Who was the prominent African American restaurateur and politician of the 1850s-80s famous for both oysters and ice cream in Kent County?
A. William Perkins
B. Augustus Roberts
C. James Woodson
D. None of the above
Answer: A. William Perkins
The term “Renaissance man” comes to mind when describing William H. “Bill” Perkins (1820-1895). Not so much because of his education, which was only extensive enough to ready him for keeping account books for his businesses and reading well enough to understand his rights and those he encouraged, but because of the breadth of his accomplishments and the depth of his desires for others. With a country in turmoil–divided–part full of hate, part full of hope–William Perkins marched down the middle in a spirit of confidence.
The son of an African American oysterman and successful Rock Hall “oyster bar owner,” he followed his father’s lead and, in 1855,opened his own restaurant in Chestertown near the corner of Fish Street (now Maple Avenue) and Cross Street–where the present Firehouse is located.
Called “The Rising Sun,” it was, according to the Maryland Historic Trust, “probably the largest free African American-owned commercial enterprise in Kent County in 1860.” His advertisements claimed he would “serve ladies and gentlemen with all the choice articles of confectionery. Cake, and ice cream, lemonades in the French style, mineral waters from celebrated fountains, oysters pickled secendum anthem, diamond-back terrapins, soft crabs, hard crabs, and deviled crabs.” He was known far and wide for both his oysters and his ice cream. The “East Room” was reserved for ladies (no gentlemen allowed except with ladies.) “The Oyster Salon” was strictly for men only.
When the 15th Amendment was enacted, Perkins became very active in social issues, encouraging fellow African Americans to exercise their new rights to vote. He was the first African American Maryland delegate to a National Republican Convention and the Eastern Shore’s first African American federal grand juror. He was active in supporting the building of more schools to accommodate African American children after emancipation.
Along his way he had become wealthy and had acquired a great deal of property–both of which supported his generosity. He was also a staunch member of the Methodist African Church Zion and, when a new church building was needed, mortgaged some of his property to purchase land for the new church. This new structure ultimately became the Janes Methodist Episcopal Church.
It is sad to think of this generous man who gave pleasure and comfort to so many ending his life in poverty, but with the economic downturn of the 1880s he lost his fortune and died in 1895 at the Home for Aged Colored People in Baltimore. His burial site is unknown.
He was long remembered and at his death, the Chestertown Transcript celebrated his life by naming William Perkins “The Most Prominent Leader of His Race in the State.”
Thanks, as always, to those recorders of Kent County History that have preserved their precious knowledge.
The Kent Pilot welcomes Kevin Hemstock, well-known Kent County historical writer and newsman, as a History Quiz Master. We look forward to more of his thought-provoking challenges.
The Kent County History Quiz is a weekly local brainteaser sponsored by The Peoples Bank. Kent County historian and author Joan Horsey, local newsman and history sleuth Kevin Hemstock, and columnist Kate Meehan contribute to the quiz’s development. Our goal is to create an opportunity for local learning and discussion.
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