A full-day dedication ceremony for the Charles Sumner Post #25 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) on Queen Street showcased a dozen musical acts, poetry, Civil War reenactors, tributes, a march to place a wreath in Memorial Park and an official ribbon cutting on the steps of the beautifully restored building on Queen St. The ceremony marked the culmination of a decade-long mission to save and restore one of the last buildings of its kind in the US and to make it a landmark educational museum and cultural center honoring Chestertown’s cultural diversity.
The morning started with the roar of Harleys as more than 50 Buffalo Soldier Motorcycle Club members from Central, Maryland thundered into town to attend and help host the special event. The club members, one of 90 chapters nationwide, are dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, segregated Army units created after the Civil War and noted for fighting in Western campaigns. They were preceded by the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops (USCT) depicted in the movie, “Glory.”
Up until several years ago, the GAR. building had been abandoned and in severe disrepair. Also known as Centennial Hall, the building on Queen Street was built in 1909 by Civil War veterans US Colored Troops as a meeting place, although the original Charles Sumner Post was established in 1882. For 60 years the structure was a centerpiece for the African American community in Chestertown and served as a hub for social, entertainment and educational events. It is said that Ella Fitzgerald once sang there.
The building was originally saved from continued deterioration by a group of local concerned citizens, Preservation, Inc., in 2001. Almost nine years later the GAR. building was purchased by the Kent County Arts Council in partnership with the non-profit group, GAR Post No. 25, Inc. Leslie Raimond, Executive Director of Kent County Arts Council, has been instrumental in coordinating interested parties, funding organizations on local and state levels.
At noon, soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts and the Kent County Middle School drum corps led the everyone from the G.A.R. building to Memorial Park for a ceremonial wreath laying to honor the USCT (US Colored Troops). The Rev. Clarence Hawkins officiated.
The GAR. building, now with a second floor staging area, will continue its mission to celebrate the history of African American soldiers as a museum, education and performance venue under the artistic guidance of Washington College creative writing and drama professor, Robert Earl Price. Price also read his poetry as part of the dedication and introduction to keynote speaker Dr. Clara Small. (The poems appear in today’s Spy Poetry in Our Times section.)
The official dedication and ribbon cutting took place at 4 PM. Here, Leslie Raimond introduces the Mayor.
Grey skies did not subdue the celebration. Gospel music and jazz, the signature scent of crab cakes and barbecue and a daylong throng of visitors carried the celebration into an early evening of cool jazz by the Vaughn Bratcher Project and ending with a crescendo of the 100 Voice Choir.
To find out more about the Charles Sumner Post, go to the Kent County Arts Council website here.