The Chesapeake Heartland Project sparks change for Black students at WC

By Isaiah Reese

Elm Staff Writer

I arrived at Washington College in the fall of 2016. In the dark shadow of the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray, racial tensions in the U.S. had never been sharper. As I walked the halls of WC, I saw mostly white faces — from the portraits covering the wall of the Casey Academic Center to the student body itself. As a Black student from Baltimore, Md., I felt the harsh juxtaposition of attending a predominantly white institution.  

Students from my alma mater, Baltimore City College High School, quickly dismissed the idea of attending WC when it was presented as a college option. As students at a largely Black high school, collectively, they felt as though WC’s lack of Black representation wasn’t ideal. So did I.

WC owes a thank you to the Custom House — which serves as the headquarters for the Starr Center for Study of American Experience — for the increased education surrounding Black local history. It is people like Starr Center Director Adam Goodheart and Deputy Director Pat Nugent who show true allyship in the fight toward expanding the awareness of Black history in Kent County.

According to the Chesapeake Heartland Project’s official website, the initiative’s purpose is to “preserve, share, curate, and interpret a broad array of material that documents the many facets of Kent County’s African American history and culture.” 

The Chesapeake Heartland Project is a product of our allies’ push for Black history to be told by Black people. The stories shared with Chesapeake Heartland are authentically recounted by African Americans from Kent County who wish to share the experiences had by themselves and their ancestors. In this way, the project serves to combat the historical silencing of Black voices.  

I have served as an intern for the Chesapeake Heartland Project since the fall of 2018. In my time with the project, I have encountered many stories of local Black history. I even learned that I may have ancestry rooted in Kent County. As an intern, I’ve gained insight into the life of Frederick Douglass and tracked Thurgood Marshall’s visit to Chestertown, Md. to meet with the Kent County Board of Education. The project ultimately changed my perception of WC to a more positive one. 

Still, not everyone shares this change in perspective.

According to Taylor Samuels ’20, WC should have invested more time into establishing Black research-based projects during her four years on campus.

“[The administration] wouldn’t have been so dumbfounded when the Black students said, ‘we know we don’t belong here.’”

Since my arrival on campus, I have witnessed the lack of consideration on the part of WC administration when it comes to listening to the voices of their Black students. Even taking walks around campus or grabbing food from the dining hall has proven to be a jarring reminder of our dissimilarity through the eyes of Public Safety. 

“The Public Safety officer assumed that we weren’t students and tried to kick us out of the dining hall,” Ejikeme said. 

After complaining to administration, this encounter — which I happened to be present for — was quickly dismissed under the justification of school protocol.

WC will benefit from having programs such as the Chesapeake Heartland Project, but the school will never truly evolve until it gives the power to create more similar projects, programs, and initiatives to Black students.

For years, the Black Student Union has been fighting for a house on campus that will serve as a safe place for Black students to convene and express their thoughts without fear of judgement. Currently, the only designated area for Black fellowship on campus is located in the basement of Minta Martin Hall instead of in a more adequate house, like those used for other student organizations, such as the Hillel House. Black students need a customized space to create more projects in the same vein as Chesapeake Heartland.

The Chesapeake Heartland Project is a great start to a much-needed change in the socio-educational impact of WC. In the future, the school could greatly benefit from including similar projects that are not only centered around Black people but are initiated by the Black students and alumni of WC.

Featured Photo caption: The Custom House serves as the headquarters to the Chesapeake Heartland Project, which aims to share and contextualize Black history in Kent County, Md. Photo by Ben Wang.

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