Diving With a Purpose: Resurrecting a Forgotten Maritime Heritage

Diving with Purpose survey
Diving With a Purpose training at the City of Washington Shipwreck

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Written by Erik Denson; edited by Mia L. Carey

The seas have always connected humanity,creating a rich maritime culture and history that spans millenniums. Maritime history tells stories of triumph and tragedy. Of the good, bad, and the ugly. Maritime heritage and archeology often elicits images of ancient Viking vessels, Spanish galleons of gold, the Titanic, and Blackbeard's flagship.

There is much more to our maritime heritage, some of which has been forgotten, ignored, or lost. The dark and tragic history, like the history of the African-slave trade and its contributions, have been overlooked and disregarded. Perhaps because it is not glamorous and there is no gold. Yet, thousands of ships from many countries participated in the slave trade. Many of these ships were lost at sea and have a story to tell. Who better to tell the stories then the descendants of those who fell victim to this tragic history.

In 2003, members of National Association for Black Scuba Divers (NABS) participated in the "Guerrero Project" documentary. The documentary centered on the search for the slave ship and its amazing story told through the book authored by Gail Swanson. The documentary also tells the story of treasure hunters and archeologists and their opposing views. In 2005, Kenneth Stewart of the Tennessee Aquatic Project (TAP) and the late Brenda Lanzendorf developed the Diving with a Purpose program. Lanzendorf was the only archeologist at Biscayne National Park at the time and was the "star" of the Guerrero Project documentary. The DWP was formed to help Lazendorf document shipwrecks in Biscayne. The park is the largest marine park in the National Parks systems. It contains over 110 archeological sites, of which 43 are intact shipwrecks. The Guerrero was wrecked on December 19, 1827 on a reef near Key Largo. It was carrying 561 enslaved Africans en route to Cuba. Forty-one of the captive Africans drowned. During two expeditions in 2010 and 2012, DWP removed pieces of ceramics and glass, an iron shot, and wood samples to examine. A composite site map was developed. Research on the ship wreck is on-going. The expedition was featured in the PBS "Changing Seas" documentary series episode "Sunken Stories".

DWP students
Youth Diving With a Purpose Participant

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To accurately tell this story and many others, individuals must be trained. They must be given the proper tools to perform research and document their work. Results of this labor should be used to educate the public and reach out to the community. The youth are the key to assuring maritime history and heritage is not neglected and forgotten. Developing youth programs to continue this legacy and prepare stewards of maritime heritage and natural resources is essential. We must develop youth programs to continue the legacy and develop stewards of maritime heritage and natural resources. The DWP program is one example of a program that accomplishes these goals. The Youth DWP program offers an opportunity to educate, enlighten, and stimulate young divers. It trains young people between 15 and 23. One such program accomplishes these goals, Diving With a Purpose (DWP) maritime archeology program.

The DWP Vision…
DWP is a leading international organization that provides education and training programs, mission leadership, and project support services for submerged heritage preservation and conservation projects worldwide with a focus on the African Diaspora.

The DWP Mission…
DWP is a community-focused nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources by providing education, training, certification and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archeology and ocean conservation. A special focus of DWP is the protection, documentation, and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African-Americans who formed a core of labor and expertise for America’s maritime enterprises.

DWP artifacts
Bottleneck from the site of the Guerrero

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The program now extends throughout the US and abroad. DWP recently assisted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). DWP and NOAA identified and mapped the steamship wrecks of the Hannah Bell & Acorn in Key Largo. The steamships wrecked in 1911 and 1885 respectively. In August 2015, members of DWP in cooperation with NOAA also documented a lost Tuskegee Airmen P-39 aircraft. The plane wrecked in Lake Huron. During WWII, Michigan was home to several African American air combat units. Many of these units graduated from the Tuskegee pilot training program. The Lake Huron wreck was flown by 2nd Lt. Frank H. Moody. It was discovered on April 11, 2014--seventy years to the day of the accident.

San Jose interactive display
San Jose interactive display at NMAAHC

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DWP has also partnered with George Washington University, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and South Africa’s Iziko Museums. Together the organizations formed the African Slave Wrecks Project. Areas of interest include wrecks located in South Africa, Senegal, Mozambique, the Virgin Islands, and Dry Tortugas. In 2015, DWP participated in the exploration and identification of the Sao Jose.

The Sao Jose Paquete Africa is a slave ship from the Kingdom of Portugal. It sank in 1794 off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Between 400 and 500 enslaved Africans died when the ship sank. The wreck was positively identified by the partnering team in 2015. In July 2016, artifacts from the shipwreck were brought to the U.S.. They are featured in the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the NMAAHC.

DWP receiving an award
DWP receiving the Take Pride in America National Award in Washington, D.C.

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During the journey, DWP has been recognized for its accomplishments and has received prestigious awards including the Take Pride In America National Award by the United States Department of Interior, Preserve America Steward Designation by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Chairman's Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Mack Community Engagement Award (2nd Place).

DWP logo

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Africans and their descendants have made an immeasurable contribution to the maritime heritage landscape. Keeping their story alive is a duty of their descendants. Through proper training, research, outreach, conservation, restoration and investing in our youth, we can accomplish this goal and Diving With a Purpose provides the foundation

DWP Program Coordinator - Kenneth Stewart,
DWP Lead Instructor - Erik Denson,
DWP Lead Instructor – Jay Haigler,
DWP Lead Instructor – Kamua Sadiki,
NABS Science Committee Chair – Dr. Jose’ Jones,

Last updated: September 28, 2017