‘Maryland’s Oyster Beds’ by David Karsner from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 10. April, 1912.

Dave Karsner reports on the foul, brutal working conditions endured by exploited Black and Italian labor responsible for Maryland’s famed blue-point oysters served in East Coast restaurants.

‘Maryland’s Oyster Beds’ by David Karsner from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 10. April, 1912.

THERE is scarcely a state in the union but has some industry of which it is proud, and “Maryland, My Maryland,” is no exception, for her oyster beds are quite as famous as Chicago’s killing beds are in- famous, or as are the Lawrence’s mills betwixt and between. But he who enters a café of any “denomination,” and orders half a dozen fried,” or a “small stew,” must needs know that the oysters placed before him were gathered under extraordinary circumstances.

Indeed, I have heard Marylanders say that hundreds of wops have sacrificed their lives, to say nothing of their health, in the arduous task of procuring the food of the sea. And yet, when you meet a gentleman from Maryland the first bit of information he will convey to you is that “We have the best oyster beds in the country, in fact, in the world.”

I doubt not the assertion. But anyone who has visited the famous Eastern Shore of that state can testify that in the chilly months of the year there are more men out of work there than, possibly in the City of Baltimore.

This is true by reason of the fact that when the frosts begin to come down in that state, the owners of the oyster beds advertise for hundreds of men to tong for the bivalves. They go down there in droves of fifties. Only the best of the groups are chosen, of course.

The various owners of the beds have various ways of paying the tongers. Some are paid as high as ten cents a basket while others are paid all of seventy-five cents a day. Perhaps these men will stick to their jobs throughout the season but you may be sure they will not return the next year if they can earn a living any other way. I am told upon good authority that the little bosses have taken unto themselves the task of coercing men to work in the oyster beds. Not a few have actually been forced upon ice floes, given a pair of tongs and told to get to work. They have likewise been detained from day to day.

When the men are sent out upon these floes they are given a bushel basket, and when this basket is filled with the delicious blue-points, they are given another. But it is not at all likely that a single worker will be able to dig more than three bushels of oysters a day. And their days are long ones—averaging ten to fifteen hours. At this rate, it is plain that the diggers earn very little for their trouble. As usual the employers reap the benefits. It is stated that the bulk of the oyster beds in Maryland are either owned directly or indirectly by the different steamer lines which sail their vessels between Maryland and the Virginias. This may be true, but on the other hand, the steamer lines are either owned directly or indirectly by a certain gentleman named Morgan.

Hence, these hundreds of men digging oysters in the Chesapeake are employed indirectly by Morgan, who takes the product of their toil.

Not infrequently places which contain the best oysters are covered over with ice. In this case, the man on the floe saws through ten or twelve inches of ice, wedges his tongs through the cracks, breaking the surface until he is able to scoop and draw up the oysters. This process makes the worker’s position a very unsafe one. Sometimes he often falls into the bay, is carried down with the undercurrent, and lost. Of course, no one ever pretends to know anything about these minor details for there are always other innocent wops on short waiting to take the place of the man on the floe, or under the ice.

Just as soon as the baskets are filled they are dragged to the shore, from which they are lifted to sleds drawn by men who pull them to the depot. But before this is done the foreman of the crew takes a check on the baskets. Most of the lot is shipped direct to Baltimore. From this port they are distributed throughout the United States, shelled or unshelled.

And right here it might be well to say something about the other wops whose duty it is to shell the oysters. One can see them any day in oyster season, sitting along the wharves of Baltimore opening the shells. For this work the shuckers are paid something like two and a half cents per quart of oysters. It is not a pleasant job, but when a fellow becomes accustomed to the use of the knife he may be able to shell twenty-five quarts in a working day.

They say down in Maryland that the negroes and wops delight in the oyster season. But this is not true of those who have worked in the oyster beds. They detest it. As many as can get out of the state. They either borrow or steal the fare with which to get away. Anyway they disappear. For they know that as sure as they remain about the Eastern Shore or about the wharves of Baltimore they will be “drafted” to the oyster beds. It is better to steal or ride the bumpers out of the state, they say, than to become “drafted” scoopers in the oyster beds. At least, they argue, it is far better to be a live slave on shore than a dead one in the bay. And they are right.

They say, the beds of the Chesapeake will continue to yield their largess for many years. There is no present fear of the supply of Blue Points running low. But it is a wise wop that stays ashore. And the wop is beginning to shun the oyster beds as he would the plague. Probably “drafting” will increase for the necessity of the Boss knows no law.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n10-apr-1912-ISR-gog-Corn.pdf

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