The Journey by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Last week, my wife and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in Chestertown. I know that’s a drop in the historical bucket around here and that many Kent County families have roots going back several generations, but even so, we feel we have a stake in the game. We have gotten to know a lot of good people in and around Chestertown, but we still have a lot to learn about the history of this place. Since February is Black History Month, I thought it might be a good time to learn more about our town’s racial journey.

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 8.11.15 AMKent County is the smallest county in Maryland. According to the 2010 census, just over 20,000 people live here and about 15% of that population identify as African American. If my math is remotely accurate, that’s more than 3,000 people of color living between the Sassafras and Chester Rivers. (By way of comparison, the African American population of Queen Anne’s County is roughly 7% of that county’s population; in Cecil County, our northern neighbor, African Americans make up just over 6% of the population. While some of that disparity is likely the result of “infill” by white retirees to Queen Anne’s County and an influx of white munitions workers from West Virginia into Cecil County in the aftermath of World War I, nevertheless, the current disparity in the respective percentages of African Americans living in these three counties is notable.)

At the turn of the 20th Century, African American life in Chestertown centered around the waterfront, primarily on South Water Street, Cannon Street (where I live today), and Scott’s Point. That’s where the jobs for African Americans were—in sawmills, canneries, a fertilizer plant, a basket factory, and even an ice cream parlor owned by an African American woman. Further up Cannon Street, there were two barber shops, a beauty salon, a convenience store, a restaurant, an electrical shop, a tavern, a candy store, and a gas station all owned and operated by African Americans. Sumner Hall, one of only two existing African American G.A.R. buildings in the United States, still stands around the corner on Queen Street; it was built by black Civil War veterans, many of whom were former slaves. Recently restored by a group of private benefactors, it contains a small museum as well as educational and entertainment space. Janes United Methodist Church, at the corner of Cross and Cannon Streets, was founded in 1831 and along with Bethel A.M.E. church, still ministers to many African Americans today. And remember the Uptown Club, Charlie Graves’ dance hall at the corner of Calvert and College Avenues? In its heyday, it hosted the likes of B.B. King, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, and Otis Redding. Sadly, the building fell into disrepair in the 1980s and was eventually razed as part of an affordable housing initiative.

Despite the significance and size of the African American population in Kent County today, it’s important to remember that Jim Crow is not long gone. The Lyceum, grandaddy of The Garfield Theater, had a separate entrance, separate stairway, and back-of-the-balcony-only seating for African Americans until the early 1960s. H. Rap Brown, Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, made an incendiary speech in Chestertown in 1967, speaking from the hood of a car at the corner of High and Cross Streets. (Brown was on his way to Cambridge, scene of bad rioting. A police tape of his speech helped convert Spiro Agnew, then Governor of Maryland, into the harsh conservative who would become Richard Nixon’s running mate a year later. Rap Brown was eventually indicted in Dorchester County for incitement to riot, but his trial had to be moved off the Eastern Shore.) Kent County High School was among the last high schools in Maryland to desegregate. (Part of the reason for the delay was the construction of the new high school in Worton which opened in 1969; the county’s elementary and middle schools were integrated a few years earlier.)

Things, thankfully, have changed since then and they will continue to change. Progress is sometimes a slow dance: two steps forward, an occasional step back. But no doubt about it: we’ve come a long way. The public school system is fully integrated and students and faculties at all levels work productively together every day. The same kind of collaboration is evident in other enterprises and services in town. The arts bring a lot of folks together: the annual Jazz Festival in Wilmer Park and the Blues Concert Series at The Garfield are supported and enjoyed by everyone.

While it’s surely important to remember the past, it’s more important to envision a bright future. Some journeys are short; others take a little longer. Ours is on-going. As Arthur Ashe knew full well, “Success is not a destination; the doing is often more important than the outcome.”

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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Letters to Editor

  1. Jamie, thanks for reminding people that we all have a stake in this hovel we call home. Still, as this short walk down history lane is well intentioned and knowing you personally it was written withe heart of a man that truly cares about our community. Black history month is every month, we as a nation have tendency to forget that one very salient point. America was and still is empowered by outliers, immigrants, both legal and non-legal, black folks, asians and the LGBT community as well. We all tend to forget that exceptionalism is in all of us, our issues as a nation, for black people especially in Kent County has never been acknowledged, a sorry, is a way to move past the past indignities of the county. As our nation is experiencing a new identity, of who we thought we were and what we are seeing as who we really are, at times very divisive because we have forgot the humanity and empathy that makes a great county a great state and a great country. Your piece is excellent, but it begs the question at least for me, for a deeper analysis of why Chestertown hasn’t had a town hall meeting of who we were and how do we move forward in a more positive light beyond the circus of beltway politics? Hope my opinions open ways to discuss this in a positive and progressive way?

  2. Patricia Nelson says:

    Thank you for this fascinating article. As an alum of Chestertown High School, class of 1971, I would like to add to the details on school desegregation. Kent County High School opened in September 1971. Chestertown High School was fully integrated in Septenber 1967.

    Sincerely,
    Patti Hickman Nelson

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