The following was originally published as a letter to the editor in Sea History 172 (Autumn 2020), 5.
In June, the Maine Maritime Museum announced its plan “to consider how an institution such as ours can contribute to the dialogue about equity, inclusion, and justice, particularly by raising awareness of how Maine’s maritime enterprise has shaped and been shaped by issues of race, ethnicity, and gender.” Skeptics abound. of course. What can a maritime museum in the whitest state in the country possibly have to say about race in what many incorrectly perceive to be a “white” profession?
The museum centers on the shipyard that built the six-masted schooner Wyoming, by some measures the largest wooden sailing ship ever built. Like most of the largest schooners of the early twentieth century, the Wyoming sailed in the coal trade between Virginia and the Northeast.
As it happens, the museum is in the process of reviewing its Wyoming exhibit. Lo and behold! A few days after the museum sent its letter, what turned up in the archives, where it’s been lying since 2006? A photograph of the predominantly black crew of the Wyoming, probably from the years 1917–21. Further investigation will reveal more about this crew and others like it, for the fact that blacks formed a substantial part of the crews in the coal trade of this period is well documented.
Those who scoffed at our plans—and they did—can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Maine’s maritime history is exclusively a story about white men. After all, that’s a narrative we have perpetuated through our choices of what to exhibit—not out of malice, but from a colorblindness that keeps us from seeing reality as it is rather than as we have come to accept it.
This archival find shows us that to get the stories right, we have to get the right stories.