streets after dark. While Bradshaw's religious faith was dear to him, the dangers and tension of the oyster season caused him to lapse into drinking. Bradshaw chose Burgess's Saloon, which featured a boxing ring for the customers' enjoyment. Bradshaw wasn't planning on fighting, but then he saw a Virginia waterman who had insulted him earlier, saying, Hey, ain't you one o' them dumb Smith Islanders? In a second they were in the ring. Bradshaw clocked him and the drunken crowd cheered raucously. When the Virginian's friends came to his aid, Bradshaw bloodied them too, one after the other. The saloon in Crisfield was a far cry from his Methodist Church back home.
While the slavery system ended years earlier, the free labor system for both blacks and whites could be awful as well. In each, the living conditions could be atrocious, with poor clothing, poor quarters, and poor food. In each, the work could only be done by forced labor provided by traders. For the oyster industry, the crimps in Baltimore were responsible for delivering the men to the captains, who paid them off for their services and then kept the men at sea for as long as they could. Slaves were usually not paid for their work, and oystermen were sometimes only paid off with the boom: knocked overboard into the freezing waters by the captain at the end of a voyage. Many laborers, such as Bradshaw, looked to alcohol to cope with the dangers. Tough labor conditions were found throughout the South and in many other forms than those in the oyster industry. Both blacks and whites were often exploited by the system of sharecropping, where a farmer worked another man's land in return for a small portion of the crops. Life could be difficult for a working man in the South, even if he was free.