Backman family vows to carry on Backman’s Seafood in wake of patriarch’s death

A television crew in December 2013 shoots Giovanni Richardson (from left), Benjamin Dennis IV, Jonathan Green, Annie Sibonney and Thomas Backman Jr. eating together at the edge of the marsh at Backman Seafood on James Island for a “One Night Stand With Annie Sibonney” episode.

Members of the Backman family plan to honor the legacy of late Backman’s Seafood president Thomas Backman, Jr. by returning the Sol Legare institution’s boats to shrimping waters.

Backman, Jr. died of a stroke on Friday. He was 76.

“We are letting the business operate as it should while we take a moment to mourn and recognize our family’s death,” says Backman’s niece, Giovanni Richardson. “But moving forward, we hopefully can (realize) the dream we have of reactivating the fleet. We look forward to seeing Backman’s turn 100.”

Thomas Backman, whose grandparents were enslaved on James Island, started fishing the Stono River with his wife Susie in 1944. By the 1950s, they’d purchased a trawler and opened Backman Seafood Company on Sol Legare Road. According to Richardson, uncooperative bankers and local officials kept the business from becoming licensed until 1961.

“It was during a time when it was very difficult for a black-owned business to be fully operational,” she says. “You had to take into consideration all the hidden traps and legal problems that will plague you because of the color of your skin.”

The elder Backman died in 1964. Under Susie Backman’s leadership, the company expanded to include six trawlers and 20 employees, but the outfit’s fortunes turned following Hurricane Hugo. The family again faced problems acquiring loans and insurance payouts, hindering the repair of its damaged fleet.

After Thomas Backman, Jr. took over the presidency in 1990, he was also forced to deal with land developers, declining shrimp prices and the rising cost of fuel. For much of the last decade, Backman’s has bought seafood from independent fishermen rather than operate its own boats.

“Uncle Bob’s boat is actually ready to rock and roll,” Richardson says of the Backman Enterprise, bobbing behind the seafood market. “It’s just we need to look for a captain and fuel it.”

Richardson says Backman, Jr. was an active participant in discussions about Backman’s Seafood’s future, and supported plans for a new marketing strategy. “He envisioned getting the fleet back like his mother and father had,” she says.

Growing up in the seafood business, Backman, Jr. learned as a young boy how to fix nets, make fishing poles and take the heads off shrimp. He was strong proponent of Gullah Geechee traditions, including storytelling, an art he practiced at Backman’s Seafood. “He always liked to talk, and he would put a smile on your face before you leave,” Richardson says. She recalls her uncle as a pragmatic and generous community leader.

“He was straightforward and honest, and that’s what I liked and respected about him,” she says. “He wouldn’t tell me no lie.”

Robert Barber, owner of Bowen’s Island Restaurant, worked closely with Backman, Jr.; their families’ professional relationship dates back decades. “Junior was just a kind, spiritual man, who was didn’t mind working hard,” he says. “He made James Island a better place.”

Backman, Jr. had suffered one previous stroke, but Richardson said he recovered well. He went to work the day he died. As he told a City Paper reporter in 2012, “I won’t retire until I’m dead or get sick.”

Funeral services for Backman, Jr. will be held at First Baptist Church of James Island on Saturday at 11 a.m.

“People are welcome to come, and if anybody wants to know, we do a typical Gullah celebration that takes the whole week,” Richardson says. The family celebration culminates the night before the funeral with a feast featuring Frogmore stew (“the traditional Frogmore stew, not the crab boil”); Mulligan stew; fried fish and, possibly, roasted deer and pig cooked in an underground pit. “It all depends on how they’re feeling,” Richardson says of the cooks.