A Report on Integration in a Maryland Town

These articles, which recently won the Dana Reed Prize for undergraduate writing, first appeared in four separate issues of the Harvard Summer News last year. They were filed directly from Chestertown, Maryland, where Paul S. Cowan worked with a group called "Project Eastern Shore," sponsored by the Baltimore Civic Interest Group and the Northern Student Movement. Their purpose was to educate the Negro community in how to effect economic and political changes in their own interest. The series will be run in three installments, with the original date of each article appearing before the text.

I: July 15, 1962

CHESTERTOWN, MD.

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 "I") on all others in the state and 11 times on out of state calls.

"Dialing? It's easy."

My landlord, 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."

Concession to Cosmopolitanism

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 networks, 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 outsider," the town's mayor told a group recently. What he meant was that only the natural elect can arrive at relevant judgments of local affairs.

Who Can Vote?

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 possess 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 that $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 together no one seems to wonder on whose grond 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 in that way.