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Black Women in Seafood: Deborah Pratt and Legacy as the Super Star of Oyster Schuckers

Black Women in Seafood: Deborah Pratt and Legacy as the Super Star of Oyster Schuckers

Earlier this year, Virginia State delegate Keith Hodges introduced Deborah Pratt to his House colleagues as the “Super Star of Oyster Shuckers.” On that day in February,The Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved House Resolution 320, which honored Pratt for being a world class oyster shucker. And she is indeed world-class. 

Deborah Pratt has placed 2nd and 3rd in international oyster shucking competitions, placed in national competitions and is a winner of the annual Urbanna Oyster Festival shucking competition in Virginia. She is the daughter of two shuckers who met in an oyster shucking house and the sister of a competitive shucker. In fact, over 40 years ago, it was her sister Clementine Macon Boyd who taught Pratt how to shuck. The two have worked together and competed against each other. 

FMIB 34897 Tonging Oysters, Working the Tongs on the Bottom.

Shucking is more than a fun pastime for Pratt, shucking oysters is her way of life, which has afforded her the ability to make a living as she also represented her profession, region and home state in festival competitions as an integral part of the Virginia seafood industry. 

Pratt was born in Middlesex County, Virginia. Considered the center of the state’s oyster country, Middlesex once thrived as a major seafood port, contributing to Virginia’s economy with domestic and international export sales. In the 18th and early 19th century, immigrants were oyster shuckers. Black men oyster shucked by the mid-1800s with Black women ultimately working in most oyster houses as shuckers. 

As noted in an earlier BSB article, “there were the women who also found financial independence as fish and shellfish vendors to packinghouses, shuckers and as cooks. Author Margaret C. Simms (Slipping Through the Cracks Status of Black Women 2017) noted that the men were harvesters and women shucked oysters. Harvesting was hard but shucking involved putting hands, digits and veins at risk to shuck fast to meet next-to-impossible quotas simply to earn a day’s wage. It’s no small wonder that two Black women, sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon Boyd from the Chesapeake region of Virginia, are world champion oyster shuckers.”

Oyster shucking has taken Deborah Pratt as far away as Galway, Ireland several times, where she competed against shuckers from other oyster ports around the world. During one such competition, she shucked over 200 oysters in two minutes. Her ability to “stab” oysters in a clean way has given her another spotlight as a sought after oyster shucking workshop instructor. 

Do you love oysters and want an opportunity to meet Deborah Pratt? The Virginia State Oyster Shucking Competition takes place during the Urbanna Oyster Festival, November 3-4, 2023. 

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Robin Caldwell

Robin Caldwell is the blogger behind freshandfriedhard.com and academic researcher focusing on Black history, heritage and culture. Public historian primarily in Black American historical foodways: antebellum and regional.

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Robin Caldwell

Robin Caldwell is the blogger behind freshandfriedhard.com and academic researcher focusing on Black history, heritage and culture. Public historian primarily in Black American historical foodways: antebellum and regional.

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