I am writing to you in support of the Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breathe street murals that have been proposed by Wanda Boyer, Maria Wood and Arlene Lee. Though I reside in Worton, Chestertown is ‘My Town.’ I love it and want it to be the best town it can be. To be its best, however, means that we must be honest about the history of Chestertown.
We must acknowledge that Chestertown was the slave trading hub of the Eastern Shore. Human beings stolen from Africa were sold to white landowners at the foot of High Street and put to work creating wealth for their ‘owners’ for nothing in return. After a Civil War that pitted Kent County families against each other, slavery was abolished, but segregation, Jim Crow and physical intimidation kept the black people in their place. James Taylor, a young black farm worker, was accused of raping a young girl. Instead of a trial Mr. Taylor was lynched on Cross Street by about 60 men in masks brandishing shotguns and pistols while 500 spectators observed. A ‘Town Official,” maybe the mayor or a councilman, met with the leaders of the lynch mob and pleaded with them to take Mr. Taylor out of town to lynch him, yet not one person was charged or convicted of this extra-legal murder. The Prince Theatre and Emanuel Church had separate balconies for black patrons and worshippers. Separate schools kept black and white children apart. Not that long ago an intentional effort by white people in Chestertown to gentrify the town systematically dislocated black residents from their traditional neighborhoods. Most recently, local teens have terrorized black female Washington College students with racial slurs and physical intimidation in their vehicles. The extra-legal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have sparked street paintings across our country and as close as Cambridge, MD. These killings are extenuations of this history of abuse against black Americans since the days of slavery.
I recently started watching a video of a speech by Jeffery Robinson, the top racial justice expert at the ACLU. At the beginning Mr. Robinson quotes George Orwell from his book, 1984. He tells the audience to think about two key statements in the book. “Who controls the past controls the future,” and “Who controls the present controls the past.” He goes on to interpret that if you control the narrative for what is true about our past that narrative sets the mark for how we go forward in the future. He continues, “We can’t go forward without acknowledging where we have been.” I am reminded of Karen Somerville’s recent comments regarding the narrative of our not so “charming” town.
In our county black lives have not mattered. We have a unique opportunity right now to own up to the truth of our past and to set the mark for the future. A bold public statement written on the same street on which shackled people were bought and sold will send a clear message to our black neighbors that they do matter and that we are all committed to righting the wrongs of the past and to building a community of inclusion, diversity, equity and justice for every person.
Painting street murals is something we can do quickly. Money and labor for the murals’ creation and maintenance have been offered. I like the idea of the murals as temporary. Council could approve the murals for 1 year with annual renewals if it is determined that the murals need to stay longer. In the meantime, permanent memorials or public art could be considered to acknowledge the truth of our past.
Town Council can control the narrative about the history of racism in our community. By addressing the truth about the oppression of our black neighbors in the past you can set the stage for reconciliation, renewal, and justice as we go forward in the future to make Chestertown the best it can be.