Once the nation’s first all-black yacht club, Seafarers still thrives — the strong legacy of a visionary teacher and his industrious student.
The southeastern end of M Street in Washington, D.C. — long after the hum of cars, traffic lights, and overhead highways have been left behind — becomes a narrow winding lane that runs into the Anacostia River. Here, at the water’s edge, sandwiched between the country’s busiest freight railroad tracks on one side, and a wide ribbon of the muddy Anacostia River on the other, lies a humble plot of swampland with a compelling social and nautical history. It was here in 1945 that Lewis T. Green established Americas first African-American boat club, the Seafarers Yacht Club.
For much of his life, Lewis Green, a woodworking teacher in D.C.s public schools, loved making boats at home. After hed used plans from a magazine to assemble a sizeable 49-foot cruiser, complete with a Buick automobile motor, he had nowhere big enough to keep it. Despite a changing social climate following the end of World War II, docking at the many boathouses along the Anacostia wasn’t an option; they only accepted white people. Even filling up with gas or buying parts for his boat was difficult for Green because of the color of his skin. He began to dream of establishing an all-black boat club. Given the segregation laws of the time, the odds were against him. Repeated requests to the U.S Department of the Interior, which controls the riverfront land, for a plot were refused. He was told it would take an act of Congress to change the department’s mind.
Friends In High Places
Green was a modest, hardworking man, but he had one ace — he knew Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering education advocate for black children. Bethune had the ear of President Roosevelt, thanks to her friendship with his wife Eleanor. Roosevelt frequently referred to Bethune as “her closest friend in her age group,” which gave the civil-rights lobbyist unprecedented access to the White House, something Bethune later used to form the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, known famously as the “Black Cabinet.”
It took a bit of talking, but Bethune convinced the First Lady to have the decision of the Department of the Interior reversed, and in 1945 Lewis T. Green was leased a piece of government land to establish the Seafarers Yacht Club. Their mission was simple: “Engage in the enjoyment of the waterways through safe boating and gentlemanly sportsmanship.”
But while the Department of the Interior had been overruled, it still had the power to determine the clubs location. “Of course they gave Mr. Green about the worst piece of land on the river,” says Bob Martin, a former student of Greens, “way down at the very end, next to the railroad tracks, where there was nothing else.” Though the piece of allotted land was almost unusable marshland, Green and fellow club members persevered, filling in the swampland, building docks, and gathering together in the evenings after work to enjoy their boats and families.
Another Man, Another Dream, Another Club
Greens woodworking student, Bob Martin, now 78, had also experienced what it meant to be black in 1940s America. He was a gregarious child, growing up on Capitol Hill in a cramped house with no gas, heat, or electricity, and with an outhouse in the backyard. At only 8 years old, he got a job at a seafood stall cleaning fish, and began his love of the water — and seafood! He was paid partly in fish, and on Saturday afternoons after work he treated his friend Willy to a fried-fish sandwich at the now-defunct Bennys seafood stand. The boys would park themselves with their lunches on the grassy banks of the Tidal Basin to watch paddleboats full of white folks go back and forth across the water. That image made him dream.
By the age of 12, Martin got a job with Dr. Reeds Pharmacy, delivering prescriptions and cleaning up the shop. One Saturday over lunch, he announced to Willy that they were going for a boat ride. “It cost 25 cents to rent one of those boats,” Martin recalls, “the same identical boats they have to this day.” But when the boys went down to the waterfront with their savings, the operator told them they’d also need to leave a $5 deposit.
“Don’t worry, Willie,” young Martin promised his disappointed pal. “Well keep saving up and come back.” True to his word, armed with the deposit, the boys excitedly rushed back to the rental office a week later. Even now, 66 years later, the painful memory of what happened next still etches sadness into Bob Martins face. “The man said, ‘I don’t know why you keep coming down here. We’re not going to rent to no n******. The tears came rolling down my face. I ran home and told my mother, and she said, ‘Bob, that’s just the way things are. I remember saying, ‘Momma, when I get a real job, I’m gonna have me a boat.”
Though still only 12, Martin asked the daughter of the pharmacist if he could use her garage on Capitol Hill as a workshop. She agreed, so long as he cleaned and stoked her furnace and did odd jobs. “I was determined,” he says. In the drugstore at work was a magazine stand where Martin devoured issues of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. One day he came across plans for a kayak canoe. “It was a boat, shaped like a canoe, but ribbed like a kayak,” he says. He tackled the framework with relative ease. A white shoemaker named Jimmy, who lived around the corner from the workshop, noticed what the boy was doing and offered to help. “When I had the frame made, and the canvas cut, Jimmy said hed sew it for me so it fit like a glove. He taught me how to waterproof and stretch it.”
Together they took the 14-foot boat to the water in Jimmy’s small pickup. “Jimmy probably weighed about 250 pounds. I was about 110 pounds soaking wet,” Martin laughs. But the boat floated, and Bob Martin was well and truly hooked. He continued to build and buy bigger and faster boats. Then in 1962, he bought one too big to keep at his house. By now, some of his friends had built boats too, and Martin had formed a club, the D.C. Mariners, with his young son Chubby as secretary. They’d go from house to house to hold their meetings, occasionally having them in the back of one of the member’s vans.
Great Minds Think Alike
Lewis T. Green and Bob Martin, the one-time teacher and his pupil, were about to have a serendipitous reunion. By the 1960s, Greens Seafarers Yacht Club in D.C. was falling on hard times, and experiencing something of a defection. “In the beginning, Mr. Green had lots of doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs, people with a little money,” says Martin. “But as they bought bigger boats, they didn’t want to be on the Anacostia anymore.” That resulted in many members uprooting and reforming in Annapolis. That breakaway group, the Seafarers Yacht Club Of Annapolis, formed in 1949, is still thriving and will celebrate its half-century anniversary this year.
Back on the Anacostia, the original Seafarers Yacht Club was in danger of closing. Green was about to retire from his job, his wife was ill, and he wanted to move out of the city, but he was equally determined to preserve the precious piece of ground for which hed fought. Bob Martin, meanwhile, needed somewhere to dock his boat, and approached his old teacher about keeping it at Seafarers in Washington. This would be the clubs saving grace. Green suggested that Martin take over the club and keep it going. “I talked to the guys in Annapolis, and some were too scared to do it,” says Martin. “Remember, this was a different time. They thought we’d get ourselves in trouble with the government, that they’d confiscate our boats.” But the majority took a leap of faith, legally merged with Seafarers in Washington, and went with Bob Martin.
Martin remained commodore for the next 20 years and quickly set about improving the club. First, with his son Chubby, he built the clubhouse. “People said it would fall into the river because the whole ground would shake when those heavy steam engines came down the track,” he laughs. Today, the steam engines are long gone, replaced by modern locomotives that trundle by, and the club still stands solidly.
Martins own woodworking and construction skills are on display in the clubhouse. Angled windows run the entire length of the south side of the building, giving it a panoramic view over the river to the quiet greenery of Anacostia Park on the far bank. Dotted on the simple white walls, between the many plastic tables and chairs, are photographs of past commodores and memorabilia collected by members over the years. A neat bar is tucked into another wall.
Martins 41-foot Chris-Craft sits proudly in front of the club. On his dock is a self-made boarding ladder with elaborate banisters that pull Natatchia, named for his late wife, closer for easy access. The boat’s stern has a beautifully handmade wood swim-platform and rail. Its a boat owned by a man who loves to work with wood.
Seafarers Future On The Anacostia
But, for now, the members are proud, the club active, its current membership today stands at about 45, and is now multi-racial. “It was an all-black club for so many years,” remembers Martin. “Over time, a lot of white people would stop in and sign the papers to join, and we’d say, ‘Oh, yes, we’d be glad to have you. Then they’d find out it was an all-black club and they’d be gone!” he laughs. “That doesn’t happen much anymore.” These days, Seafarers is known for its Friday fish fry, its neighborly members, and its efforts to clean up their end of the Anacostia River. Stop in some time. The welcome is warm.
“This article was reprinted with permission from BoatU.S. Magazine, the flagship publication of the Boat Owners Association of The United States. For the online editions, membership, insurance, and towing information, visit www.BoatUS.com”