Lewis Hine caption: A young oyster fisher [?] Others smaller employed in busy season. Apalachicola, Fla. Randsey Summerford says he starts out at 4 A.M. one day, is out all night in the little oyster boat and back next day some time. Gets a share of the proceeds. Said he was 16 years old and been at it 4 years. Lives in Georgia and is here 6 months a year. Location: Apalachicola, Florida, January 1909.
Some people seem to walk through history under cover of darkness, their footsteps seldom heard, their journey seldom noticed. That appeared to be Ramsey’s fate, since I could find very little about him, despite many months of research. It’s too bad, because his photograph is a curious one. He is the only white person in the crew. All seven of the others are African-Americans. I wonder what their relationship was, and what Ramsey thought about it.
In one of Hine’s 1913 photos of oyster shuckers in Bluffton, South Carolina, the caption says in part: “Canning factory showing a 7-year old girl who shucks 3 pots of oysters a day. She works regularly, and her 6-year old brother who helps some. Several others here under 12 years, but there were more last month. Mostly negro workers. The boss said, ‘We keep only enough whites so we can control the negroes and keep them agoing!'”
That doesn’t look like the case in this photo. Young Ramsey hardly appears in charge.
In The Oyster Industry, a book by Ernest Ingersoll, published by the United States Census Office in 1881, the author describes oyster fishing in Apalachicola, 28 years before Ramsey was photographed while engaged in the same trade.
“This neighborhood has been highly favored with a large number of beds furnishing oysters of large size and fine flavor, which are easily procured and distributed by means of river steamers from Apalachicola, through a wide area inland. Besides a number of large reefs in Saint George and Saint Vincent sounds and Apalachicola bay, there are scattered all through the deeper waters a great many small beds. The depth of water here averages 7 feet, and it is brackish and full of sediment. The oysters from these beds are of superior flavor; I found none better in any part of the Gulf during my visit in 1881.”
“The reefs, or beds, are only an hour’s sail from town; therefore the outfits or preparations for a trip need not be very great. When the tide is high the boat anchors over a bed, on which there is from 5 to 10 feet of water, and both men use tongs to bring up the oysters with. As each tongful comes up, the worthless ones are culled out and the good ones are thrown into the hold. The tongs in use here are made of iron, some galvanized and some not, in the same shape as those used on the Chesapeake (Bay). With these tongs, on a spot where the oysters are abundant, and need but little culling, two men can put 50 barrels of good oysters into the hold in one day.”
“If the tide is very low, as is the case during ‘northers,’ the boat is run aground on an oyster-reef, a gangway-plank is placed over the side, and the oysters are picked up by hand and carried aboard in tubs. Oystering in this manner is said to be harder and slower work than tonging them. When the boat is loaded she goes to town, and if there be a steamboat there, the oysters are turned over to the dealer on board of her; if not, they are not delivered until one does come. The oysters sell for 50 to 75 cents per barrel, all ready for shipment, that is, in barrels and covered with gunny sack at the top; but the oystermen seldom get barrels or sacks, which have to be furnished by the dealer, at the rate of 10 cents for sacks and 20 cents for barrels, leaving the oysterman but 20, 30, or 45 cents per barrel for the oysters. It sometimes happens that barrels cannot be bought for any price in Apalachicola, and immense quantities of oysters must either be thrown away or lie over until barrels can be brought from neighboring towns. There are four steamboats running on this river in the winter, two of which carry the mail; but it frequently happens that the mail is not received here for two or three weeks, and large amounts of oysters and fish have to be thrown away in consequence. A few vessel-loads of oysters are taken to Saint Mark during the winter, but it is a trade of not much consequence. The shipping season lasts from November to April.”
Lewis Hine caption: Boy shucking oysters, he helped to catch. A few young boys are employed on the oyster boats and to shuck them but times are slack now. Apalachicola, Fla. Witness, Sara R. Hine. Jan. 25, 1909. Location: Apalachicola, Florida.
So what did I manage to learn about Ramsey?
I found a family history website that gave me some valuable information about Ramsey’s ancestry, most of which was confirmed by common government documents.
Leslie Loranzie Summerford, later known as Ramsey (or Ransey) Summerford, was born in Bluffton, Georgia, April 5, 1894 (some records say 1893). His father was Andrew Jackson Summerford, who was born in Bluffton in 1855. His family came to the US (South Carolina) from Scotland, probably in the late 1700s. Andrew married Margarette Catherine Nance on March 3, 1879. She was born in Bluffton, in 1853. Andrew died between 1900 and 1910, since he is in the 1900 census, but his wife is listed as a widow in the 1910 census. Margarette, known as Kate according to her obituary, died in Rock Bluff, Florida, on July 5, 1932.
In the 1910, 1920 and 1930 US census, and in the 1935 and 1945 Florida census, Ramsey is listed as living in Apalachicola, and is either as an oysterman, fisherman or laborer (1945). He served in the army for six years, part of the time during World War I. There is no record that he married or had any children. He died March 20, 1971. His last residence was Bristol, Florida. He is buried in Sycamore Cemetery in Greensboro, Gadsden County, Florida, where his mother is also buried.
I was unable to locate an obituary for him. I placed an article in both the Gadsden County, and the Apalachicola newspapers, asking if anyone remembered him. I received one reply. The person advised me to contact a city official in Gadsden County whose last name is Summerford, who might be related. I called Mr. Summerford, and he told me that he had never heard of Ramsey, that he might be related, but that had no idea how he could find out. Though it seems futile now, the search goes on.
*Story published in 2009.