Frederick Douglass Visiting Fellow’s exhibit reframes Black history of Kent County and Washington College

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

Jason Patterson, Starr Center Frederick Douglass visiting fellow and Kohl Gallery exhibiting artist, opened his virtual exhibit, “On the Black History of Kent County and Washington College,” with an Oct. 27 artist talk hosted on Zoom.

Patterson’s exhibit comes from two years of work during his Frederick Douglass Fellowship, and is a year-long collaboration with Kohl Gallery and the Fellowship, according to an Oct. 21 email from Director and Curator of the Kohl Gallery Tara Gladden.

The project was also awarded a 2020 Chesapeake Heartland Staff/Faculty Fellowship and is featured on their website.

“[The exhibit] is powerful, it is challenging, it is enlightening, it is exquisitely rendered in terms of formal art practice, and Jason has worked tirelessly with the highest level of commitment to assuring the historical and social narratives presented in his works are well represented,” Gladden said during the exhibit launch.

Patterson’s work looks critically on the histories and legacies of enslavement, white supremacy, and racism while celebrating the experiences and achievements of Black WC students and Kent County leaders, according to Gladden.

“It presents a carefully curated narrative of resistance, resilience, and achievement from the 1780s to the present,” Gladden said.  

Patterson’s work is historically based, inspired by archived images and historical texts, including WC’s “Pegasus” yearbook and documents uncovered by Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History Dr. Carol Wilson’s research, which explores slavery at WC.

Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart introduced the exhibit as filled with images “that will be painful to look at, especially for those of us who love WC, and in some cases have spent decades or even most of our lives here. You will see other images that I hope with instill pride this evening, and maybe some of the images you see will even do both.”

Patterson frames work in historically-inspired picture frames which he designs and constructs to produce a new view of history.

“We the viewers are compelled to ask which images of the past have been considered suitable for framing and why? Just as important, who does that framing?” Goodheart said. “In the hands of a thoughtful young artist of color, Jason Patterson, collaborating with a talented young historian of color, Jaelon Moaney, our institution’s past turns out to look very different from what you may be accustomed to.”

The artwork itself consists of the frames Patterson built, reproductions of vintage documents he designed, and his drawn recreations of pictures. Some pieces Patterson did not create include the paintings — “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm (c.1795)” and “The Cornerstone (1939).” 

The informational sections on each piece’s history and significance were written by Patterson and Moaney.

Patterson said that the final product and his initial ideas are not the same thing, “it is much better than it was,” because of the influence of community members which inspired him to “put everything I could into this project” and change his approach to the work.

How Patterson reframes history was highlighted in his artist talk.

Discussing his framing of “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm,” Patterson said that the painting is unique because one can also see the people whom Simon Wilmer, the painting’s commissioner and a landowner who donated land to the College, enslaved.

The painting hung in Bunting Hall from 1986 until its removal at the behest of the Black Student Union in December 2019.

Patterson said that what is unique about the depiction of these enslaved people is that the inventory taken upon Wilmer’s death in 1798 lists the people whom he enslaved. So, it is possible to correlate the images of enslaved people with the inventory using gender and the value put on them, which partially denotes age.

This ability inspired Patterson to recreate a section of Wilmer’s inventory and put it directly beside the painting to create a vehicle “to talk about the significance of this painting to the College.”

Another piece which discusses the relationship between slavery and the College is that entitled “Sheriff’s Sale, 1845.” The piece is a direct recreation of the correlating newspaper ad which was uncovered during Dr. Wilson’s research, through which they learned of a William W. Peacock who purchased land from the College. As collateral for the purchase, Peacock used four African Americans whom he had enslaved.

When Peacock did not make his payments, the College sued Peacock and took possession of the enslaved peoples. In July 1845, the College chose to sell those people, which included two children, according to the exhibit description.

Patterson said he wanted to create this piece because “it’s a printed example of the College’s connection [to slavery].”

Patterson also highlighted his drawing of George Vickers, a United States senator from Kent County who was a staunch white supremacist. Accompanying the drawing is a stylized text from Vickers’ Senate debate against the fifteenth amendment, which gave suffrage to Black male American citizens.

The drawing of Vickers and the document are held in a double frame. Underneath the frame is part of the Maryland flag, the crest of the Crossland coat of arms.

One student noted that there is a memorial plaque to Vickers by the Dollar General in Chestertown. Patterson said that the plaque is interesting to him for both what it omits and what it says, emphasizing Vickers’ vote to not impeach President Andrew Johnson.

“When you look at the type of man he was, he was very problematic…This is why I make this work, this is why I think it’s important for us to think about these things. I don’t mean take it down, I don’t want to talk about George Vickers, we should talk about him and then see what happens,” Patterson said.

Regarding “framing horrible people in beautiful frames,” Patterson said he tries to think of the frames as a period piece. He wants the frames to fit in their time periods and be in the context of that time’s mindset.

“If you’re in Chestertown and you’re proud of your senator because he’s from your hometown, and maybe you agree with his political beliefs, this may be how you want to present him…I’m trying to take something out of the past and put it here and let us think about how things were back then,” Patterson said.

Another student asked Patterson about the Maryland flag portion which hangs below the frame.

Patterson explained that the modern Maryland flag was created after the Civil War with the idea of “creating reconciliation” between white Maryland Unionists and Confederates. 

The flag consists of the black-and-yellow of Calvert crest and the red-and-whote Crossland coat of arms/ During the Civil War, Unionists from Maryland used the Calvert crest while Confederates used the Crossland coat of arms which hangs below Vickers’ image. The coat of arms is also a white supremacist symbol.

However, this earlier section of work does not only depict infamous figures. Patterson also depicts Henry Highland Garnet.

While Garnet is recognizable as the namesake of the local Henry Highland Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown, which was the school for African American students in Kent County prior to integration, Patterson said he was surprised to see so much recognition of Garnet because he was considered a militant Black leader.

A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Garnet was born in Kent County, became an advocate for Black education, and was the first Black man to address Congress on the congressional floor. In the last month of his life, he moved to Liberia where he became the United States Minister, which is equivalent to being an Ambassador. 

Surrounding the drawn image of Garnet are Black-eyed Susans and the Liberian flag, representing his birth in Maryland and his passing in Liberia, according to Patterson.

Patterson’s exhibit continues demonstrating both histories of racism and celebrations of Black leadership and accomplishment in Kent County and at WC. 

The exhibit features framings of M. Paul Roche’s “The Cornerstone,” which depicts Governor William Paca commanding an enslaved man to lay the cornerstone of WC; a portrait of former President of the College William James Rivers, who was hired after quitting his job at the College of South Carolina when they allowed South Carolina Secretary of State Henry E. Hayne, a formerly enslaved man, to enroll in their medical school; and drawings of pictures from the 1957 and 1961 WC yearbooks, depicting Kappa Alpha brothers performing in black face.

But beside such images are also portraits of the first three African American graduates of WC — Thomas Edgar Morris ’62, Patricia Godbold ’64, and Shirley Dale Patterson ’65; a cover page and excerpts from Isaac Mason’s 1893 slave narrative; a recreation of Harriet Shephard’s story in William Still’s “The Underground Railroad,” an 1872 book which related accounts of every party of escaped enslaved people who he, an African American businessman, assisted; a portrait of Marjorie Hawkins, who was a public health nurse in Kent County for 38 years; and a drawing of Marjorie Hawkins’ husband, Elmer T. Hawkins, who was the American Teacher Association president, and principal of the H.H. Garnet School and Chestertown Middle School. Hawkins stands with former ATA President Lillian Johnson and Thurgood Marshall, who was the NAACP Chief Legal Council at the time of the picture. 

Patterson said the next steps for this project is expanding the text that is presented with each exhibit piece. He said they want the written portion to work similar to chapters in a book with longer, more in-depth explorations of the Black history of the Eastern Shore.

Gladden said they are exploring possibilities for showing the exhibit inside Kohl Gallery, where it is currently hung, but they are waiting on more information. When the possibilities are clear, they will be published to the website, which will be up indefinitely. 

Patterson’s exhibit is available on the Chesapeake Heartland’s website at https://chesapeakeheartland.org/jason-patterson-exhibit.

Featured Photo caption: Jason Patterson, the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Frederick Douglass visiting fellow and Kohl Gallery exhibiting artist, speaks on his framing of M. Paul Roche’s “The Cornerstone” (1939), which depicts the laying of Washington College’s foundation by an enslaved man at the order of Maryland Governor William Paca. Photo By Marah Vain Callahan.

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