REPORT ON INTEGRATION IN A MARYLAND TOWN
"Chestertown is Segregated to its Very Roots"
(Paul S. Cowan, a former Executive Editor of the Crimson, is in Chestertown Maryland with a group cs'led "Project Eastern Shore," sponsored by the Baltimore Civic Interest Group and the Northern Student Movement.
The job is to help educate the colored community about how to effect economic and political changes which will work in their interests.
Following is the first in a series of special reports which he has compiled for the Harvard Summer News.)
Chestertown, Maryland, July 15.
It's not easy to remember that the Eastern Shore of Maryland sits closer to New York City than does Cambridge. For instance, just two weeks ago an article appeared in the local newspaper called "Dialing? It's Easy!" It was an attempt to simplify the newly installed telephone dialing system. Part of the article advised:
"In making all calls, wait for the dial tone, a steady humming sound, before starting to dial. Don't try to dial from memory. Keep an eye on the number being called in the directory or write it down where you can see it while dialing.
Remember, you have to dial seven times, all numbers or combinations of two letters and five numbers, on all local area calls and eight times (don't forget that initial "1") on all others in the state and 11 times on out of state calls.
Dialing? It's easy.
My landlady, a Negro woman of about 70, is still reluctant to try her luck on the new apparatus. When I try to share my specialized knowledge with her she replies "Well, I still don't have the hang of it. I'll try it again when I'm alone. Sooner or later I'll catch on."
Many local radio stations from Baltimore and Philadelphia have trouble finding their way down here. For news, as a consequence, most of the townspeople must depend largely upon national net-works, or daily editions of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun whose twin appearance on local newsstands is Chestertown's largest concession to cosmopolitanism.
Nor does the information from these sources always filter through the thick complexity of daily life. One evening a friend and I were sitting on the porch of our boarding house chatting with one of the neighbors. After reminiscing about her first husband, whom she married in 1915, and asking us whether the sinking of the Titanic preceded World War I or II, she wanted to know whether we thought there would be another war. We muttered and rambled for a while, until she asked us: "Who is it that's so strong now? Germany?"
Chestertown is segregated to its very roots. Negroes, of course, catch it worst, most of them living in down-at-the-heels wood frame houses, unable to find employment in the town's stores or service in its restaurants. But Jews don't fare so well either, and for the real Shore citizen no one born elsewhere can ever be regarded quite as an equal. "If you're not born here you'll always be an out-sider" the town's mayor told a group recently. What he meant was that only the natural elect can arrive at relevant judgements of local affairs.
This attitude is writ large upon the town's constitution. Earlier on in American history, Daniel Webster got himself into a debate in the New Hampshire House of Representatives when he attacked the Tory notion that power follows property. But news travelled slowly in those days and apparently this piece of information never did get to the Eastern Shore. Only citizens who posses title to more than $500 worth of property within the town's limits can vote in Chestertown elections. The great majority of citizens, both white and colored, either rent their land or own considerably less than $500 worth: in the last election only 234 of the town's 2,400 residents were eligible to vote for their mayor. They signed write-in ballots, as is the custom, and re-elected an aging Ford dealer who has been protesting his unwillingness to serve for most of his 30 year term.
A man totally unschooled in the ways of segregation would find nothing extraordinary on the surface of Chestertown's daily business life. Both Negroes and whites do their serious shopping on the town's main street and neither race is confined to the "inside lane." Negroes loiter in white areas, and when colored people talk and walk together no one seems to wonder on whose ground they stand. If Negroes eat at the same crowded restaurant or get their haircuts in one of two tightly packed barbershops, well, they might prefer it that way.
Outside of employer-employee relationships the lives of the two races rarely intersect. An exception occurred this weekend when the Campbell's Soup factory held its annual open house, a "once a year day" complete with fried, chicken, cold soda, popular music, and softball. But the factory needs every bit of Negro support it can muster. Along with Vita Vita Foods (who distribute Eastern shore pickles and herring up and down the Atlantic seaboard) it is the town's chief source of Negro employment: about 90 per cent of the colored people here work in one of the two plants. Just now there is a strong movement to unionize the Campbell's plant which offers, as its maximum wage for skilled laborers, $1.90 an hour. (An unskilled laborer who works across the Chester River in Wilmington Del. can earn around $2.40 an hour; a skilled worker at Campbell's unionized Camdem plant earns around $2.70
When two groups of students held sit-in demonstrations here this winter, the white community was forced to realize that there was more to this integration idea than just talk. Although there was only one real "incident" then--a group of students were chased from a roadside tavern back to town, and a week later they were permitted to enter the same place untouched--there may yet be a certain amount of potential difficulty here. The whites have not yet made a major concession to their colored neighbors, and it's difficult to tell how they will accept integration when it begins to become a fact of daily life.
The sit-in demonstrations gave rise to a certain amount of activity among the Negroes here. It caused for example, the formation of a local chapter of the NAACP. However, none of the local Negroes have much knowledge of political tactics or ideas, and what's more every local leader is deeply dependant upon the white community for economic security. Right after the sit-ins the colored community did manage to organize a boycott of all stores in town which do not employ Negroes. The only hitch was that after a week or so people grew weary of shopping in Wilmington and informally dissolved the boycott, having gained nothing.