Today, Bellevue is a sleepy village in Talbot County where it is best known as the landing spot for the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. But once upon a time, Bellevue was the center of maritime commerce, with a unique twist.
All are welcome to attend a community meeting to learn more about the Bellevue Passage Museum on July 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Royal Oak.
Bellevue was once a self-sufficient African American community that initially was centered around employment provided by the W.H. Valliant Packing Co., established in 1895. It operated a large seafood and vegetable cannery and packing house in Bellevue until 1946. But Bellevue proved to be filled with entrepreneurs and in its heyday boasted a school, church, general store, post office, four restaurants, a Knights lodge, recreation center, gas station and a doctor’s office. Other than the Valliant plant, another major employer was the African American owned Turner Seafood Company. The general store and Valliant Packing Company were the only white owned businesses in Bellevue at that time.
Two seafood processing facilities were owned by the Turner family. These facilities were one of the few black owned seafood packing houses on the entire Eastern Shore. As late as the 1970s, the W.A. Turner and Sons Packing Co. (1945-1996) and the Bellevue Seafood Co. (1964-1998) employed up to 70 crab pickers and oyster/clam shuckers.
Bellevue had long been on the map since ferry service began in 1683. Bellevue went on to establish a wharf for the Choptank Steamboat Company and the Baltimore, Chesapeake & Atlantic Railroad Company (circa 1906-1921).
While small, the size of about four city blocks, Bellevue even had a baseball league and a Boy Scout troop. And it produced an above average percentage of black college graduates that went on to serve the community and our country in the military, as educators, health care workers, clergy, and business owners.
But change was on the horizon for Bellevue. The Bay was overharvested, pollution ran rampant, and the economy slowed. Then Mother Nature struck. Businesses left Bellevue or closed permanently, and the village became an overlooked spot on the map as people made their way to and from the ferry. Buildings were razed as they became derelict, erasing an important part of the area’s black maritime heritage.
Precious family heirlooms and land were sold to support families, and developers took notice of this beautiful spot overlooking the Tred Avon River. The John U. Green Store, listed among the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, is one of only two historic, commercial buildings remaining in Bellevue that were owned by African Americans. The other is the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church that was built on its current site in 1903.
Today, Bellevue is still known for the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, but now has a community park and the county’s second largest boat landing, operated by Talbot County. In the future, it will also proudly host the Bellevue Passage Museum.
Descendants of those families who lived and worked in Bellevue are actively pursuing the launch of the sister museum to the Water’s Edge Museum, located right across the river in Oxford. Each strive to fulfill their own missions, while working in tandem.
At the helm of the Bellevue Passage Museum is Monica Davis, alongside co-founders Drs. Dennis and Mary DeShields. Together their goal is to tell the untold stories of those who lived and worked here and celebrate the legacy of the Bellevue community.
This essential history was threatened to be erased, Dennis explains, “People would move in and not understand the rich history of the place.”
The concept is to move the John U. Green Store, which also housed Pick’s Restaurant at one time, to the Bellevue Community Park, located within a stone’s throw of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. It will then display photographs and items that recall Bellevue’s past. Since the building is small, at just 352 square feet, an annex is proposed to offer the community a meeting place as well as to display artifacts. The museum will become a center of entrepreneurship to provide guidance and leadership to the younger generation and what it takes to start a business. Also, it is hoped that it will provide services to resident artists and writers as well. In addition, there will be a community garden behind the museum in an adjacent lot.
Currently, there is a partnership between the Bellevue Passage Museum and an initiative with Washington College called Black Life in Bellevue Field School. Last summer, 12 students from the Center for Environment and Society and its Past is Present Initiative worked for four weeks on site to conduct oral histories and structure research. They return during the month of July. Due to the significant threat of erasing Bellevue’s cultural heritage and architecture, the Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities will travel to Bellevue on July 27 for a recap from the students’ findings.
The information the students gleaned will be used to create history exhibits and public programming at the museum as well as serve as resources for heritage tourism in the area. Additionally, their field studies will contribute to the museum’s website and help facilitate cultural conservation and community identity in Bellevue.
“Within that mile square block, there is a rich history of African American community that was self-sustaining and also it had an entrepreneur spirit about it during segregation as well,” Dennis said.
Dennis was inspired to open the museum by his father, U.S. Army Ret. Colonel William DeShields, who is an avid historian and longtime Bellevue resident. Dennis was spurred by his father’s passion to celebrate the accomplishments of Bellevue’s African American residents and workers. “We wanted to educate the public about the contributions of this small community,” said Dennis, a fourth generation Bellevue resident.
To donate to the 501(c)3 nonprofit via the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, click on https://bellevuepassagemuseum.org/get-involved. To donate artifacts, reach out to Dennis via https://bellevuepassagemuseum.org/contactus.
Recently, the Maryland Preservation Awards, presented annually by the Board of Trustees of the Maryland Historical Trust, were awarded. It is the highest level of recognition for historic preservation, heritage education, and community development projects in Maryland. The awards honor and celebrate significant achievements by individuals, businesses, contractors, non-profit organizations, local governments, and others who protect, promote, share, and give continued life to the historic places and cultural heritage that make Maryland unique. Since 1975, MHT has honored the outstanding preservation efforts of more than 280 individuals and projects throughout the state.
The 48th annual Maryland Preservation Awards for Outstanding Organizational Leadership at the Local Level went to Water’s Edge Museum, Bellevue Passage Museum, and UNESCO Middle Passage Marker.
The Water’s Edge Museum, Bellevue Passage Museum, and the UNESCO Middle Passage Marker showcase the full breadth of the American story in Oxford and Bellevue, with a focus on the founding Black families of Maryland, Black entrepreneurship and history in the region, and the context of the international slave trade. These three sites work together to give people an immersive experience, where they are empowered to discuss the past and the future in a safe space.