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Fried Oysters in the Northern Neck

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

There are images which, once processed through the human eye and into the heart, become indelibly fixed in the mind. And it is enough. There's no need to revisit the image by staring at photos. The deer that still roam the fields of the Northern Neck region of Virginia, must be as majestic today as they were when the eagle-eyed, indigenous Tidewater Indians first laid their eyes on them.

This past June, my husband and I were invited by the current owners to stay at the Lawson Bay Farm, the ancestral home of my late great-grandfather, Captain Hansford C. Bayton. I had written a nonfiction book about his life (Against the Tide) that is being reprinted by the Steamboat Era Museum and was due to give a talk about my ancestor at the Middle Peninsula African American Genealogical and Historical Society. The owners of Lawson Bay were away at the time, and they graciously offered my husband and I the chance to stay at the farm.

One evening after supper (white plates overflowing with mounds of hot, fried, oysters), we sat on the screened back porch and waited for them to approach enticed by the small red apples placed under the tree, only a few yards from where we sat, they came close. And then, as a wide Virginia blue sky morphed into a wide ribbon of lilac and pink, we watched the deer family approach the trees with their bold, confident gait. I knew, in that moment, that there was no camera on earth that could capture that experience.

The following day, I sat at the polished dining room table, in front of a pile of long sheets of yellow paper. I was practicing my speech about the life of my great-grandfather who, against tremendous odds, persevered in the face of discrimination. Despite Jim Crow segregation, he became a wealthy steamship owner, only to have his five boats burned to the water's edge, one nautical dream vanquished after the other. As I heard my small voice fill the sun filled room, looking out of stately picture windows, I imagined Captain Bayton and my great-grandmother, Vergie, seated beside one another, enjoying the scene as I was. The view must have brought them comfort during uncertain times.

I thought about the bravery it must have taken to weather the storm of malice that characterized those difficult times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when blacks who dared to achieve were sidelined, either through intimidation, the rope, or being put out of business, as Hansford was. As a result, my great-grandfather ended up selling the farm. Newspapers reported that Captain Bayton had become a "drummer" (In those days, a traveling salesman) for a while. He tried in vain to regain his steamboat route, but prejudice met him at every which turn.

My voice faltered. I began to cry. But I didn't raise a hand to wipe away my tear-soaked cheeks. I let them be. Because I knew, in that intuitive way many women have, that I was vicariously shouldering the burden of Captain Bayton's struggle in that moment. Then something magical happened. A Frolicking deer stopped in his second later, he bounded purposefully across the corn field. His head was held high, reminding me of photographs of my great-grandfather before he was beached.

I went back to the breezy porch to join my husband and we had another plate of those succulent, fried oysters, harvested from the Rivah, as the locals call it. The deer family had disappeared and so had the apples, but I took comfort in the fact that they would return. We would see them the following day. And I didn't need a photograph to convince me of that.

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