The legendary crab picker of Belhaven


Hidden on the back roads between Bath and Swan Quarter, Belhaven seems to float on the intersection of Pantego Creek and Pungo River. Driving to Goldring Satchell’s home near downtown feels like a journey that’s a hair below sea level.

The town’s location where those two formidable waterways meet made it the perfect spot for commercial fishing and seafood processing ventures. From its founding in 1705, Belhaven seafood businesses were central to the town’s economy. And Satchell, 91, was one Belhaven’s most legendary crab pickers.

Satchell could pick crabs so quickly and cleanly that she was a shoo-in to win the town’s long-ago crab picking contest. But crab picking was no game for Satchell. It was a career that helped her give her 11 children a better life than she had growing up and provided money to send all 11 of them to college.


This story is party of NC Catch’s “Recognizing African American Participation in the North Carolina Seafood Industry” project. North Carolina’s Black seafood business community has partnered with researchers in this historic project conceived by NC Catch to build understanding of the vital role African Americans and people of color play in the state’s seafood industry. Narratives, video and oral histories tell the stories of Black fishers, wholesalers, chefs and others working in seafood. A N.C. Sea Grant 2024 Community Collaborative Research Grant has helped fund the project.


Life in Belhaven was not easy for a young Satchell and her three siblings. In the 1920s, the town’s fishing industry grew tremendously, hosting America’s largest crab processing facility employing 225 workers and six fishing boats. Satchell was born in the early 1930s, when The Great Depression closed some of Belhaven’s major industries, including lumber. 

The town struggled through, but crab, fish and oyster industries continued to thrive and by the 1940s, World War II impacted the town’s economy in a positive way, with the seafood industry experiencing expansion due to military food supply orders. Around that time, Satchell started picking crabs as a young girl to help her family make ends meet and continued the work after she was married at age 20.

Satchell shared her experience as a crab picker in an interview with NC Catch’s “Recognizing African American Participation in the North Carolina Seafood Industry” project team. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you learn to pick crabs?

Well, let's start off with the claws first. Girl named Lilly Bell, lived in my same neighborhood. She took a stake, and she said go like this, hit the crab claw. She said you take your knife. You hit this end and break it off. She said, if you pull it out, that would be your meat. Pull the meat out from the claw. That's the way I learned how to crack claws.

Did you start working at the crab house after high school?

I didn't have decent clothes to wear to school. So, I went long as I thought I could with what I did have. I went up to the eighth, graduated to the ninth, and I stopped. I didn't go back. I went into the crab house. Worked a job in the crab house cracking claws. I cracked claws so long, Julia May and Mary Willie — one of them called me ‘Baby,’ one called me ‘Goldring — said, ‘I'm gonna learn you how to pick crabs. You done cracked claws long enough. You need to pick crab.’ And for certain, they did learn me how to pick crabs. So, they come to me and showed me how to pull the back off. Take the dead mans (gills) off. Then cut their legs off. Then cut the top off and then take the lump (meat) out. Then pick the regular out. And that's the way they learned me. And so, from then to when the crab house closed down, I picked crabs.

In the same crab house?

Yes, yes. Yes. Belhaven Fish and Oyster. I went down to Gull Rock with Miss Charity Green; she was getting people in Belhaven to go down to Gull Rock to pick crabs. So, I went down there a time or two, in Hyde County.

Can you walk us through a typical day of work for you at the crab house?

When they had a lot of crabs, we went in 5 o'clock. Be there by five o'clock in the morning. And if we just had a few, we would go in about 7. Get off sometimes by 12 (noon). Sometimes 1 (p.m.). Sometimes we will pick them all out. And sometimes we wouldn't. Just have some left for the next day.

We had to wear white. Anything white, and especially a white top. But the bottom could be any color. But the top had to be white.

The boats come up to the dock and unload. And then we had trucks bringing crabs in.

We had four tables over there, they were claw crackers. And these two tables here were for crab pickers. And so, each side, see, it was a table. People on both sides. I'm quite sure we had 60 head of people who picked crabs in there.

You had your (own) knife. And also, we used to save the (crab) egg (for the crab house to sell separately). We sit with a container in our lap, a can for trash, can for the claws. And we picked the crab. Put the claws in the can. Put the legs, dead men and all that in the can. Two cans, one for the trash, one for the claws. Then we had boys to come in to dump the cans. You had a place made in the wall running outside of what you would call a belt. He would dump that trash in there and that belt would pull it on out. Down on the other end, to the man that was burning it up.

Did any of the women get hurt while picking crabs?

Yeah, sometimes they will stick their finger with a crab…piled up on the table, especially when you go to reach for them…you might would stick a back up your finger nail. And that was trouble there. But if you would mash it and mash it and mash it, and go and run hot water over it, it might would not fess (fester) up. But if you didn't, it will fess up, and that's a doctor bill there. You got to go to have it lanced. You can see one stuck right there (points to finger)! And I had to go ahead and have it lanced. Swoll great big. Great big! Big! Great big. Hurt so bad.

Did the company pay your doctor bill?

I had to pay it myself. No, we had no insurance.

Did pickers tell stories, sing to help the workday along?

Yes, they sang songs, sometimes, Christian religious songs. Gospel. Some of them ladies could really sing. I loved for them to breakout and start singing. It really helped me. It sure did. Sometimes girls would come to the door and stand and listen to them sing.

Were the pickers all African American women?

No, no, we had some white in there with us. Men were in there, but not picking crabs. I think they were ashamed (to pick crabs). Even if they knew how to pick crab, I think they were ashamed. Picking crabs with a bunch of women.

Crab picking was seen as women's work?

Yes, yes. Yes. Now the boys did crack claws. But they didn't pick crabs.

Did you have your name on your uniform?

My number was 32. That would go with my number, 32. We would pick (crab) and put it in cups. Sometimes I would carry up 15 pounds. Take it to the window, to lady up there in the window weighing the meat. I carried it up there and she would weigh it. She had a book with ‘32’ in it. And she will put my pounds to 32.

Do you think they were always fair?

Yeah, yeah, I do. Now, you take (one supervisor). He would take meat, and I caught him. When I went up there with my meat — we put 2 pounds in a pot and (the scale operator would) dump it in a bag. Well, when I went up there, he took one of my pots off and dumped it in the bag before he started weighing my meat. I told the ladies about what he was doing, that they ought to stand up there and watch him because he was taking meat because I looked right at him. I had 15 pounds; he was gonna give me 13! I told him ‘No! You dumped 2 pounds before you started weighing.’ So, he didn't say nothing. He gave it to me.

Would the other pickers speak up, too, if something like that happened to them?

I’ll tell you like this. I told them, you ought to stand up there when he weighed their meat, 'cause he would take their meat. But they didn't do it. A lot of them didn't do it. What they were thinking. I don't know. I don't know. But I told the truth. He took 2 pounds from me. But I let him know.

Do you remember what you would get paid?

Lord, I certainly can't cause back then they were 2 or 3 cents a pound. Crab pickers, they got about 5 cents a pound. Yeah, it were real cheap back in that day. Yeah, but everything was cheap. And that little bit of money, we could buy a lot with it. Because everything were cheap back in that day.

Was picking crabs hard work?

No, no, it's not hard picking crabs. Or cracking claws. Easy job.

Because crab fishing is seasonal, the crab house wasn’t always open. How many months a year did you go on unemployment while it was closed?

Satchell said pickers worked April, May, June, July, August, September, October and November. The crab house was closed in December, January, February and March.

When you started did you have any idea that you would spend your whole career picking crabs?

Yes. I felt like I would. And I did. Making a living working to the crab house, making a living. I loved it.

While you were working, did you feel like there was any bias against you for the color of your skin?

Everybody treated me nice…Black and white. But the Black ladies inside the factory were jealous. I was a fast crab picker. They were jealous of me being a fast crab picker.

The faster you picked, the more money you made. How fast were you?

Well, I really don't know how fast I work. But I was fast.

Do you remember the crab picking contest that used to happen in Belhaven?

Yes. Fourth of July. Right in the crab house. The boys would pull the (crab) backs off to make it easier for you. You had about 15, 20 minutes to pick your meat. The one that pick the best, cleanest meat, she's the one that got the hundred dollars. They asked me (to enter). But I told them it would be against my religion. I don't want to gamble. You are gambling and trying to win money.

I really didn't go down during the time they were picking, but I could hear people talking about it was so much fun to go down there and look at them pick the crab. Lord have mercy, lot of folks said, ‘If I worked there, I would eat my meat! I wouldn't have nothing to weigh up!’ But I didn't.

Lot of folks (who’d come to the crab house to see) us picking, they'd want to eat the meat! They'd say, ‘Don't you eat no meat?’ and I'd say ‘No! No! I got to weigh that up and make some money!’

Living in Belhaven, right by the water, do you to this day get all the seafood you want?

No, no. All the fish houses, crab houses we had in Belhaven is done away with. You can go to Washington and buy crabs and fish. But Belhaven has done away with it. Julia May (a former crab house co-worker) used to tell me, ‘Baby, I don't think we gonna never get rid of crab houses.’ When all of them got gone she was surprised. Because she felt that Bellhaven would always have a crab house. And they're all gone.

NC Catch chair Barbara Garrity-Blake and journalist Liz Biro contributed to this report. Photos by Liz Biro.


NC Catch chair Barbara Garrity-Blake and journalist Liz Biro contributed to this report.

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