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African-American Menhaden Captain – Charles Lee Forrest

Charles Lee Forrest was rewarded in 1977 for his “high boat” honors by Sea Coast Products Inc. by making him captain of its newest boat, Bull Dog.

by Larry Chowning

Charles Lee Forrest of Susan in Mathews County is one of just a few African-American waterman to rise to the rank of captain of a menhaden company-owned fishing vessel.

Forrest did it in very difficult times when white-black segregated attitudes dominated the times.

As a boy, Charles Lee was first acquainted with working the water by holding a lantern at night so his father could determine where to place pound net stakes in Mobjack Bay. During his high school days, he worked in the pound net fishery with other fishermen in his neighborhood.

In 1954 after serving his country in the United States Army for two years in Germany, he went to work as a mate on the Moriches out of Atlantic City, New Jersey, under the leadership of Mathews native Captain Harry Armistead.

Armistead was one of many Mathews County men to captain a menhaden vessel. The captain of a vessel is responsible for getting his crew together and Armistead recruited Charles Lee from the neighborhood.

“You always want to get people to fish with you who you know and trust,” said Charles Lee.

Captain Charles Lee Forrest at the helm of a fish steamer owned by Zapata Haynie Corp. Charles caught over one billion fish as a menhaden captain in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

While working as a crewman aboard the Moriches, he studied late at night and in his spare time to acquire a mate and captain’s license. In 1964, he worked with Captain Robert Woodhouse of New Point as a mate on the John L. Lawrence. All the while, he was showing an uncanny ability to lead and catch fish.

His promotion came in 1968 when he was made captain of the Tangepaho in Abbeville, Louisiana, where he worked in the Gulf of Mexico. After his first summer season as captain ended, Charles Lee went to the North Carolina off-shore ocean fishery and became captain of the steamer Fenwick Island.

On December 7, 1968 tragedy struck as he was fishing off Cape Lookout, North Carolina, when he ran into that “perfect storm,” where there is usually no return for a fisherman. Noted Chesapeake Bay maritime author John Frye documented the event in his book “The Men All Singing” when he wrote, “On December 7, 1968, the J. Howard Smith Co. 135-foot vessel Fenwick Island, with its crew of 14 was caught in open water by a freak southwest squall off Cape Lookout, rolled over and sank in near hurricane winds and freezing temperature. The vessel W.T. James Jr. of Haynie Products from Reedville rescued seven men but seven others were lost.

“Captain Ernest Delano of the James, in a large converted military transport, saw the Fenwick Island’s lights go out from about two and one-half miles away and rushed to the scene, pulled the survivors from the 35 degree water and heavy seas and brought them ashore wrapped in blankets,” states the book. 

Charles Lee was one of the survivors. “I’ll tell you something—that was a bad night! It really was!” he said. “The storm came up out of nowhere and nobody heard anything about it on the radio or nothing. It was in December and the wind started coming bad from the southwest and then all of a sudden it shifted to the northwest. It was 10:30 at night and we had a fish hold full of fish. There were 25-foot high seas and winds up to 60 to 70 miles per hour.

“The seas were coming from one way and then when the waves shifted, we capsized 20 miles off shore in the Atlantic,” he said. “When she went over, myself and five or six others were able to crawl onto the sides and sit on the bottom of the boat.

“It was the worst storm I ever experienced,” continued Charles Lee. “The seas were horrible and then a big sea came and blew us all off the boat into the water. It was dark and cold. I was in the water for about 30 minutes. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m not supposed to be here today, but I’m here by the grace of God.

“When I landed in the water, the fish coming out of the hold just about killed me,” he said. “There were thousands of fish going back into the sea and we were right in their way. They about beat me to death. There were 14 of us on the boat and everyone had lifejackets but they were those old cork type jackets and wouldn’t stay up but so long.

“It was bad,” continued Charles Lee. “When I was in the water, cold and dark, I can remember thinking if I could have gone right then (drowned) I would have gone without a fight. That was an awful feeling.

“Next thing I knew Ernest Delano’s crew pulled me out of the water. When they got me on the boat, I was so cold I couldn’t move. After I got to shore, they wanted me to get off the boat but I didn’t want to because I kept thinking I should have gone down with the ship and I was sick from the cold and saltwater in my throat. My throat was burned right up.

“I still don’t know how we lived through it. It was sad and I felt so bad for the men I lost and their families but, eventually, I went back to fishing,” he said.

The men who died were all African-American fishermen, six from Mathews County and one from Gloucester County. A community funeral was held in the gymnasium of Gloucester High School. The men who died were William R. Thomas Jr., Harold Johnson, Harold and Bobby Diggs, all of Susan; Linwood Smith of Beaverlett; Robert E. Thomas of Mathews; and S.A. Pollard of Roanes in Gloucester County.

The survivors were all local fishermen too. Charles Winstead of Weems; Vernon Savoy and his son Vernon Jr. of Kilmarnock; William W. Thomas of Susan; George A. Johnson of White Stone; and David Mansfield of Wake all survived the storm.

When Charles Lee did go back to the boats he went on to become one of the most successful “highliner” menhaden captains on the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. In 1970, he began working for Sea Coast Products Inc. out of Morgan City, La.  During his career, Charles Lee received the “high boat” award for catching the most fish in seasons 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1984 and 1985. His track record earned him to receive Sea Coast’s newest vessel, the “Bull Dog,” in 1977. In August of 1993, he reached a milestone when, after 25 years, he had caught his one billionth fish, making him one of the most successful menhaden captains of all time.

Charles Lee Forrest retired after 41 years in the menhaden business. When he retired, he was working for Zapata Haynie Corp. Today, he lives in Susan in Mathews County, in the same neighborhood where he grew up.

Paving the way for others

The John S. Dempster Jr., owned by Omega Protein in Reedville, was once captained by Carol Curry, an African-American from Northumberland County.

Carol Curry is one of few Northern Neck African-Americans who rose to the rank of captain on a menhaden steamer. He grew up in Northumberland County, near Kilmarnock, one of 19 children.

He worked in the fishing industry for 55 years before retiring as captain of the John S. Dempster Jr. Although not many African-Americans have made it to captain, the industry has provided an avenue for some to succeed.

“From my experience living around here, you could make more money fishing than anything else,” he said. “No way I could have made the money I have made on the water by working on land.”

Curry paved the way for other African-Americans in the business and is highly respected by the industry as a former menhaden captain and as one of the better captains in the era that he fished. 

Although sea chanteys on the Chesapeake Bay are mostly associated with the menhaden fishery, chantey singing was also used by pound net fishermen like these men pulling up a pound net while working from a tow-bat skiff.

Sweet music on the sea

Author John Frye of the book “The Men All Singing Story of Menhaden Fishery” named his book after the long tradition of chanty singing by menhaden fishermen working side by side in a purse boat pulling tons of fish and net to the surface.

The days of two manned wooden purse boats to haul nets loaded down with 22 large, strong young men hauling nets full of menhaden to the surface ended about 1953, the year Mario Puratic invented the power block. This enabled fishermen to mechanically haul nets full of menhaden to the surface. It also ended a cultural tradition of a chanty-man leading the chants as the fishermen worked. 

Robert Roland Hudgins of Mathews County in a 2006 interview recalls his first trip aboard a menhaden vessel in 1950 and working right alongside black fishermen and listening to the chanties.

Hudgins was a young white boy aboard a purse boat with mostly all black fishermen. During that time, segregation of the races was a way of life in Virginia and Mathews County. The songs of the fishermen not only helped bring up the nets but it also helped bring understanding to the races.

“The prettiest singing I ever heard in my life was the first year I went fishing,” said Hudgins. “We were going into Crab Island one night after a day of fishing and everybody was worn out. Everybody had their heads down on the table in the galley because we were so tired.

“Then Bud Thomas (a black man), started singing and then the rest of them started in. I tell you the truth it would make tears come into your eyes. It was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard in my life.

“I was young and hadn’t been around blacks. I was just a boy and I’ll tell you the truth, I was scared of them but when they sang as we worked it made me fell more comfortable and that we were all a team working together.

“Out on the water, the songs made us pull together,” said Hudgins. “The more we sang, the more we pulled. Lord, it was some sweet music.

“I’ve heard chanty-men sing on land but there’s no sweeter sound in the world then the songs of two crews working side by side singing together.”

Alvin Wake in a February 2004 interview at his home in Wake recalled that he was 15 years old in 1951 when he first went aboard a menhaden steamer. “I was one of 22 black boys working in a purse boat. My job was to pull those heavy nets. That was the main summer work for us. We used to haul those nets full of bunkers (menhaden) to the surface and sing those chanties. The songs helped to make us all pull the net together. Some of those boys could have sung in a church choir they were so good. And others could not sing a note but it did not make any difference, we all sang.

“It was hard work and your hands took most of the blunt of the work,” he said. “My hands would get so sore you just wanted to quit but when we started singing, we would forget about the pain.

“Lord boy, it was hard, hard, work but it was fun too and the singing just made us all come together,” he said. “I left the boats in 1963 when I found a land job. I remember fondly the days when I fished and oystered.”

Frye’s book captured a few of the traditional chanties sung by the fishermen. Many of the songs are about home and girlfriends. One goes like this “(Shouting and chatter) Chantey-man: I left my baby standing’ in the back door crying’. Honey, don’t go!” Fishermen: Lawd, Lawd Chantey-mans, don’t go! (Shouting and chatter); Chantey-man: I’d go home but ain’t got no money! Fishermen: Lawd, Lawd, ain’t got no money! (shouting and chatter); Chantey-man: To pay my way! Fishermen: Lawd, Lawd, to pay-ay my wa-ay!; Chantey-man: Yes, I’m gonna row here few days long. Then I’m goin’ back home! Fishermen: Going back home -----! Going back home ------!”

posted 10.30.2017

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