CHESTERTOWN - Kent County made national headlines Feb. 3, 1962, when the Freedom Riders came to Chestertown. It was a day that changed lives – and many who took part in it are still among us.
The Kent County Arts Council wants to help commemorate the Freedom Riders' visit and its effect on the community. Leslie Raimond, executive director of the KCAC, has obtained a grant to produce a documentary film recording memories of that day and the era before and after it – and she needs local residents to help make it a success.
Anyone interested is invited to talk about their memories at two sessions of taping for the film, Jan. 12 and 19, at the yellow building in the parking lot of the Kent County Public Library. The taping sessions will begin at 1 p.m. both days. Raimond wrote in a flier to announce the filming, "If you remember the visits by the Freedom Riders, or if you heard stories about this time from your elders, please consider being part of this project."
She added in an email, "We are seeking stories, not only about that day or several days, but about the era in general. If we don't use the stories for the film, we will use them in other displays and presentations through the GAR, etc." She said she is seeking input from all community members, not just those who were personally involved in the marches and protests.
The Freedom Riders' visit came at a time when the county's schools were segregated, as were many of the businesses. Black patrons had to sit in a separate section of the movie theater, and were not allowed to sit down to eat in the town's restaurants. The county commissioners, the town councils and the police and sheriff's departments all were white – and always had been. The Kent County News routinely identified the race of black people who had been arrested, but did not do so with whites.
Those conditions were not unusual in that day and age, when many white Americans thought that "separate but equal" treatment of racial minorities was perfectly fair. But the era's racism was about to be called into question, in a way that many still remember as a turning point in local history.
The Freedom Riders originated as a racially mixed group that, beginning in 1961, traveled by bus to the Deep South, challenging segregation in restaurants and other public facilities. Many were arrested, beaten and otherwise subjected to the hatred of the white power structure of the areas they visited. But they succeeded in bringing the spotlight of national publicity onto the racist practices they fought, and their example spurred others to do the same in different parts of the country. The Eastern Shore, and Chestertown, got their turn in the national spotlight in 1962.
Many of the marchers who came to town were college students from Swarthmore, Pa., and several New York schools. There were also members of the Philadelphia and Baltimore branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, joined by a small number of local residents. Bethel A.M.E. Church on College Avenue was the headquarters for the riders. After a morning of training in nonviolent tactics, they went out to test the willingness of local businesses to serve black customers.
The routine was simple and well understood by the restaurant owners and marchers both. A biracial group would request service, the restaurateur would read the law against trespassing, and the marchers would depart, having made their point.
However, at Bud Hubbard's, a restaurant and bar on upper High Street, they encountered a mob of angry whites whom Hubbard had reportedly invited and plied with drinks. Many were armed with baseball bats or other makeshift weapons. The mob met the black demonstrators with invective and violence. As a report in the Washington College Elm described it, the whites chased the protestors down High Street to the Vita Food factory (the current site of Dixon Valve), where members of the local black community rallied and drove them back.
There were some arrests. One local participant, the late Tyrone Johnson, then about 20 years old, recalled that he had never seen so many state police cars. The troopers supplemented the local police, and attempted to maintain order. Two black men were arrested on concealed weapons charges, and one white man for attacking a police photographer. The arrests were the main focus of press coverage, both in the local papers and in the New York Times. In fact, the Kent County News, in an editorial, said it would not report on any future protests, describing them as "publicity stunts."
The protests – which continued on a less volatile level – were a prologue to the eventual erosion of racial barriers in the county. A committee of influential locals, anxious to avoid further conflicts, convinced most of the restaurants to open their doors to patrons of all races. Still, some were reluctant to adapt. Stam's switched to take-out only business at its soda fountain, and the late "Reds" Smith renamed his tavern near Kennedyville as a "club." And, as an unintended consequence, many black-owned small businesses closed, having lost their customers to newly integrated white-owned businesses.
Raimond hopes the film project will elicit many memories of this important era in our history. Anyone interested in taking part can call 410-708-0798 or 410-778-1149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more. Or, Raimond said, "It's OK just to show up" on either or both of the filming dates.