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It was the early 1940s, when 12-year-old Charles “Bob” Martin, a Washington, D.C., kid who had always loved the water, decided to try to rent a boat. So he headed down to the waterfront to ask about the cost. A white man working there told him it would cost $5 to reserve a rowboat, plus a quarter for every hour on the water.
The next week Martin headed back to the waterfront with money he’d cobbled together from his job at a local pharmacy. He saw the same man with the boats for rent.
What happened next remains seared into his memory.
“This man broke my heart,” he said. “I said, ‘I got the quarter,’ and the man looked at me, and I’m quoting him now. He says: 'I don’t know why you keep running around down here to rent a boat, because we do not rent these boats to no — the n-word — so you can just leave here and just not even come back.’ ”
The encounter broke Martin’s heart. But not his resolve. “I’m going home crying to my mom,” Martin remembers. “I said 'Mom, I’m gonna get me a boat.’ ”
Around that same time, just upriver from where Martin was turned away, Lewis T. Green, a shop teacher at a D.C. high school, was trying to create a boat club for himself and other black boaters in the city. Green asked federal officials for permission to use land for his fledgling group, but didn’t have much luck. He eventually got the attention of the philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune, who in turn contacted her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then-first lady of the United States. Soon enough, the Interior Department allowed Green the use of a small plot by the railroad tracks near the Anacostia River. It’s where Seafarers Boat Club — now Seafarers Yacht Club — began and where it still stands.