Publisher’s Note: Chestertown Council Needs Better Understanding of BLM Message and Local History

Photo Courtesy of Bill Whaley Photography. https://billwhaley.smugmug.com/

Since the Black Lives Matters protests and marches began in Chestertown and across the country, following the murder of George Floyd May 25, the Kent Pilot has chronicled the town’s reckoning with its history of racial injustice and the efforts of late underway to reform our police department and other local institutions.

If anything, the 100 Days of Action advanced by the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice has proven a tremendous opportunity for residents to unify on a path towards reconciliation.

One attempt to advance reconciliation is the proposal for two street murals. One is a “Black Lives Matter” mural that would run up High Street from the old Customs House to Cross Street. The other, “I Can’t Breathe,” would run College Avenue between High to Calvert streets. These murals would give Chestertown a unified voice in the fight against racism.

The idea was introduced at the July 6 Mayor and Council meeting.

While there was no discussion about the College Avenue mural, the High Street proposal raised concerns from some council members. In particular, Mayor Chris Cerino objected to the street mural in the Historic District on High Street because it would look “out of place” in downtown’s 18th Century setting.

He also identified Black Lives Matter as a “slogan,” which the Kent Pilot believes marginalizes a movement that has gained and maintained momentum in the weeks since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four white Minneapolis policemen.

The mural’s path on High Street, starting at the Customs House, is most fitting. Students of local history know that Chestertown was one of the most active slave-trading ports in Maryland and that the Customs House once stood as a large clearinghouse for human trafficking and exploitation. Slave labor built most, if not all, of the homes and infrastructure in downtown prior to emancipation.

And the storefronts serve as a reminder of the town’s Jim Crow legacy, which perpetuated institutional white privilege and roadblocks to education and political participation that stole ideas and opportunities from black citizens. There are many still living among us who went to the segregated theatre, now the Garfield, and were forced to pick up their prescriptions and lunch orders from an alley doorway.

Mayor Cerino said the mural would be “pretty in your face.” The Kent Pilot believes this is the whole point, and that facing our past, however uncomfortable, is the only true path towards reconciliation, which stands at the heart of the mural project.

Gordon Wallace, Jr., a Kent County native who grew up on Cannon Street, is the young graphic designer who has taken on the project. A recent graduate of Stevenson University in graphic art and marketing, Wallace is one of Kent’s younger generations returning to make his home here.

Wallace draws his inspiration from the late writer James Baldwin who said, “Not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

“This mural is thought-provoking, but not overwhelming,” Wallace explained. “It allows people to be put in a conscious place about injustice on their own terms. This reminder can help us all be more aware of the injustice happening, which will hopefully make us all willing to work towards a change.”

The July 6th council meeting demonstrates why it is time for town government to come back live. Zoom meetings continue to be an unnecessary crutch. If the council would invite the public back, it would find just how “out of place” some of the town’s leadership is on this issue.

The Mayor expressed concern about the cost of maintaining the mural over time, but we know that tax dollars go to maintain the Marina and other things the town cares about. When Cerino puts his mind to something it gets done.

And the murals will be made possible from private donations and citizens’ sweat and creativity.

We encourage the council to stop viewing Chestertown’s racist past through the lens of white privilege, which filters out the blight of slavery and racism. The history we embrace can’t be selective.

We applaud Councilmembers Ellsworth Tolliver and Meghan Efland’s support of the murals. Town Manager Bill Ingersoll also cut to the heart of the matter: this is an important message that needs to be made now.

In closing, the Imperial Hotel Building houses several businesses, including the Kent Pilot. Collectively we welcome the “Black Lives Matter” mural on High Street and the message it sends. We can’t think of a better place for it.

Black Lives Matter!

The Kent Pilot

 

 

 

 

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22 comments

  1. Thanks to the Kent Pilot for taking a stand on the murals. I applaud your commitment to helping us acknowledge the dirty truth of our past with a mural beginning at the Customs House on High Street. Without doing so we will not be able to address the ongoing discrimination, institutional racism, and injustice our society heaps upon people of color. Truth, then reconciliation.

  2. As I emailed the Mayor yesterday, I DO NOT think High St is the place for any promotion or protest. I honestly cannot think of any subject or cause that I would consider worthy of being displayed on High St. The charm of the historic district should not be defaced by turning High St into a billboard.
    If a compromise is needed. Why not use the boat trailer parking lot at the marina or the front of the Cerino building.
    Bill Minus

  3. Wow – lots to unpack here. This article conveniently overlooks the fact that I repeatedly stated that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and I understand the need to get the message out there, but that I simply think that a large street mural is not the best route to go. Why not put a large banner across the front of Town Hall with the same message, and another banner over upper High Street where hundreds of vehicles come in and out of Town every day? These banners would be way more cost effective, easier to maintain, less susceptible to vandalism, and would actually be MORE visible to a wider, more diverse audience than a mural painted on a single street. The fact that the Town puts money into maintaining the Marina has nothing to do with any of this! Furthermore, painting a large mural on a taxpayer owned street sets a precedent that will be hard to ignore if and when another group with an altogether different message wants to do the same thing. If the head of the Republic Party for Kent County wanted to paint a “Make America Great Again” street mural on the 300 block of High Street, for example, would the Pilot have their backs as well?

    We all acknowledge that Chestertown and Kent County have, at best, a shoddy history on race relations dating back to the 1600s, and we should all work together to make this as welcoming a community to all of our citizens regardless of race, sexual orientation, or creed. Those who actually know me know that I am an open and honest person that is welcoming to everyone that wants to participate in Town affairs and willing to sacrifice many hours of my personal time to make things happen for the greater good of this Town. There are many other ways to improve race relations in this community other than painting a street.

  4. White Lives Matter doesn’t need to be emblazoned on High Street.
    Black Lives Matter does.
    This is a pivotal moment in our town’s history to publicly declare what we hold to be true.
    What better place to make this history than in our Historic District!
    Let’s be brave and creative to join in healing our nation.

    1. BLM is a racist marxist organization thats main objective is to destroy our way of life! Why should we emblazon this saying on High Street when it represents violence?

  5. “should not deface the Charm of the Historic District of High Street”
    I have cause to draw deep breathes that ache to the very depths of my soul when I read this. Please tell me where is the charm in the history of High Street and its adjoining streets in the lynching of James Taylor or the tar and feathering lead by the town’s Sheriff of a Black woman and the White male who assisted in her protest; the sentences handed down from Kent County’s Court house to White women who bore the “issue” of Black men; was the charm in the White women who watched from the widows walks that sit atop the gracious houses still lining High Street pining for the return of husbands-Captains who docked their ships at the foot of High Street and brought their chained merchandise to auctions selling Black Lives? Is it in today’s overzealous sentences leveled upon Blacks and others lacking social-economic equivalence? I’m starved to see charm in the obligatory gathering of young Black men reduced to stand in one location on High Street during the Tea Party, incessantly guarded by police because a desire to be a part of something has brought them there, but the agenda repeatedly fails to make an admirable place for them yet holds hope to benefit from the dollars they spend. No charm in the loss of benefits from the skills and talents of numerous Black Artists and would be patrons whose past pains are so prevailing it doesn’t allow them to cross the threshold of the Garfield Theatre for what was the “charm” of the former movie theatre; the rudeness endured by Blacks who have dared to grace downtown businesses (NOT ALL but even one is too many) only to be greeted by silence, suspicious trailing, and rudeness? Charm, when the country puts a Black man in the White House and that news does NOT make the front page of the local newspaper- situated within the “charm” of High Street, yet it too benefits from Black dollars spent? Was charming the goal as gentrification herded Black families from downtown C-town dwellings that held generations of heritage and familiar comforts? Where is the “charm”? If charm is to be defined only by the eye, what then guides the character of our hearts? To be led by the concern of maintaining charm over equality is like dead fish in Christmas wrappings. It will always be pretty on the outside, but the long, slow rot on the inside is surely stinking up the place. If all this talk about racism is making you uncomfortable, that means you are listening. Now that we finally have your ear Chestertown, are you brave and honorable enough to stay on the path to equality so that every living soul can experience the “Charm”?

    1. Karen, your words and your music have great impact on our community. I pray that you will continue to have the energy to share them.

  6. As I have said elsewhere, while I support the message that BLM is working to communicate, in my opinion the idea as proposed on High Street is just too overwhelming and too large to be effective. It would not even be able to be seen in it’s entirety without a drone. I do like the idea proposed to use the crosswalks on High Street for this purpose. Not only would the message be able to be seen in it’s entirety, it would be seen multiple times from multiple directions and could even be presented in different creative ways making them more interesting to view thereby getting more attention. Just my humble opinion.

  7. There were no electric lights in colonial Chestertown – our current lights are harsh, putting out far more illumination than the charming lamps the town lamplighter lit by hand every evening long ago. Automobiles move at a speed that would have appalled those who lived or worked on Cross and High streets in the 1700’s. There is no charm in exhaust, nor in the asphalt laid down for the cars to use. The recorded music that echoed through the High and Cross streets at Christmas time would have seemed to be the work of demons, or worse, to colonial era people. There are many, many other things completely out of step with Colonial times that we employ and embrace because they seem good to us.

    I am among those who drive though town. I like seeing at night. I also like recognizing our history, while acknowledging that I live in the present. The fact that a Black Lives Matter mural would create such push back points to something other than a lack of antique charm. We are not Disneyland. We’re a real town with real people – black and white ( and Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and immigrants of all kinds). We have work to do in order to better engage with modern life. We need to have more conversations about race, justice, and equity in Chestertown.

  8. Karen Sommerville has a real take on the history of the black citizens of the Chestertown area. Instead of putting money into a mural that would require constant upkeep, I think education is of the utmost importance. As citizens, black and white, we must learn that history; we must feel that history as movingly as she paints it; and we must know how to take action00not with murals but with constant more meaningful use of the money the mural would require. Little children need to be brought up to know and understand that history. That is the only way that change may be able to be accomplished and some of the racism that is still prevalent will be eased and hopefully abolished. A mural that many would find unsightly is not the way to accomplish the aims of Black Lives Matter!
    On another side, learning and living with our neighbors helps remove barriers. Most–not all–feelings of hate or dislike are motivated by fear of the unknown. If you know “the other” and find that they are as real as you are animosity leaves. Lets try to know the other by crossing social groups without fear and only friendliness.

  9. I agree: “This is a pivotal moment in our town’s history to publicly declare what we hold to be true.” I support the Black Lives Matter mural on High Street.

    Mayor Cerino, your efforts and many hours of your personal time to make things happen for the greater good of this Town are appreciated!

  10. This article was posted on the Chestertown Life Facebook page just 14 hours ago, and the moderators had to close the comments because of the continuing inappropriate and racist comments that were coming in too fast to keep up with. Explain to me again how this county has no problems with race?

  11. Why not paint it on Cross Street, from High Street to Maple Ave., which means it would pass the exact site of the James Taylor lynching? It would also pass the site of the old jail where he was held, and the place (site of the old engine house) where his body was laid out before burial at the Almshouse graveyard. That would add some historical relevance.

  12. I, too, take exception at the idea that the BLACK LIVES MATTER mural doesn’t fit with the “Colonial” atmosphere of High Street. I find it pretty ironic that it’s way to easy to forget that not long ago, there was a separate entrance (not to mention the high wooden seats way up in the back of the balcony) at the Prince Theatre “for colored people”, and that when integration laws finally came to Chestertown (in the late 60’s, early 70’s) that Stam’s Drug Store removed their stools at the ice cream counter so as to not have to serve African American residents. If we are going to glorify our history, we also need to take a look at our shameful past. We NEED to take a STAND. We need to show that in Chestertown, BLACK LIVES MATTER!

  13. If the BLM mural actually gets approved and completed, and if there is a grand unveiling, it would only be appropriate to invite black civil rights attorney Leo Terrell to dedicate it. He has an excellent opinion piece in Newsweek. After the dedication, it would be great if Washington College could invite Robert Woodson to participate in their speaker series. I think it would lend even greater credibility to the movement.

  14. This is a moment in history that Chestertown cannot ignore. I was raised in the Jim Crow South and it wasn’t until I left it that I even realized what it was, what it meant, or how debilitating it had been to all of us. The Pilot, Karen Somerville, and Faith Wilson have factually and eloquently laid the rationale for why we must do this—and why now. We need leadership not excuses. The Pilot’s suggestion is not politics as some have suggested in their letters, it is morality.

  15. I am blessed to still have my grandparents and elder family members around today to share their continued stories of downtown Chestertown, back in the day, as they say, the good times as they say! One of my favorite stories they tell about in our small town that’s my favorite by far is the thriving Cannon Street that was filled with black-owned businesses, salons, barbershop, restaurants, bars, etc. I remember as a little girl being born in the late 70’s , visiting Cannon St where my family had grew up and still had homes there and eating they had the best cheeseburgers ever ☺ which were usually cooked by my great aunt by the way, and going to get popsicles with my friends with not a care in the world it was a beautiful site to see and live, it’s a shame today I can only share with my children whom I have raised here the memories of the prosperous Cannon Street and its black-owned businesses as what they can only imagine for everything that was once there when I was a little girl is all gone away without a glimpse of us as even being apart from a very important part of downtown historic Chestertown …. Also, I had to share with them that as a little girl my friends and I frequently visited the movie theatre which is now prince theatre on high st. , and how I didn’t realize or even pay attention to the real reason why we had to watch movies from upstairs on the 2nd floor while my white friends watched from downstairs we were young and just wanted to have fun and watch a movie so I guess that’s why I never knew what was going on and that was in the 80’s it wasn’t until maybe 10 years ago I found out while we were upstairs 🙄 even though it’s in the past ….These murals would not only speak for the present but hugely for the past of good old Chestertown

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