Much has been said lately about conversations we need to have about race relations in America. But the necessity for such exchanges long precedes the current Black Lives Matter movement. As a Made in Maryland feature documentary vividly demonstrates in a highlight of the 13th Chesapeake Film Festival, the races in the city of Cambridge, which is hardly an exception in these United States, have talked past each other for generations.
You Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout Groove City is many things. In part, it is a one-sided reminiscence about the heyday of Cambridge as, at first, an out-of-town stopover for some of the greatest names from the Harlem Renaissance, and later as a hotbed in the emergence of hip-hop as the successor to rock and roll as the predominant pop music genre. But more than that, the documentary, directed by Cesar Gonzalez, pastor of Cambridge’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, traces Dorchester County’s racial and civil rights history all the way back to Harriet Tubman.
The festival, encompassing 45 films chosen from more than 200 submitted, will be streamed live for free from Oct. 1-4, with preview trailers available for sampling starting Sept. 1. All you have to do to tap into this virtual festival is choose which films you want to see, pop your own popcorn, turn out the lights, sit back and see something you’re unlikely to find elsewhere on the internet.
You Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout Groove City opens with Cambridge residents—a tourism director and the city’s first black mayor, as well as local historians and hip-hop impresarios—people separated not only by race but by generations, recalling what it was like back in the day. The elders remember what they view now as the good old days in the 1940s, when Cambridge was still bustling as the Eastern Shore’s only deep port. Though they lived separately, the races had their own services run by businessmen and entrepreneurs. The schools were strictly segregated, but we’re told, one could still get a good education at all-black public schools.
Because of more overt racism in other parts of what was regarded as the deep South, big names from Harlem—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald—made appearances in Cambridge. Later, such stars as James Brown, Little Richard, and Lloyd Price brought a different soul vibe to entertainment venues in the city’s middle-class African-American Pine Street neighborhood and across town.
But in the 1950s, with a downturn and eventual closure of the Phillips crab-picking plant, the black community was hit disproportionally hard. Unemployment simmered for years before the 1960s civil rights protests culminated in a riot that led to a fire destroying much of Pine Street. (The name of the accused riot instigator, H. Rap Brown, isn’t mentioned in the documentary.)
“Pine Street, the other downtown and onetime stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit burns to the ground,” says director Gonzalez. “And less than ten years later, they come up with Groove City.”
That’s when Cambridge’s African-American entertainment heritage re-emerged as rap, blossoming into hip-hop. Artists from the local scene were in demand all over the Delmarva Peninsula and as far north as New York City and south as Atlanta. Extensive interviews with such current-day activists as Dion Banks of the Eastern Shore Network for Change, as well DJ Mike Bryan and musicians who led the Groove Street movement, paint a living history all but unknown to white residents interviewed for this documentary. Groove City was a foreign language to whites who lived mostly on the east side of Race Street. Amanda Fenstermaker, Dorchester’s Director of Tourism, doesn’t have any memories of Groove City. “I heard about it when I became tourism director,” she says. “But growing up, I don’t remember it.” To her and other white people interviewed in the film, Groove City, at that time, may as well have been from another planet as opposed to the next block over from Race Street.
The demarcation between the races is the yellow stripe down Race Street—the “third rail” as described by longtime resident Mike Starling—though the street name has nothing to do with race. Long ago, races regularly were held on that stretch of downtown Cambridge.
“You can see homes here that still have outbuildings that were slave quarters,” says Gonzalez. Slaves were once auctioned at a small pavilion next to the courthouse, now a bandstand.
The juxtaposition of party music and dance competitions so prevalent along Pine Street against the racial history of the region becomes jarring when the subject turns to the mural featuring Harriet Tubman on the U.S. 50 side of the Cambridge Visitors Center. The muralist who created the image, Michael Rosato, says in a vast understatement, “Not everybody who drives by feels the same way.”
As Banks recalls, a white person said of the mural, “‘Harriet Tubman was a thief. She stole other people’s property.’”
Tubman rescued dozens of slaves from Dorchester—”stole” them, if you will. If that’s what you believe, then tell me, instead, who stole your soul? Yes, we need more conversation. But don’t bring your hate to the table.
Trailers available for preview Sept. 1, free streaming of all films Oct. 1-4 on chesapeakefilmfestival.org
Steve Parks is a retired journalist now living in Easton.