The Chestertown Council on Tuesday passed a historic resolution authored by Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver that marks the beginning of truth and reconciliation for the town’s racist past that began when enslaved people landed on the docks of the Chester River in the 17th Century.
Tolliver is Chestertown’s only black councilman and the highest elected black official in Kent.
Tolliver’s Resolution Against Racism passed unanimously, but not before Mayor Chris Cerino introduced a resolution of his own, Chestertown Unites Against Racism. It was authored by him with input from Chestertown resident John Queen. Cerino’s resolution lays out a 16-month plan to address racism in the community.
Tolliver’s resolution called for the town to apologize for slavery, and Cerino expressed that it was awkward for him to apologize for slavery since his family arrived in the US in the early 20th Century.
“I think it is awkward for me as someone who’s lived here for 28 years and has been mayor for only seven years…It’s just kind of an awkward mental exercise that I’m apologizing for actions of people from the mid 1700s that probably wouldn’t apologize for their own actions,” he said. “I totally get the symbolic nature of it and I do agree that this as kind of an opening salvo for a longer term plan.”
Many in the community felt Cerino’s plan did not get enough input from a wider black constituency and wondered why Cerino had to make his pitch on the night Tolliver’s resolution was set for a final vote. Many thought Cerino was stealing Tolliver’s momentum, when Cerino could have waited until the next meeting to introduce his own plan.
Tolliver told the Kent Pilot that he had no knowledge of Cerino’s 16-month plan until hours before it was introduced. He expected discussion and a vote on his resolution to be the first order of business because it was introduced at the Aug. 18 meeting. Tolliver believes he was the last councilperson to see Cerino’s 16-month plan.
Cerino Makes His Pitch First
“What I’m doing here and what Ellsworth wants to do are not mutually exclusive,” Cerino said when introducing his plan. “In fact these can complement each other. I know there are some people here to hear me describe this [and] I know there are a lot of people here to hear Ellsworth’s resolution.”
“What I’m proposing is not the be-all-end-all but I think it’s a very good start that gives us a vision for what we as a mayor and council can be striving for for the Town of Chestertown in terms of race relations, equity, inclusivity and dealing with some of the systemic issues that linger in the town for the next 16-months,” Cerino said.
Cerino wanted discussion of his plan after his near 20-page presentation but Tolliver said the first order of business should be to proceed with his resolution, which was adopted at the Aug. 18 meeting. He said Cerino’s plan was a good plan for “down the road.”
Unlike Cerino, Tolliver said the two resolutions were in fact mutually exclusive
“We do already have on the table a resolution that has been brought forward that addresses the immediate needs and the immediate actions for what we have going on right now,” Tolliver said. “Before we even think about adopting [Cerino’s plan] we need to take a look at this resolution and decide what we’re going to do. This has to be dealt with before we can start talking about the plan.”
Tolliver said his resolution would be the foundation for future actions of the town.
But Cerino insisted on discussion of his plan first because he had just made a 20-minute presentation and he wanted the audience to comment on “any aspect of the bigger plan first.”
Tolliver responded that many in the community were waiting to see the action on the resolution “prior to anything else that comes to the table.”
Tolliver eventually gave the floor to Cerino first, and after a brief discussion the council moved on to Tolliver’s resolution, where Cerino and Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz expressed reservations about the resolution being merely symbolic.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Meghan Efland supported Tolliver’s resolution and said it doesn’t matter when white people arrived in Chestertown.
“Regardless of whether we had families who had slaves in the past or we didn’t come from Chestertown originally, we all live here and this town benefitted from slavery,” she said. “When we’re downtown we white wash it and look at these buildings and think they’re beautiful, but we need to tell a more true and full history…we are part of a town that is based on slavery and we need to acknowledge it.”
Cerino also said he objected to giving investigative power to citizens on a human rights commission that would be established by the resolution to investigate discrimination in Chestertown.
“There are already mechanisms out there, we already have the ACLU, we already have the NAACP and we already have the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice,” Cerino insisted. He said the commission should be a conduit to “those appropriate resources.”
Social Action Committee for Racial Justice Co-Chair Arlene Lee said resolving the scope of a human rights commission was easy and that it’s established in Maryland Law.
“I think the resolution is fantastic and I think there’s a way for you to get comfortable with the idea of the human rights commission,” she said. “There are municipalities that have them [and] there are ways for you to explore how to set it up to address the things you’re concerned about.”
The resolution passed leaving the scope and responsibilities of the commission open for revision.
On Wednesday the Kent Pilot asked Cerino about wider community input in drafting his 16-month plan and he responded that he worked with John Queen, who used his contacts in the community to get input.
“I ran many of the ideas past John Queen and he worked with his many contacts in Town to add additional initiatives…” Cerino said. “These additions included the James Taylor Lynching Coalition, Community Dialogues, and Zoning Policy Review among others. Ultimately, the creation of the Advisory Committee is going to be important so we can get additional guidance from the community.”
“I’m sure I’ll get additional flack from people saying that I should have had more community input in developing the outline,” he said. “But at the end of the day someone has to lead this effort, and I do happen to be the Mayor.”