For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain, and crew, to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers. Shucking in particular provided many employment opportunities for African Americans throughout the Chesapeake region. Sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon Boyd, whose parents met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, are two of the top shuckers in the world, each capable of deftly opening two dozen oysters in less than three minutes.
Though the oyster industry has declined since the mid-1990s, shucking remains a highly competitive sport. Deborah and Clementine have each won the prestigious Virginia Oyster Shucking Competition, held annually at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, and the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where they earned the right to compete in the International Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland. The two sisters have battled it out in five epic contests on the Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival, with Clementine pulling off the upset in the first match, Deborah taking the next three, and Clementine winning the fifth.