By Cassy Sottile and Erica Quinones
Students’ return to campus was highlighted by a day of reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the effects of racism throughout the Washington College community.
Several events were held on campus and throughout Kent County in honor of Dr. King on MLK Day, Jan. 20. These events included a breakfast in Rock Hall, a luncheon in Hynson Lounge, a Dr. King read-in in the Egg, a workshop by the Racial Inequity Institute (REI) in Decker Theatre, and a mixer and jazz concert in Hynson Lounge.
Some co-sponsors of the events included the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project, Sumner Hall, WC’s Black Student Union, Diversity Committee, and the Office of Intercultural Affairs.
WC had several representatives at the breakfast, including President Kurt Landgraf and Deputy Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Dr. Patrick Nugent.
At the breakfast, Dr. Nugent delivered a speech about remembering how Dr. King “grappled with history in almost every sermon and essay he ever wrote” and “understood history as alive, as ever-present, as a powerful change-agent.”
“I examined how Dr. King used history to strengthen his activism in the present moment,” Dr. Nugent said. “To take hope from predecessors, to revise harmful mythologies, and to forge perspective and persistence.”
The breakfast also served as the pulpit for two program managers from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), who announced that the Smithsonian Museum will bring 15 staff members to Chestertown between April 21 and 26 to launch the Community Curation digitization program, according to Dr. Nugent.
The celebration of Dr. King’s life continued on campus, with the largest event being the REI Groundwater Workshop.
The program requested participants dedicate three hours to a presentation on racial inequity in the United States. Despite its length, Decker Theatre was full with students, faculty, and community members alike.
Reiney Lin and Martin Freedman from REI, a black-owned and led group centralized in Greensboro, NC, led participants through the past and present of racial inequity in the USA, using a data-focused format.
“[REI Groundwater] was a chance to deepen our understanding of what racism means in this country [and see a] new perspective on the past to pivot how we approach our future,” President Landgraf said.
The panel’s primary message was a belief that racism is in the groundwater of American society. To use their metaphor, if many fish begin dying in a lake, the question is not what the fish did wrong but what is polluting the lake. However, even if that lake is cleaned, if the pollutant exists within the lake’s aquifer, the lake will become polluted again.
They stressed the need to address the systemic issues of American racism as it exists in both the “lake” and the “aquifer.”
However, that does not mean they offered a solution to systemic racism. The leaders said that it is disingenuous to say they know how to combat racial inequity at WC, because there are too many factors they do not know.
Their primary advice was to address personal biases and focus on bettering oneself instead of bettering others.
“Our campus, our community, our nation has a lot of work to do when it comes to grappling with four centuries of systemic racism, and the conversations and community-building that took place on Monday are exactly the type of spaces that need to be cultivated,” Dr. Nugent said.
Chesapeake Heartland, a collaboration between the Starr Center, Kent County community, and the NMAAHC to collect and digitize accounts and artifacts of African American history in Kent County, is one model for disrupting “this nation’s long history of systemic racism,” according to Dr. Nugent.
“I do believe that Chesapeake Heartland can become . . . a model of how a collaboration can strategize everyday to be radically inclusive, how it can invest in diverse leadership, how it can genuinely share resources and authority, and how it can be all the stronger for doing these things,” Dr. Nugent said.
MLK Day served as an opportunity not only to reflect on discrimination in America, but at WC.
According to Landgraf, he believes that given what the College has been through over the past semester, it needs a forum to look at and discuss inequity.
“We must take events of last semester and turn them into an observation that what we saw yesterday is true for the United States, Maryland, Chestertown, and WC,” Landgraf said.