By Victoria Gill-Gomez
Legacy Day, a celebration of the cultural heritage of African Americans in Kent County, hosted a Zoom panel of various Chestertown community members on Aug. 15. On this panel, artists, alumni, and activists discussed the shared history of race on the Eastern Shore.
The panel, which was the first of three Zoom panels to discuss the history of the Eastern Shore, consisted of artist and Frederick Douglass Starr Center Fellow Jason Patterson, essayist Jaelon Moaney, Carolyn K. Erwin ’70, Darius Johnson ’15, Jocelyn Elmore ’20, and moderator Reverend Monique Davis. They were introduced by Tara Gladden, director and curator for Kohl Gallery.
The discussion began with a preview of Patterson and Moaney’s artistic collaboration and upcoming Fall 2020 exhibition, “On the Black History of Washington College and Kent County.” This project, which began two years ago at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, was described as “one of the most incredible works that I have ever done” by Patterson.
Patterson’s collaboration with Moaney sets out to provide both a historical context and contemporary perspective on the Black history of Kent County through a series of figurative art and archived images accompanied by prose.
“When this project is done, this will not be a complete history of the county and of the College. There is so much more to keep going into and I hope that this inspires people to look more into the history of the county and the College…that will really inform us about the past as much as it informs us about our current conditions,” Patterson said.
In light of recent racial tensions from previous and ongoing bias incidents, as well as the social divide between the town and the College, Patterson showed more pieces that “[touch] on the darker side of the College’s history.”
This history includes images that he remade out of “Pegasus,” the school yearbook, showing white students mocking a Black church service and performing a minstrel show in 1957 and 1961 respectively. Both were done while white students donned blackface. The latter during which there were Black students on campus witnessing the event.
These first Black graduates of WC included: Thomas Morris ’62, Patricia Godbolt ’64, and Shirley Dale Patterson ’65.
“Everybody wants to see images of good historical things, but when we talk about these images of blackface…for me, it is really important to have that context,” Patterson said.
There are many college voices that are involved in this conversation with the Kent County community, also having to do with strategies for coping with the injustice of the historically white environment.
Elmore mentioned that her personal policy is if she does not like something, then she makes a change. For her, that change was to become more involved in standing up for the voiceless.
For Erwin, during her time at WC, this included retaliation in the classroom as she found ways to include Black voices in her notably white coursework.
Erwin, the fifth Black graduate of WC, said that “Washington College was unprepared for Black students,” regarding protection, attitude, and integration.
Even with a few Black students on campus, Erwin mentions that they were weary of “clumping” together as it would bring attention to themselves and make white students feel “threatened.” That weariness was agreed upon by the earlier Black alumni and the only remaining Black upperclassmen before her arrival at the College.
She was known as “The Black of the College” and was distinguished from the residents of Chestertown as though she was “given a license,” not a privilege, to walk among the community.
“The alumni have a part in this [fight against injustice] as well. This fight is not just for Chestertown. It starts in our communities, but we are also still a part of [the Chestertown] community whether you are [physically] there or not,” Elmore said. “If you are an alumn of the College, that [fight] still pertains to you.”
Chestertown is now taking action to begin reconciliation with the Black community of Kent County, notably with the Chestertown City Council’s unanimous vote to paint street murals saying “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe” on Campus Avenue, which borders the College.
However, there was opposition to the town’s stance of antiracism regarding a movement to paint the mural on High Street.
The opposition was meant to “protect the charm of the historic district,” according to Rev. Davis. “[The historical district] that was built on the backs and soaked with the blood of the slaves who were brought and bought involuntarily to build a community, town, county, and College to which we had the privilege of being a part of now, then, and going forward.”
Johnson included that while he was impressed by the civic conversations and efforts of inclusion, he was more focused on what comes after: “the policies and the real impacts.”
“For me, the conversation at hand showed that there is a platform to be able to have those impactful conversations and the policies that will come,” Johnson said.