Ajax court with two baskets, photo by R.L. Long

Tidewater Trader Publisher Carla Johnson has launched an ad in her publication to promote a playground that would essentially kill the revitalization of Ajax Park to a full — junior high — size court with two baskets, even while plans for a playground estimated at $230,000 at Wilmer Park are in the works.

Johnson has been in a state of all-out-war with the Chestertown Recreation Commission that voted on a plan to revitalize the court and preserve a piece of African-American history that dates back to the 1950s.

The Chestertown Town Council has yet to vote on the CRC’s recommendation and Chestertown Zoning Administrator Kees de Mooy has taken sides with Johnson and her group of mostly nameless detractors to kill the two-hoop design in favor of a one-hoop design.

Johnson claims to lead a group of some 30 residents and property owners in her efforts to kill the two-hoop configuration.

Supporters of the two-hoop configuration believe Johnson, et al’s opposition speaks of fear in the white community that the court will attract large numbers of unsupervised black youth to downtown. And town officials have discouraged the CRC from making race part of the conversation about the future of Ajax.

The two-hoop court has received petitions in support from three black barbershops and a circulated petition that received 100s of signatures.

Recreation Committee Member Frank Rhodes said the issue of a playground is a red herring for opposition to Ajax because future plans at Wilmer provide for a playground to address the need for families with young children — “and having playgrounds 300 yards a part is unnecessarily redundant and access to Wilmer is already ADA compliant with plenty of handicap parking spaces.”

Rhodes said there will be no problem adding handicap parking at Ajax either.

“The playground at Ajax would be temporary only until the one at Wilmer is built,” Rhodes said in an interview on Thursday. “Whether there will be a playground in downtown Chestertown is moot, and there’s no reason that these two venues can’t complement each other, especially for those with children in different age groups.”

In Johnson’s Tidewater Trader ad she notes that funding for the Wilmer Park playground was unavailable but an email from de Mooy on May 5 to CRC Chair Jim Bogden, and the rest of the commission, states that DNR’s Community Parks and Playgrounds Program puts the Wilmer playground on the 2022 budget, which starts July 2021.

“I’m happy to report that DNR’s Community Parks and Playgrounds Program has announced that the Wilmer Park tot-lot is going to be included in the MD [fiscal] 2022 budget, subject to approval by the Board of Public Works,” de Mooy said. “In a non-pandemic year, this would all but guarantee that we would be funded, but it’s hard to say whether this will be the case this year. In any case, a playground at Wilmer Park is a great step forward in providing a recreation amenity that has been sorely lacking for families for decades…”

Ajax would be funded privately through a comprehensive fundraising effort. Rhodes said the cost for the two-basket design would run about $20,000.

“The bottom line is they don’t want a [full court] because they figure black kids will come downtown and make too much noise and do XYZ because we are stereotyped and we’ve always been stereotyped,” said Bishop Charles M. Tilghman, Sr., president of the Kent NAACP in an interview on Thursday.

Tilghman said to remove the conversation of race from Ajax is rug-sweeping.

“It’s been the history of Chestertown, they sweep everything under the rug,” he said. “Chestertown is not going to get any better until people wake up and realize what the real issues are downtown.”

“People that are honestly sincere and conscientious of the fact that racism persists should feel comfortable discussing the issue of race with regards to the basketball court,” he said. “If there wasn’t something to it why would you feel uncomfortable discussing it.”

Tilghman said the one-hoop configuration proposed by Johnson’s group is meant to discourage competitive play downtown.

Ward 2 resident and Social Action Committee Co-Chair Wanda Boyer echoed Tilghman and said you can’t separate the issue of race when attempting  to restore a venue of black history in Chestertown and what it means to the black community here.

“We don’t want to discuss race for fear that it is difficult when attempting to make change,” she said.

Carla Johnson did not return requests for comment by the time this story ran.