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.