Historic Crimes and a Historic Choice For The Chestertown Council Tonight

Slaves Working the Wilmer Family Farm, Circa 1795

Many powerful voices in your paper have laid bare the inescapable connections between Chestertown and slavery. It is undeniable that Chestertown was built on stolen lives and stolen labor.

But as Pastor Leon Frison so powerfully suggests in his letter to the Kent Pilot on Saturday, August 7 (please read it here), the need for historic reconciliation goes well beyond the era of slavery.

Throughout the 20th century, Chestertown and Kent County governments passed, promoted, and upheld racist policies that stole Black labor, wealth, and voting rights. These policies undermined Black education, jeopardized Black health, undercut Black earning power, and cut against the core of our democracy. They also made it far easier for a white person (like myself), and far harder for African Americans, to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations.

As today’s Town Council decides on the BLM mural proposal (readers can sign up for tonight’s meeting here), its members should consider the 20th century history of our local governing institutions. The chairs in which our Town Council sit have – in recent memory – aggressively stolen wealth, power, and health from Black constituents. This is the context from which the Town Council will make its decision tonight.

Between 1872 and 1942, for example, the Kent County School Board paid Black teachers and administrators 33% to 50% less than their white counterparts. The wage discrimination was so bad that it warranted a 1938 visit to Chestertown from a young NAACP attorney by the name of Thurgood Marshall.

To make matters worse, the School Board invested far less money in Black educational facilities than it did in white schools. In response, African American citizens scrabbled together hard-earned funds – beyond what they had already paid in taxes – to invest in the education of their children.

In short, Kent County’s School Board robbed Black workers, Black taxpayers, and Black students during the 20th century.

Another example can be found in town and county officials creating, supporting, and enforcing Jim Crow segregation. Chestertown’s medical facilities, movie theaters, restaurants, bowling allies, ferries, and trains were segregated through the early 1960s, forcing African Americans to stand when whites sat, to wait while whites were served, to enter through side-doors when whites walked straight in.

Publicly-funded beaches and parks were often off-limits to African Americans as well. And up until 1965, citizens of Chestertown had to own property to vote in town elections.

Segregation was not only hurtful and humiliating. It foreclosed African Americans from employment and investment opportunities, deprived them of medical care, silenced their voices in public spaces, and eliminated many of them from voter rolls.

Once again, our town and county governments robbed Black lives, labor, and leadership in the 20th century.

As a public historian, I often find myself considering the past with passionate and civically-engaged community members from Chestertown. During these conversations, I hear open and honest questions that seek to better understand this town’s history at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.

Deeply rooted residents of the area want to know how and why Chestertown has changed so much in the past 40 years. They want to know what role the local government played in leveling century-old Black neighborhoods along Scott’s Point and Cannon Street. They want to know what the town’s role was in the disappearance of dozens of Black-owned businesses. They want to know why, until recently, Black history has been white-washed from so many “historic” festivals, tours, exhibits, and districts.

As one of many who is committed to building Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project here in Kent County, I can say that these are community-generated questions that we are committed to answering in the coming years.

Today, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the history of Chestertown, a moment that will not repeat itself, a moment we will never have back. Delay will not suffice in moments like these. Counter-proposals conceived in White-Moderate echo-chambers will not do either.

As much as the Town Council does not want this decision to be perceived as a “litmus test,” it has become one.

It has become a litmus test because a “no” vote by the Town Council – no matter the explanation – will be understood as the latest episode in a historical cycle, the latest example of this town’s government siding with white, wealthy homeowners over constituents that it has systemically robbed, disenfranchised, and ignored for 300 years.

It has become a litmus test because so many local African Americans have communicated to the Town Council that they believe the stakes for this decision are high.

They are telling the Town Council, in the words of the proposal, that “these murals would be a tangible declaration that as a community, we recognize both our past and our present,” and that we are committed to “bold and concrete steps to make our future inclusive and welcoming.”

They are telling the Town Council, in the words of Gordon Wallace, Jr., that the mural will “help us all be more aware of the injustice…[and] make us all willing to work towards a change.”

They are telling the Town Council, in the words of Wanda Boyer, that “for hundreds of years we have done things in…Chestertown that haven’t been so welcoming to the Black community” and that by “saying Black Lives Matter on High Street,” the town would “simply display, ‘we care [and] we hear you.’”

They are telling the Town Council, in the words of Pastor Leon Frison, that “we now have an opportunity to show the world that we are not out of touch with the current movement…[that] we can listen to, respond, and empathize with a segment of society whose pains and cries have been so callously ignored.”

They are telling the Town Council, in the words of Karen Somerville, “now that we finally have your ear…are you brave and honorable enough to stay on the path to equality so that every living soul can experience the ‘Charm?’”

I hope that the Town Council will demonstrate tonight that history isn’t always doomed to repeat itself.

I hope that it will show itself to be the type of Town Council that this town has never seen – a Town Council that listens to, invests in, takes risks with, and stands behind its Black citizens.

Dr. Patrick Nugent is the Deputy Director of Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and, along with many, helps steer Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project.

14 comments

  1. Bravo!! “I hope that it will show itself to be the type of Town Council that this town has never seen – a Town Council that listens to, invests in, takes risks with, and stands behind its Black citizens.” That’s it exactly, thank you!

  2. I would just like to say that at no point have I, as the Mayor of this Town, been consulted in any way on this project. While all five of the Town’s elected officials have expressed our willingness, even eagerness, to promote the message that Black Lives Matter in Chestertown, we were given no alternative options by the Social Action Committee other than to paint a street mural that our attorney has advised us flies in the face of our own ordinance. When I did present another method to promote the same message that would avoid setting a precedent and steer the town clear of potential litigation, my suggestion was essentially ignored. Right now I can definitively say that Chestertown has the most progressive Mayor and Council in the 315 year history of the Town. If we can work collaboratively and in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation, much can be accomplished. But if Chestertown’s elected officials are going to be repeatedly antagonized in the press/online and judged by whether or not we allow a public street to be painted, which our own attorney has advised us is in violation of the law, then this unique opportunity to make real (rather than symbolic) progress will be lost. I can tell you all on a personal level that I have never felt more disheartened by any single proposal that has come before the Mayor and Council than I do about this one. Rather than unifying the Town, I fear that it has split the Town largely along party/political lines an reinforced the echo chamber that we all live within. As a community, we should strive for much, much more.

    Nobody in the current Town government has ever tried to push the Town and the County’s shoddy history on race under the rug. We are all moved by Reverend Frison, Reverend Brown, Karen Somerville, and countless others who have passionately shared their stories of the injustices they have suffered at the hands of their white neighbors. None of us are career politicians, and we are all doing the best that we can to make things right. Everyone is a hero on the Internet, but I can assure you that you have NO IDEA how challenging it is to be running this Town during one of the most bizarre and challenging years in the history of our country. Please keep that in mind before passing judgment on your elected officials.

    1. Mayor Cerino,

      Your suggestion of a banner was addressed in our permit proposal. “The act of painting the surface of High Street, even with artwork that is only meant to last for a year, is literally grounded in history, both painful and celebratory. The street is an infinitely more evocative location for a meaningful expression of the words “Black Lives Matter” than alternatives such as banners that would flutter and float in the breeze, unconnected to the significance of the words they bear, and that would be smaller, less noticeable, and have less impact.”

      For those who haven’t read the permit proposal: https://kentpilot.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Mural-permit-and-proposal.pdf

    2. Mayor Cerino, I appreciate your comments, and I absolutely appreciate the unprecedented and completely unexpected circumstances you and our Council have been operating under this year. I have truly appreciated the excellent job you have done navigating the pandemic crisis—something you could never have experienced before. Your leadership through this has been really admirable, particularly given the fact that you are not career politicians.

      When I brought the murals idea to the Town meeting five weeks ago, it was not yet even a proposal. I came to the town government asking for guidance through the process. We were asked to present a proposal, which we submitted a week and a half later. We then made numerous changes to it, to accommodate requests from residents, Council members, and the Police Department. We’ve invited discussion from everyone, and been as open and communicative as we knew how to be about the meaning of the murals, why they are important, and why murals on the street are significant, through as many channels as we could find. If there are channels we should have used, I, at least, did not know what they were.

      I would also like to clear up a widespread misunderstanding. This proposal is not from SACRJ, although that group does support it. It comes from Wanda Boyer, Arlene Lee, and me, independent of any of our affiliations with groups, organizations, or businesses. We put the idea in front of the town as three concerned residents and citizens who believe that it is a meaningful step that the town can take. This is an important distinction because we are not speaking for anyone else, nor can any group speak for us about this.

      It’s my understanding that the High Street residents who had introduced the idea of a lawsuit have stood down from that on the basis of the most recent change to the proposed location of the High Street mural, so it seems that a compromise has been reached by both sides. The passion on this topic has taken us all by surprise, but reflects the moment that we are in as a town and a nation. It seems to me that the conversations that have come out of this process, while difficult and at times emotional, have been needed in Chestertown. People have learned about parts of our history that they did not understand or recognize before. And people have spoken up and made their voices heard, which is how democracy is meant to work. I see these as positives, and I don’t think disagreement has to mean division.

  3. Thank you, Pat, for writing so eloquently on behalf of much needed change in our community. We can’t undo the injustices of our history against African Americans, but we can all join together so that the injustices end. A vote of “no” by the Town Council sadly will be a strong statement that our town is not ready to change. I urge the Council not to send that message, but to vote a resounding and unanimous “YES.”

  4. Mayor Cerino, PLEASE LET THIS HAPPEN – the hand-wringing and defensive posture has gone on long enough… If indeed this is “wrong,” I think it’s time we err on the side of those we’ve erred for far too long.

  5. Mayor Cerino,

    Look if it is a legal issue that a mural cannot be painted on the street-let’s paint it on the sidewalk in front of Garfield .
    If this is what will hold it back, simple move it, embrace the WHOLE community.

    1. Mayor Cerino,
      Tonight’s meeting will be one more opportunity for our town to choose how it contributes to its legacy. The murals aren’t illegal if the town proposes them. And if the Town doesn’t propose them, you can still vote yes and let the chips fall where they may. It won’t Be your fault if there’s flack about the legality. Let the citizens deal with what comes if the murals are approved.
      Another thought, you can be our hero to make this symbolic gesture a town message for all to see as they look down to see where they’re walking. We’ll be walking on the side of justice with these murals. They’ll start a healing process that you can be proud to be associated with. Those who oppose them will be unhappy. They stand a chance to grow through their disappointment. It won’t be the first time people who opposed a decision later realized how good it really is. For you to worry about not being given all that you wanted to get this managed differently, I urge you to let that go. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you get what you need.” You need to show courage and you can. Tonight.
      Join the overwhelming numerical majority of Chestertown citizens and vote to support the will of the people.
      By the way, LBJ did what he saw was needed regardless of the pushback. You have plenty of good company with our nation’s progress with racial justice.

  6. This is a very powerful article that lays out exactly how our black citizens have been economically disadvantaged by holdover racist policies. Murals have and I hope always will be a way to highlight history and communities. Please do not make this a confrontation–let’s take it as an opportunity for solidarity against policies and attitudes that cannot be tolerated in 2020.

  7. Well said, Pat.
    To Chris Cerino:
    Exactly what ordinance would be violated by the proposed street murals? Your comment says this:
    “… a street mural that our attorney has advised us flies in the face of our own ordinance.” and this”
    “which our own attorney has advised us is in violation of the law.”
    But nowhere do you say (nor have I seen or heard it said elsewhere) which ordinance might be violated and for what possible reason.
    So I went to this page on the town website and used the link buttons to get to both the current town charter and ordinances.
    https://townofchestertown.com/government/code-of-ordinances-town-charter/
    Then I carefully looked through all possibly pertinent sections but could find nothing applicable that would prohibit the murals project as described in the permit application. Please enlighten me/us.
    As far as I know, none of the proposed mural locations is on a town street that is also, concurrently, a section of a state road or a county road.
    I continue to find it puzzling that the Mayor & Council of the town of Cambridge, down the Shore in Dorchester Co. (where there was tumultuous racial strife during the 1960s), managed some time ago to approve unanimously a similar street mural project on one of its important streets that was promptly executed but Chestertown cannot manage to do the same.
    It seems to me that the time for nit-picking/navel-gazing or whatever it might be called is over and that Chestertown ought to approve this project as proposed. I was convinced of this after I read a pdf of the application, which explained why street paintings in particular are significant, in contrast to (for instance) a banner or more or another visual expression of the same messages.
    I hope you will reply.

  8. Mayor Cerino,
    Please articulate for the residents of Chestertown how these murals, to be painted on town controlled streets, will be illegal and subject the town to litigation. Please release the legal memos I have requested so the advice on which you and other rely can be openly vetted. Please tell us who has threatened to sue the Town, other than Phil Hoon’s eight High Street clients, who have reportedly since come to understand that these murals are no threat to them or their property and withdrawn their threat.
    What, why, and who are you afraid of?
    You haven’t given us one fact–just bare conclusions drawn by you and at least two other council members.

  9. Absolutely love and support the suggestion of the mural being created on the sidewalk in front of the Garfield where we can sit, lay,, rest, dance, sing, jump, and hold hands on this carpet of hope, redemption, and dreams. Let’s do it! Protect it from the harsh treatment of vehicular traffic. Let it be respected, with pause and awe , from the safe perspective of foot traffic Let it be!

  10. I am hoping that the Town Council does not use its lawyer’s opinion as the reason for not allowing the mural. Let’s face it, the job of a lawyer is to protect his client and the easiest way to do that is to say “NO!” to a possibility. Please do not hurt Chestertown or yourselves (ie the Council) by saying to the world that Chestertown does not think Black Lives Matter enough to go forward against the lawyer’s opinion and interpretation of a code or ordinance. It is bad enough that it has taken us so long. Additionally, has any Council member spoken with any Cambridge Council member?

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