At its regular luncheon meeting Tuesday, March 12, the Chestertown Rotary Club awarded Sumner Hall G.A.R. Post 25 the Dr. Paul Titsworth Service Award for 2019. The award is named for the former Washington College president who was one of the founding members of the Rotary Club in Chestertown.
The ceremonies were held in Sumner Hall, one of the last two remaining posts of the Grand Army of the Republic founded for and by black veterans of the Civil War. The Chestertown chapter of the G.A.R. was founded in 1882. The hall, built in 1908, was named for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874), a prominent opponent of slavery. It was an important social center for the local African American community for 60 years.
After the death of the last local black Civil War veterans in 1928, the building continued to serve as a gathering place, at one point hosting musical acts such as the Chick Webb band with a young Ella Fitzgerald on vocals, and the “all-girl” band, the Sweethearts of Rhythm.
The building fell into disrepair in the 1970s and deteriorated until the 1990s. It was scheduled for demolition until a group of preservationists entered into a campaign to restore it. The building was reopened in 2014 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the award ceremony, Rotary president John Murray introduced Vic Sensenig, Washington College chief of staff, who gave a brief summary of Titsworth’s career at the college and as a Rotary founder in 1926. Titsworth came to Washington College in 1923 and served as president for 10 years. He is credited with transforming the college from a small local school to a recognized regional institution, increasing enrollment and raising academic standards. Sensenig quoted from an address Titsworth gave at graduation in 1931, in which he exhorted the students to dedicate themselves to community service, which he characterized as “a fine art.”
Rotarian Garret Falcone then gave a history of the service award, which is in its second year. The initial award was given in 2018 to the Save Our Hospital committee. Falcone then read from the nomination for Sumner Hall’s award, noting that it has become a “showcase for African American history and arts.” He cited Sumner Hall’s partnership with local institutions including the college and the public schools, the Kent County Library and the Historical Society to educate the public on the important contributions of African Americans to the community.
The award was then presented to Sumner Hall president Larry Wilson and 2nd vice president Barbara Foster. Wilson thanked everyone who attended the ceremony and invited them to return for other events and exhibits. He gave a brief history of the G.A.R. post, citing several of the founders and detailing its history of community service after the death of the Civil War veterans. He ended by quoting Sumner Hall’s mission, to preserve the building as “a place of remembrance,” to promote understanding of the African American experience, to honor the contributions of African American veterans, “to promote the pursuit of liberty for all, and to advocate for social justice.”
Foster described Sumner Hall as “a very special place,” with which she has been involved as a board member for five years. She recognized the courage of the founders for their effort to ensure that they and other veterans received the benefits they had been promised for their service. She also called attention to the hard work of restoring the building, returning it to the condition it was in during its heyday – recalling one older community member who looked at the restored building and said it was just the way he remembered it being when he had his wedding party there years ago.
She also recognized several of those who made special contributions, including Carolyn Brooks and Nina Johnson for helping forge a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, Airlee Johnson for bringing the Legacy Day celebration to Sumner Hall, board treasurer Yvette Hynson, board members Dale Alexander, Larry Samuels, Ben Kohl of the Hedgelawn Foundation and Cheryl Hoopes, who is in charge of Sumner Hall’s participation in the Tea Party Festival this year.
In response to an audience question about upcoming events, Foster mentioned the appearance of saxophonist Jason Blythe and his band in the April 13 installation of the African American Roots concert series. She said the organization’s newsletter and email list are available to anyone and she invited Rotary members to sign up. She also gave a brief account of the other surviving African American G.A.R. post, in South Carolina. The South Carolina G.A.R. building, though restored after fire damage, has no museum or artifacts and is only open by appointment or for rental events such as weddings and private parties. Following the Civil War, there were hundreds of Grand Army of the Republic chapters across the country, some of which were integrated, others which were segregated by race. The G.A.R. was equivalent in its place and importance in its day as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have been in more recent times.
At the end of the meeting, Rotarian Beverley Birkmire encouraged attendees to talk to members about the Rotary Club’s activities and meetings, every Tuesday at noon.