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