CHESTERTOWN — A symbolic red-, black- and green-lettered carpet was rolled out Saturday afternoon when community members painted the words “Black Lives Matter” in the heart of the downtown business district.
This is the first of two street murals to be painted as Chestertown begins to reckon with its racist past.
Setup in the 200-block of High Street on Sept. 12 began shortly after the farmers market shut down at noon. The tedious prep work included spelling out the words first with chalk and then painters tape. Lots of measuring was involved.
Eager to get started, volunteers were painting big, bold letters “B,” “L” and “A” in red about 30 minutes before the announced 3 p.m. start time. There was a pause for an opening ceremony. And then more prep work and painting followed.
Painting the last of the letters in the hash tag “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” was completed at 7:50 p.m., just ahead of the scheduled 8 p.m. finish.
Organizers estimated the work crew at 140 volunteers, which included 115 who had signed up ahead of time.
It was a diverse group in terms of race, age and income, and included Washington College staff and students and members of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice and its affiliated youth group Students Talking About Race.
Mayor Chris Cerino and council members Ellsworth Tolliver and Meghan Efland participated in the painting.
Council members David Foster and Tom Herz also were there.
“I never thought this day would come, but we finally got it,” an older Black woman said as she walked past the mural.
“It feels pretty progressive, not the Chestertown I grew up in,” said Gordon Wallace, a 23-year-old who did the graphic design for both murals.
“It’s great to see,” Wallace added.
He said the last couple of months here, marked by the Juneteenth celebration and peaceful protests of social injustices, “is the most I have felt a part of a community.”
“It was fantastic,” said Arlene Lee, who with Wanda Boyer and Maria Wood brought the mural project to town officials in early July.
“I saw no ugliness or unpleasantness,” said Lee. “All I saw was joy and happiness, a community coming together and celebrating.”
In terms of joyfulness, Lee said the mural painting rivaled Legacy Day, the annual celebration of the rich cultural history of African Americans in Kent County.
“It just felt like people were joyful and happy,” she said.
Boyer agreed, saying that the event, which was held in ideal weather, was “everything I could have hoped for.”
“I think Saturday went fabulous,” she said. “The turnout was awesome in terms of the number of people and the diversity. ... It was overwhelming.”
In her welcome, Wood pointed to the “funny idea” about street murals that she, Boyer and Lee had back in early July. “And look what has happened out of it,” she said.
“We are so happy that the community has come together to support Chestertown uniting against racism.”
Wood introduced Wallace, artist Kevin Harris and John Hutchinson, an architect who did the scale layout in the final submission for mayor and council approval.
Tolliver, a pastor and the only Black member of the town council, offered a blessing that thanked God for this public display of a community coming together and asked that the volunteers be protected. His prayer also included a request “to touch the hearts of those who may choose to do harm.”
As of press time Wednesday, Sept. 16, there had been no reported damage to the mural, according to Chestertown Police Chief John Dolgos.
On Saturday, there was only a hint of the discord that preceded town officials’ historic 4-0 vote on Aug. 10 to adopt both murals as government speech.
“It was a winding road to get there,” Cerino said in opening remarks, “but we did vote unanimously to get this done as a town project.”
While saying they believed that Black lives matter, Cerino and Foster initially were not on board with street murals as the appropriate way to get across that message. Both had concerns about the precedent that would be set. Cerino also said he worried about the “awkward” aesthetics, that a street mural would look out of place in the town’s national landmark historic district.
There also was the threat of potential litigation.
Ultimately, the mayor and council adopted the murals as government speech and the permit was issued.
“I hope this sends a clear, visual message that we’re listening,” Cerino said.
He promised to “push through as many initiatives as possible to make this town as fair, equitable and free of systemic racism as it can be.”
Cerino mentioned the council’s unanimous adoption on Sept. 8 of a Tolliver-scripted resolution that apologizes for slavery and establishes a Human Rights Commission and his 16-month action plan titled “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” that would be led by an Equity Advisory Committee.
Also speaking on Saturday was Jen Friedman on behalf of the Garfield Center for the Arts, located at 210 High St. She said the Garfield was proud to be a part of this historic occasion and fully supports Black Lives Matter.
A second mural with the anti-racist message “We Can’t Breathe,” punctuated by a raised fist, is to be painted this coming Saturday, Sept. 19 on College Avenue in the area of Calvert and Prospect streets. Chalking and measuring will be done ahead of time, so that all that needs to be done on Saturday is the painting — set to begin at 2 p.m.
There will be a short ceremony.
Boyer said she has asked Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, Cerino and all the council members to attend and would like them to talk about the responsibilities of their respective positions.
There also will be a discussion about the importance of participating in the 2020 Census, Boyer said.