Racial Disparity In An Eastern Shore Town, Then and Now
In 1986 black America was reeling from federal cutbacks in spending, unemployment, and inflation associated with Reaganomics.
The space shuttle blew up, and with it, one of the country’s few African-American astronauts, Ronald E. McNair. But there was hope. Congress overrode the president’s veto of economic sanctions on South Africa, which would help lead to the abolition of apartheid. If we all didn’t die in a nuclear disaster first, that is—it was also the year of Chernobyl.
But that year wasn’t all about doom and gloom for me. I had successfully completed my freshman year at Mercy High School, a Catholic girls’ school in Northeast Baltimore, and was rocking my tilt hairdo, cut short on one side and long on the other. There were things to look forward to as well, like the release of Run-DMC’s third album, Raising Hell, and Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It, which my parents wouldn’t let me see because it was too mature. And that summer I had been invited to attend a creative-writing seminar at Washington College.
The trip would take me approximately 74 miles away from home to a tiny Eastern Shore town called Chestertown with a population of about 4,000. There are lots of things I don’t remember about that summer, like the trip across the Bay Bridge and the names of the friends I met there, although I can vaguely remember some of their faces. But there are other details that I will never forget: how it felt to be one of two or three African-American participants in the 60-person program, the smile of the boy I had a crush on. But most of all, I remember the walking tour of Chestertown.
The county seat of miniscule Kent County, Chestertown is a quaint town on the Chester River filled with stately 18th-century homes, cute boutiques, and green lawns. On our tour, we walked from Washington College past Fountain Park and down High Street with its beautifully kept homes and perfectly manicured lawns. I stole glimpses of white residents putting out sprinklers and tending to their gardens.
“All around me I saw a pleasant little town,” I wrote later in an essay for the seminar. But when we turned right onto Queen Street to head toward the river everything changed. Along South Queen Street down to Water Street were the crudest forms of housing I had ever seen. On one side were dilapidated, slight homes, about half the size of a Baltimore alley house. On the other side were 25 or so hutlike structures, made of plywood and propped up with sticks. They were barely standing, and looked like a strong rain might wash them into the river a few feet away. Scattered tar shingles served as roofs, and some of the houses even had bed sheets instead of doors. Little outhouses stood behind the row of shacks, suggesting that there were no facilities inside. It was a wasteland in the middle of this idyllic little town, worse than even the rough Lafayette Homes projects back in Baltimore where my cousins used to live.
And unlike the upscale houses a few streets away there were no white faces here, only black. A father and his two children huddled in front of one of the shacks around a bucket of water from the nearby river. They stared at me, and I stared back, feeling the weight of being a black kid walking with my white school group. I felt like a traitor.
“Oppression took the place of prominence as I saw the shabby shanties and the desolation of the people who lived there,” I wrote back then. “In Chestertown there are few blacks who live in the nicer homes instead of shanties.” It was the first time that I really understood the huge chasms that could exist between people based on race and class. I walked around in a haze for the next few days and was haunted by those images long after my stay at Washington College.
What I didn’t know back then was that those shanties were a symptom of a larger problem, a town that was still reeling from centuries of prejudice. Chestertown was founded in 1706. According to “History in Towns: Chestertown Maryland,” written by Gloria Seaman Allen for the April 2003 issue of The Magazine Antiques, it was the “official port of entry for British goods” and by the mid-1700s “the largest and most important town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.” Slaves from the West Indies were imported along with grains and tobacco. Many of them settled on Water Street, first in slave quarters around the plantations, and later in the alley houses and shacks as servants and factory workers.
In the 1950s and ’60s, as African-American people fought for equality, Chestertown dragged its feet. In 1962 “Chestertown itself remained deeply divided along racial lines,” wrote Sheila West Austrian in “The Freedom Riders Come to Chestertown,” an essay in Here on the Chester: Washington College Remembers Old Chestertown, a new book that coincides with the town’s 300th anniversary. “Most black residents worked as farm laborers or in food-processing plants. Aside from the black Garnett School and the black churches, there were few middle-class jobs open to African Americans. . . . For white citizens, Chestertown seemed almost like an idealized Norman Rockwell community,” but a survey of “segregated slum housing adjacent to the campus . . . found that many black homes had no indoor plumbing and that fires from kerosene heaters were common.”
“Chestertown was very late in eliminating segregation,” Norris Commodore, a Chestertown native and a member of the Washington College Board of Trustees, says via phone from New York. “I believe it was ’66 or ’67 when they actually integrated schools,” he says, even though Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.
“Theoretically, [Washington College] was not a segregated institution, for the admissions policy did not explicitly exclude blacks,” Austrian writes. However, “The Registrar at the time, Ermon Foster, later told history professor Nathan Smith that any applications from African-Americans had been rejected.” Washington’s first African-American student graduated in 1962, but the college didn’t start actively recruiting minorities until the 1990s. Commodore, who helps the college reach out to minorities today, says that when he was attending Washington College in 1969, there were 10 black students out of 800. Now, he says, there are 30 out of 1,200. “The town hasn’t changed, even now,” he says.
I returned to Chestertown in early May, 20 years after my initial visit, for the town’s first African-American Heritage Weekend. I noticed some differences right away. Praise dancers from a local church danced onstage to lively gospel tunes by Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin. Fifty or so vendors sold African-American and Afrocentric jewelry and clothing, and festival-goers walked to Queen Street to see the renovation of the Charles Sumner Post No. 25, Grand Army of the Republic hall, built in 1908 as a meeting place for black Civil War veterans.
But the most noticeable change was the absence of the shanties. Since my visit, they had been torn down to make way for new development. Little information is available about them today, but they left their mark on the residents, like a wound that refuses to heal.
üI remember the clapboard houses with tar-paper shingles along Water Street. You would have passed them on the right if you were going to the old wharf,” says William Pickrum, a Chestertown native and president of the Kent’s Board of County Commissioners. “They were barely standing.” Historically, waterfront property wasn’t attractive to white people, because of the mosquitoes and other vermin that existed around the water, Pickrum says. “It’s wasn’t until the last half of the 20th century that waterfront property became desirable.”
But Elmer Horsey, Chestertown’s mayor from 1978 to 1994, says people exaggerate the state of the now-demolished homes. “There were some very old frame houses that were in bad shape, but we didn’t have any shanties,” he says, insisting that there are no racial tensions in Chestertown.
But newspaper stories from the 1980s tell a story of a town still mired in racism. In a February 1985 Baltimore Sun article about racial progress in Chestertown, a local bank president admitted to never having hired a black person, and an anonymous white community leader said that the town lacked qualified black people to fill positions, calling it a “question of culture,” as they lacked the “motivation to acquire the necessary education and skills.” The women’s auxiliary at the hospital still had separate white and black branches in ’85, and a month before the article came out a black man was “attacked on the street by five white men, beaten and robbed after having a few drinks in a white bar.”
Commodore says unofficial segregation continues in Chestertown today, attributing it to the lack of a black middle class. “So you end up with the have-nots and the haves,” he says. “Chestertown is a very rich place, and most of the black people there are just getting by.”
ýn the 2000 U.S. Census, 1,038 of Chestertown’s 4,746 residents were African-American. The median family income in 1999 was $40,960, with black people making just $18,450 compared to white people’s $51,250. Of the 120 families below the poverty level at the time 60 percent were African American, even though black people only make up only 22 percent of the population.
Gentrification has been steadily taking over Chestertown. Lots near the corner of Water Street where the shanties once stood are now being turned into $500,000 condos.
Hilda Hopkins, 80, lives on Water Street in a mint-green age-worn house. She remembers when the folks who lived in huts across the street from her were moved out of town to low-income areas in Washington Park and Calvert Heights. It was around the late ’80s, she says. A member of a local neighborhood association “had a meeting and told us to get out and go live somewhere else,” Hopkins says. “She wanted the blacks out.”
Former mayor Horsey says a developer bought the homes in the late ’80s, but it had nothing to do with displacing African-American people. According to a July 1985 article in The Sun, however, the NAACP filed a suit two years earlier on behalf of evicted residents, accusing the city of displacing black residents and veiling the demolitions as historic renovation.
Even as racial divides persist in Kent County, African-Americans have made strides. Kent’s first black county commissioner was elected in 1994, and in 2002 Pickrum became the first African-American president of the Board of County Commissioners. Washington College President Baird Tipton has created a scholarship for African-American students in honor of Vincent Hynson, a former teacher, coach, and reverend, who graduated from the college in 1987.
Margo Bailey, who works in Chestertown’s Compleat Bookseller, talks candidly about her town’s racial tensions: “The fault lied in the white community, because we didn’t know or were unwilling to learn how to go out into the African-American community to find out who the leaders were.” Twenty years later she says she still doesn’t know how to mend the racial tensions that abound here.
Walking through downtown Chestertown today, many things have changed in my life. I grew up, fell in love, and married, had two writing careers and a child. And I am now fiercely sure of my racial and cultural identity. But Chestertown feels much the same as it did so many years ago.
As I drove out of town, I saw five little boys, one white and four black, walking toward town. They were a harbinger of hope. Finally, I thought to myself, integration.
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