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A production of the Southern Foodways Alliance, GRAVY tells new and complicated stories about the changing American South.

Dec 14, 2022

In “The Gulf’s Last Generation of Black Oystermen?” Gravy producer Kayla Stewart takes listeners to south Louisiana, where Black men have played a key role in the region’s oyster industry—and where today, they are few and far between. Stewart speaks to one of the area’s last Black oystermen about how we got here, and what this means for the future of south Louisiana’s oystering culture. 

Black men have played a key role in Louisiana's oyster industry since the 18th century. During enslavement, they would oyster for their slave owners, and those white slave owners kept the profits from their hard work. After enslavement, Black men in Louisiana and across the South continued to play a key role in the industry. But some of their white counterparts, feeling threatened by the new competition, took steps to limit their success. They implemented laws supposedly set to protect the environment and created a more industrialized industry that requires new, expensive equipment. Over time, it became increasingly difficult for Black men to make a living in the industry. 

Many still found ways to survive and thrive, such as Byron Encalade, who has spent his professional life on the water. A resident of Belle Chasse, a town a little over an hour from New Orleans, he descends from a long line of Black men who oystered for a living. Encalade has raised several children, been an active community member, ran his own business—Encalade Fisheries—and even taught his nephews the oystering trade. But today, Byron says that his generation is likely the last generation of Black oystermen to maintain a dominant presence in Louisiana's oystering industry. Issues like racism, rising costs, and environmental challenges have plagued the industry in the last decade, making it nearly impossible for Black men to continue working in the field.

In this Gravy episode, Stewart speaks to Encalade about the changes he has seen over the course of his career, and the legacy and knowledge lost when Black men lose access to the oyster industry. Imani Black, founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Minorities in Aquaculture, discusses the historical involvement and participation of African Americans in commercial fisheries, and how racist practices—from pricing to technological change and access to funding—have kept Black people from participating. Finally, Stewart interviews Katrina Williams, a special programs coordinator at Coastal Community Consulting, a nonprofit designed to assist Louisiana’s fishermen. Together, they explore what it means if Encalade and his peers are the last group of oystermen on Louisiana’s coast.