Saturday, August 18, Chestertown celebrates Legacy Day – a community party where residents can recognize their shared history and have a good time while they do it! This year Legacy Day will honor students and teachers from the early years of integration in Kent County Public Schools in the 1960s.
This is the fifth annual Legacy Day, and the event has grown beyond its first celebration in 2014 in memory of the late Charlie Graves. Graves was the owner of the iconic Uptown Club, the Calvert Street venue that played host to the stars of rhythm-and-blues and soul music from the late 1940s until its closing at the end of the ‘80s. Its patrons got to see live performances by Ray Charles, James Brown, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, and a host of others – an incredible cultural treasure right here in Chestertown.
The original Legacy Day, in addition to dancing in the streets to live music, included historic displays related to the theme, and a parade down High Street. Since then, the celebration has expanded. Festivities this year begin on Friday evening with a reception for the honorees at Sumner Hall at 7:00 pm. Then on Saturday’s there’s a genealogy workshop from 10:00 am to noon at the Kent County Public Library and a a 2 p.m. gospel music concert at Janes United Methodist Church. The parade will begin Saturday at 5 p.m. The street party — on High between Cross and Spring next to Fountain Park – goes into high gear at 6 p.m. with live music by Soulfied Village and recorded sounds by Lonnie Butcher. Attendees are encouraged to bring a lawn chair to enjoy the festivities – there is only limited seating available. There will be food vendors on Park Row, and many of the classic cars taking part in the parade will be on display around the park afterward.
There is also a fascinating display at the Historical Society of Kent County on this year’s Legacy Day theme – “The Integration Experience in Kent County Schools.” This exhibit is the culmination of a year-long research project in which photos, artifacts, documents, and interviews of contemporaneous participants were gathered. The end result tells the history of school integration in Kent County. The exhibit can be seen at the society’s headquarters in the Bordley Center at the corner of High and Cross streets. The Bordley center will be open during Legacy Day. The window displays alone are worth browsing but be sure to duck inside to see the rest and get a copy of the booklet. After August the exhibit will move to Sumner Hall where it will join the current exhibit there of portraits by artist Shayne Davidson of African American soldiers in the American Civil War.
While the policy of integrated schools was laid down by the Supreme Court’s 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” decision, Kent County was late to respond to the court’s directive. It was not until 1963 that the first African-American student – Patricia Bryant, daughter of a minister – graduated from Chestertown High School (CHS). This lone integration “pioneer” spent her senior year as the only black student at the previously all-white Chestertown High School. Beginning with that first student, the tide of history was inexorable and over the next four years, more than 100 black students volunteered (or were encouraged by their parents) to attend white schools in the county. Then in 1967, the schools were finally fully integrated – one of the last systems in the country to do so. In September of that year, 1,068 black students joined 2,568 white students on the first day of school. Segregation, at long last, had ended.
The Legacy Day committee interviewed 23 of the students who took part in the integration experience, and the results are on view in the Historical Society exhibit. Not all who were contacted were willing to discuss this period of their life. Bryant, the first integration volunteer pioneer in 1963, declined to comment. The Historical Society has compiled a booklet summarizing the memories of the students who pioneered the experience. As the booklet notes, “The first experience of integration was more challenging and memorable for African American students than for most white students. This was particularly true for the pioneers, who were leaving behind familiar teachers and life-long friends for an unfamiliar environment where they were often the only black student in a class or perhaps one of two or three. Their experiences varied widely, but they all had stories to tell. “
One of them was Michelle Towson, who switched from Garnet Elementary School to Chestertown Elementary School (CES) in 1964 when she was in fourth grade. She credited her new teacher, Jean Tulip, with making the transition easier by greeting her with a hug on her first day of class. When Towson complained to Tulip about some of the other students calling her by racial epithets, the teacher used it as an opportunity to teach the class how wrong it was to talk about someone because of their race. Also, Towson recalled one of her white classmates, Nancy Chauvnet Bennington, asking her to walk home with her to Kingstown – resulting in a shocked look from Nancy’s mother as they entered her house. Towson, along with a fellow white student, Cheryl Hoppes, are the Grand Marshals of this year’s parade, Both were among the students in the first integrated classes in Kent County.
Others also had challenging experiences. Bobbie Brown and Judy Cann integrated a fourth-grade class at Chestertown Elementary in 1965, and both were subjected to racial insults not only by fellow students but by their teacher, whose name Brown did not reveal. On one occasion, Brown said, she told him she might have to “put a ring in your nose and send you back to Africa.”
Byron Johnson and Kenneth Walley, who were integration pioneers at CES, found a way to gain friends – and a degree of respect – through sports. Johnson, in sixth grade, became the first black member of the Rotary Little League baseball team, while fifth-grader Walley found that all his classmates wanted him on their teams because he was good at all sports.
After 1967, black students in the county schools were no longer lonely pioneers. In addition to black classmates, they had a number of black teachers.
Bill Leary, who wrote the Legacy Day report on integration, noted that “While most of the students I interviewed made friends across racial lines, there was little interracial socializing outside class and almost none outside school. Several noted the self-segregation of black and white students in the school cafeterias.”
And sometimes there was traumatic, even dangerous, experiences. On one occasion in 1972, Rellie Ringgold and Herbert Warren attended an interracial party in College Heights. Leary writes, “They had a good time, but as they and some black friends were leaving they were confronted by a white man with a shotgun” who told them to get out of the neighborhood and called them racial epithets. The next day, the man’s daughter apologized to them, but it’s easy to imagine how traumatic the experience must have been.
Looking back on the experience, many of the students had mixed feelings. Some of the black students interviewed by the Legacy Day committee said they felt their educational experience was better after the schools integrated, and many of the white students made friends with someone of another race for the first time. Others, as noted, had negative experiences of one kind or another. Almost all noted that they had had excellent teachers and had received a very good education at Garnet or one of the other black schools of the era. The Legacy Day committee is continuing to add information and interview participants from the day. If you or someone you know has information, photos documents, etc., please feel free to contact the Legacy Day committee via the Kent County Historical Society or the Sumner Hall GAR Post #25.
Be sure to pick up the booklet at the historical society for a fuller story . Many of the students who were interviewed will be present at the Legacy Day celebration. Come out and celebrate an important chapter in the history of Kent County.