CHESTERTOWN — Historic signage was unveiled Saturday afternoon at the corner of Calvert Street and College Avenue, where for 42 years the Uptown Club was the lifeblood of the local Black community.
Its proprietor, Charles Henry Graves, a former U.S. Army sergeant, was able to bring some of the giants of rhythm and blues and early rock to the neighborhood known as “Santiago.”
Though it was a well-known stop on the chitlin’ circuit, an informal network of theaters, bars, restaurants and other venues catering to Black audiences before the Civil Rights movement, the Uptown Club was more than a night club that hosted the likes of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Etta James.
It was here that in many ways on many days Charlie Graves lifted up an underserved community.
On Saturday, as part of the Juneteenth celebration in Chestertown, a large plaque to be mounted was unveiled as homage to Graves and the multi-enterprise operation that he built.
The Uptown Club featured a music venue, a restaurant, bar, billiards hall and a package store.
It was razed in 1988 to make room for affordable housing.
Graves’ daughter Monica attended Saturday’s dedication, describing the moment as “bittersweet.”
As a youngster living nearby on Prospect Street, she came to regard the Uptown Club as “home” where she spent many a day, night and Sunday.
The area continues to be very important to her, she said.
Monica Graves-Bentley said the historic signage “will become a growing testament” to her father and the Uptown Club, honorees of the inaugural Legacy Day in 2014.
In addition to being the proprietor of a popular music club, Charlie Graves was a respected figure in the community.
An advocate for voter registration, in the 1960s and ‘70s, on Election Day, he would drive people to the polls and his restaurant would provide lunch specials for those waiting for a ride.
He was a supporter of equal rights and racial and social justice during the era of segregation, worked diligently for the Democratic Party in Kent County, helped to organize a local contingent that attended the March on Washington in 1963, and made the dance hall space available for the local unions of Campbell Soup and Vita Foods to hold their meetings.
“He always tried to help whenever he could,” Graves-Bentley said in a February 2014 interview with the Kent County News.
She said her father helped people in the community find jobs and housing, and supported the local churches in their fundraisers. He also provided advice and guidance to others in the community who were looking to start their own businesses.
It was an emotional day in 1988 when the Uptown Club was torn down, Graves-Bentley said, but at the same time she applauded her father for having the foresight to see the need for affordable housing.
The new signage is an indication that Charlie Graves’ legacy lives on.
“We’ll always remember what he meant to Chestertown, and what Chestertown meant to him,” Graves-Bentley said Saturday.
In a follow-up email to the Kent County News, Graves-Bentley on Tuesday, June 21 wrote: "I am so overwhelming happy to see this signage get erected. Since the 1st Legacy Day honoring my dad and the Uptown Club I have been trying to keep the legacy alive with different events and involvement in community activities.
"Even though the physical building is no longer there, this sign will provide an ongoing reminder of a historical building and great man that offered entertainment and community involvement for the Kent County and Delmarva area.
"The establishment allowed the community of Chestertown to be included in the national “Chitlin” circuit of entertainers throughout the east coast. The Uptown Club and Charlie Graves will now be memorialized for years to come and I am so proud of what my parents accomplished."
The marker at the site of the Uptown Club is the second signage in as many years to recognize the history of the Black community in Chestertown.
The first was at the Port of Chestertown Marina, which is “where human beings captured from Africa were enslaved and transported to be bought and sold.”
In the next year, historic signage will be placed at Bethel AME Church, 237 N. College Ave., and Janes United Methodist Church, 120 S. Cross St.
The project is led by John Queen, Karen Somerville and Cindy Fulton.