August 18 and 19, the Historical Society of Kent County presents its fourth annual Legacy Day celebration of “Community, History and Culture.”
This year’s celebration recognizes the role of African American education and teachers in Kent County before the schools were integrated in 1967. As part of the celebration, members of the Historical Society contacted as many of the former teachers as they could, compiling a fascinating narrative of the history of Kent County Education more than 50 years ago. The results of their research were the foundation for the Historical Society’s “History Happy Hour” on August 4, and are summarized in an article by Bill Leary, available at the Historical Society’s Bordley Center at the corner of High and Cross streets in Chestertown. Come by and pick one up during Legacy Day.
The article goes well back into the early days of African American schools in the county, which were established in 1872, in response to a state law passed earlier that year. There were originally five schools for black children; however, as Leary notes, the black community had established a number of private schools before that date. By 1930, there were 22 schools for black students, many of them one- or two-room schools without plumbing or electricity. In 1916, the original Garnet Elementary School opened on College Avenue in Chestertown, across from Bethel A.M.E. Church. It became Garnet High School in 1923. In 1950, a new building was constructed across the street, next to Bethel Church, and was Kent County’s only African American high school until 1967, when all schools were integrated. Garnet then became an integrated elementary school while both black and white students attended Chestertown High School.
Legendary Garnet principal Elmer T. Hawkins set the tone for education in the black community. Hawkins, a graduate of Morgan State College, served as Garnet’s principal for 41 of the 44 years that the building served as the high school for Kent County’s African-American students. After integration in 1967, he served as the principal of the integrated Chestertown Middle School until his death in 1973.
Leary’s article drew on interviews from a number of retired teachers and their students and families to give a detailed picture of the place of the schools in the black community during the segregation era. Many of those teachers have agreed to return, several from as far away as Georgia, to take part in this year’s Legacy Day commemoration, which will include a reception honoring their contributions at Sumner Hall at 7 p.m. Friday, August 18.
The teachers will also ride in the Legacy Day parade at 5 p.m. Saturday, traveling a route from the Dixon Valve parking lot to Fountain Park, where the main celebration, including a concert and street dance, will take place. One of the teachers, Lauretta Freeman, grand marshal of the parade, is quoted widely in Leary’s article.
Master of Ceremonies for Legacy Day is Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver. Live music will be provided by Soulfied Village, with local band members Devone “Tweety” Comegys and Courtney McCloria Parson. Soulfied Village features songs of the Motown Era. T music begins at 6 p.m. and there will be a DJ during band breaks to ensure continuous music. Dancing in the streets is encouraged! Or bring a lawn chair and sit back and enjoy the festivities. High Street will be closed off between Cross and Spring Streets, and there will be vendors offering food and drinks, including a beer truck sponsored by the Historical Society.
There will be two additional Legacy Day activities earlier Saturday. A genealogy workshop at Kent County Public Library at 10 a.m. will give anyone interested in tracing family history the tools for doing their own research. The workshop will be conducted by Jeanette Sherbondy and Amanda Tuttle-Smith of the Historical Society. The workshop, like all Legacy Day activities, is free and open to all.
Saturday afternoon, at Janes United Methodist Church, on the corner of Cross and Cannon streets, there will be a concert by the Men’s Choir of Janes Church, honoring the African American teachers in song. The concert is from 1 to 3 p.m.
During the Legacy Day activities, the Bordley Center – on High Street at the intersection with Cross Street – will be open for visitors to view the displays created by the Historical Society. There will also be a silent auction with proceeds benefitting the Historical Society’s Legacy Day fund.
In just four years, Legacy Day has become one of Chestertown’s most popular events, attracting visitors – many of whom are returning home to honor their community’s history and culture – from the entire region. Add on the chance to dance away a summer night to live music, and you’ve got a sure-fire way to enjoy an evening.