By MacKenzie Brady
On Saturday, Sept. 12, the Chestertown community came together on High Street to paint the “Black Lives Matter: Chestertown Unites Against Racism” street mural. The mural is located between the crosswalks at Court Street and Cross Street, across from Memorial Plaza.
The Chestertown community united again the following Saturday, Sept. 19, to paint the “We Can’t Breathe: Chestertown Unites Against Racism” street mural on College Avenue. This mural is located between Calvert Street and Prospect Street, next to H. H. Garnet Elementary School.
Wanda Boyer, a member of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice; Maria Wood, executive director of River Arts; and Arlene Lee, ’82, a member of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice, came up with the idea of painting the murals in June. They assembled support through community outreach, wrote the proposal for the murals, and did the legal research required to get them approved by the Town Council.
According to Boyer, the murals have two meanings.
The “Black Lives Matter” mural means simply what it says, according to Boyer. Lee said it also means that the community hears and sees Black lives, working as a sort of call and response.
It was decided that the “Black Lives Matter” mural would be painted on High Street because of the history of racial inequality and injustice downtown.
The “We Can’t Breathe” mural is “more personal,” according to Boyer.
“We’re talking about the community itself in this particular area [College Avenue], and why we can’t breathe is because what we have been asking for — for years — is inclusivity,” she said.
Boyer said that the Black community wants to be included in the events downtown.
“[Uptown,] we just want you to talk to us, see us, get to know your community. Have some stuff for us. We live here too,” Boyer said.
“We Can’t Breathe” was chosen because, as Boyer said, “we always feel like your foot is on our back — on our neck … You come up [to College Avenue] and we’re not even acknowledged. The only thing we are acknowledged for in this particular area is the distribution of drugs.”
Boyer said that it is a misfortune that the conversation regarding the Black community is always focused on the distribution of drugs, because “nobody [is] coming up here to purchase [drugs], because our white population is here, purchasing it, but you never hear about that. It’s always about the distribution, and that’s such a misfortune.”
“So, this is personal, we can’t breathe, because we’re talking about the Black community up here. We just want to be included. Give us something. Hear us,” Boyer said. “We have to make people feel a part of. White people always want people to come downtown. Why people always gotta go downtown? It’s other streets. We don’t always have to go downtown. Let’s bring some stuff uptown.”
After coming up with the idea in June, Boyer, Wood, and Lee originally thought that they would be painting the murals in the first week of July.
On July 6, they took their idea to a Town Council meeting, where they were shot down by Mayor Chris Cerino.
“The mayor immediately said that it was a terrible idea, that it would harm the historic charm of downtown Chestertown,” Lee said.
Cerino was not alone in his opposition. Councilman David Foster worried about the legality of the project. Councilman Thomas Herz, Jr. also said he needed more time to consider the project.
Only Councilmembers Meghan Efland and Reverend Ellsworth Tolliver initially supported the idea. They encouraged Boyer, Wood, and Lee to come forward with the permits.
“One of the real ironies of this process has been, there was this sort of argument. ‘This mural doesn’t belong in the historic district; it doesn’t fit in; it won’t be aesthetically pleasing; it’s not the right message for this charming, colonial town,’” Wood said. “Karen Somerville wrote that absolutely beautiful piece about the ‘charm’ of downtown Chestertown, and you know, she surfaced that, but even after that, there was almost no mention of that fact that who built those houses? It wasn’t white people. So, the fact that people don’t put those things together — I mean we embrace the history of Chestertown, we love that George Washington slept here, but we only look at one side of that coin.”
Two weeks later, they submitted their 20-page permit request, which had an addendum where the trio attempted to counter the unfavorable arguments, explain the impetus behind the initiative, outline what they were trying to accomplish with the murals, explain how they would execute them, and named their early supporters.
Boyer, Wood, and Lee created both an online and paper petition to collect signatures in support of the murals. Between the two petitions, they collected over 1,400 signatures. Of them, roughly 300 were Chestertown residents, and over 300 more were residents of Kent County.
Despite their supporters, there was still opposition. A letter threatening a lawsuit against the town even came in — before the request for a permit was submitted.
“I don’t know of any time that a lawsuit has been threatened before you even know what you’re suing over,” Lee said.
According to Lee, who is a lawyer herself, the legal issues raised in the letter were incorrect.
“They were saying it violates the historic commission ordinances and violates the planning and zoning ordinances. One, the ordinances in the town around the street very clearly observe all rights and decisions around the streets to the mayor and the council, period end of story. So, they were just wrong,” she said.
Boyer, Wood, and Lee also held a question and answer session with their lawyers at Fountain Park so they could answer questions after people complained that there was no public hearing.
According to Lee, there were no questions at that session that represented any opposition.
“I guess they didn’t take us up on the opportunity to have an open dialogue,” Lee said.
“When we first started this [project], all three of us thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun,’ and none of us were entirely convinced that it was…the most meaningful thing that we could be doing at the time. We just thought that it would be nice to do, it would be fun to do, it would be a community activity,” Lee said.
As they continued pushing for the murals, there was more opposition and deeper support.
“The support became more profound and more emotional,” Lee said.
As the situation continued to develop, Lee said it became clear that the mural initiative was “one of the most meaningful things that is happening in Chestertown because of the dialogue around it.”
According to Lee, the continuing dialogue made the trio move from thinking the project would be “a nice community event to realizing that it was profoundly important in the history of Chestertown.”
At an Aug. 10 Town Council meeting, which was held specifically to talk about the murals, Boyer, Wood, and Lee officially requested permits for the murals and stated their case to the council. Afterwards, dozens of community members voiced their support for the murals, citing the need for racial justice in Chestertown.
Among them was Interim Provost and Dean of the College and John S. Toll Associate Professor of Business Management Dr. Michael Harvey, who delivered a speech that outlined the history of slavery and racial injustice specifically in Chestertown and at Washington College.
The two opposers of the murals present at the meeting wanted to distance the town from the Black Lives Matter organizations because of its beliefs.
In an effort to distance the BLM organization and give the murals a personal note, Cerino suggested adding the tagline “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” to each mural. Boyer, Wood, and Lee agreed to this amendment, and the council unanimously voted to adopt “Black Lives Matter,” “We Can’t Breathe,” and “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” into their town speech.
The council also unanimously voted to approve the painting of the murals.
“Eventually, we got there, because I think they saw that we were going to keep coming, and while we kept coming, we were bringing other people with us — our supporters,” Boyer said.
Before the murals were approved, however, there were several hurdles regarding the location, size, and design of the murals.
“Initially the hopes were high, but when they started making us jump through these hurdles, I started seeing the joy be removed with disappointment. And with the last time I had to report back to the community and I told them we needed to move — you know we had to do something else — the joy was already gone, and it had gotten to the point where they told me, said, ‘Why don’t you leave those white people alone, they’re not trying to do anything for us.’ And I was like, ‘No we got to keep hope alive — come on it’s going to happen, we gotta keep hope alive.’ So, I kept coming, I kept showing up,” Boyer said.
When the time finally came to paint the murals, all volunteer spots were filled within 48 hours. An additional 65 volunteer slots were available to help support the project on the day of the event, and those filled within a matter of days as well.
According to Lee, over 140 people came on Sept. 12.
Gordon Wallace, one of the artists who designed the murals, led the volunteers who painted the “Black Lives Matter” mural. According to him, the painting took about six hours.
“I feel more a part of the community — like overall, area of Chestertown — just because it was such a large turnout for the actual painting,” he said.
Wallace hopes that the younger generation can see how the community came together to paint the murals so that when it is their time to make community decisions, they will be more willing to unite with each other.
He also hopes the murals open peoples’ eyes to the injustices that are happening, and they start to look for answers, question things, and have an overall better awareness of what is occurring.
Jason Patterson, the 2019 Fredrick Douglass visiting fellow, volunteered for the first mural as part of the WC History Group, which was organized by the WC President’s Office.
Patterson, Instructional Technologist Raven Bishop, and Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies Dr. Meghan Grosse, all helped chalk and tape out the letters for the mural.
When Patterson first heard about the proposed murals, after similar murals had been painted in larger cities like DC, he worried that the gesture would be disingenuous and superficial. He said he completely changed how he thought about it after he saw clips from the Aug. 10 Town Council meeting.
“I think the assumption was that they didn’t have enough votes to get it approved, but by the end of that council meeting it was approved unanimously. And to me, what changed my mind is you’re in a different situation, between a major city like DC or New York or anywhere else, when you’re in a town of 5,000 people in an extremely conservative congressional district; it’s going to mean something a little different. And what specifically changed my mind about it was hearing people from the Black community of Chestertown — who unlike me, are from here, grew up here, this is their ancestral home even — who wanted it,” Patterson said.
At the painting of the “We Can’t Breathe” mural on Sept. 19, Boyer emphasized that it was a day for community unity. Along with the chalking, taping out, and painting of the mural, there was a voter registration booth, a Chesapeake Heartland table with photographs of historic Black businesses and people from Chestertown, and two of Wallace’s photos from his “Answer the Call” exhibition, which is on display at Sumner Hall.
“We hope — we pray — that with doing this, this will be the start of a new era for history for Chestertown. Old history shall die. New history we will make,” Boyer said in her opening remarks.
Four local clergymen and four councilmen were at the second mural painting. They each gave a short speech and then were given paint rollers to begin painting the mural and the faith-based community unity it represented.
“When I look out and I look down this street, and I can see that we have come together — Black, white, across races, unified — to be able to bring about a positive change in this community, it makes me rejoice. And I just want to say, let’s not let it stop here, but let’s continue to pray; let’s continue to grow, let’s continue to move forward, let’s continue to encourage each other; let’s continue to empower each other and inspire each other to do exactly what is right — not be motivated, not be moved, by whatever the popular or public opinion seems to be, but to be moved by what we know is right and true in our hearts for all human beings,” Reverend Robert Brown from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church said.
Throughout the day, volunteers painted portions of the mural while listening to music, catching up with friends and neighbors, and enjoying complimentary snacks and bottles of water at a safe social distance.
Juniors Jillian Curran and Patricia Woodworth were at the “We Can’t Breathe” mural painting. Both are interns at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience who work on the Chesapeake Heartland project, an African American humanities project.
“It’s just a really cool concept, a really cool mural, and we wanted to come out and support it and support this cause because it’s so important,” Curran said.
In the six weeks since the idea was originally proposed at the Town Council meeting, not only have Boyer, Wood, and Lee worked to unite the community, but Tolliver has introduced a resolution to acknowledge racial injustices of the past and establish a human rights commission to investigate and resolve instances of discrimination.
“We certainly had no idea that it was going to become something that really captured the moment that we are living through — in all kinds of angles on that: positive, negative, unified, divided — and that it would be something that people here would really care so deeply about — on all sides again,” Wood said.
According to Lee, at the last Town Council meeting, Cerino decided not to hold the vote on Tolliver’s resolution, which was published for two weeks and open for discussion. Instead he introduced a plan that he produced over the Memorial Day weekend.
Cerino’s plan features a logo for Chestertown United Against Racism, has a 16-month timespan, and lays out three pillars — legislation, education, and unification — with different actions under each section, according to Lee.
“The mayor had never spoken to the Black councilman about this plan to address racism until a couple hours before the meeting, and it’s a 20-page document. The message of ‘Do you hear us? Do you see us? Are you including us?’ was clearly lost on the mayor, and that’s unfortunate,” Lee said. “It can be true that we have come a long way in six weeks, and there is unity, and there is joy; and it can also be true that the mayor demonstrated white privilege in its starkest form by silencing Black involvement. I mean I’m sorry, but without talking to the Black member of the council — it speaks a lot to his level of inclusiveness and engagement. Those two things can be true at the same time. So, the process is flawed, but the conversation, dialogue, and framework is beautiful” she said.
Aside from policy changes, those involved with the murals hope they sparked more conversations about race and racial justice, both in public settings with markers and placards about Black history and contributions to Chestertown, and in private as people talk to their friends about race.
“There are two kinds of racism: individual racism — individually mediated racism, that which is personal — and then there’s systemic racism. And my hope for the murals is that the dialogue people are generating — the good and the bad — will help address racism on both levels. That people will begin to recognize and understand individually mediated racism in a different way, and that they will begin to recognize and work on systemic racism in new and different ways,” Lee said.
According to Wallace, these conversations are also a source of informal education.
“I believe a lot in education — not just formal education, but informal conversation, having open discussion, asking tough questions to different individuals of different races because I feel like as we gain more insight on each other, we can actually find a common ground,” Wallace said.
Wallace stressed the importance of having these conversations and being in the conscious space to talk about race.
Boyer emphasized the need to gain confidence within the Black community. She encouraged people who come to College Avenue to look at the mural to say hello to anyone they may be passing on the street.
According to Lee, one of the things that still needs to be improved is engaging more people across the town, county, and WC, because their relationships are very connected.
She said that last year’s incidents in which Black women at WC were harassed by Kent County high school students should have had a joint response from the College and the county school system.
“But we didn’t do that. Both systems responded separately, and I think that’s unfortunate because there was this joint experience and we needed to address it together. Together, instead, we rallied the town around BSU and so there were probably 300 town members that stood outside the convocation that day. And that was our way of saying, ‘We’re connected to you. These are our students that are harassing your students, we recognize this,’” she said.
Lee also said that there was another side to the College’s relationship to the town, and that was through Chestertown’s Black community working in WC’s facilities.
“And so, we have, I think, levels of connection that we have to acknowledge, especially around social justice and racial justice, and that we can work together on. And one of my hopes from all of this is that, as we move forward and move past the pandemic and can actually be together again, that we can start working together on issues that are common across the town and the county and the College,” Lee said.
Whether the work is being done in the community, at the College, across the county, or some combination thereof, there is a lot of work to be done, and the murals are just a starting point, according to public sentiment.
“When we started this conversation about the murals, [we] said, ‘If the murals don’t get passed, we’re going to be okay because the necessary conversations have started.’ And these are some necessary conversations. We can no longer skate by it. We’re going to have to get uncomfortable,” Boyer said.