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Part II

By Paul S. Cowan

(Cowan, a former Executive Editor of the Harvard CRIMSON, is in Chestertown, Md., with a group called "Project Eastern Shore.")

One has only to spend a little time with the Negro population of a Southern town like Chestertown to catch the full force of phrases like "they live in a different world." The town is tiny, both whites and Negroes have deep roots there, and yet the difference between their respective worlds is enourmous. A Negro cannot see the same town as a white, his accent is often unintelligible to his white employer (who may have been born two streets away) and no white man would think of imitating the Negro style of dress.

White businessmen, of course, view this difference as the prop on which their tranquility rests. They are assured of the support of most of Chestertown's Negro leaders, whose security still depends upon their approval. This is an increasingly tenuous sort of arrangement; yet for the past 15 years it has managed to satisfying the Negro community, providing it with unmistakable signs of material progress while masking the fact that Chestertown has not even begun to achieve actual integration.

In conversation, white leaders cannot help but suggest the kind of things they fear. "We don't like the idea of you people coming in here to destroy the quiet, placid life we all enjoy," one man told my Negro partner and I in the midst of a relatively calm discussion. "What you people don't seem to understand is that the whole thing is really a matter of choice. I don't choose to live in your people's world, and they dont choose to live in mine."

Older while men, accustomed to a calmer, more paternal relationship with their dusky charges, often talk more frankly. Chestertown's chief health officer is a grey-haired, cigar-smoking migrant from the deeper South: neither his accent nor his words suggest the compromise with Northern ways that one finds among even the most inflexible natives of Chestertown.

After insisting that his own department is thoroughly integrated (which is more or less true), he set the tone for the conversation by describing a recent meeting with a Pakistani health official. "We could learn a great deal from those people," he began, his inflecting reminding us that an honest person gives credit where it is due, even if he must praise an off-colored Asian tribe. "Do you know that their men and women never meet until they have to get married? They society has no problems of immorality."

"Your people," he told my partner, "are fifty years behind us, dirty and immoral. They just don't know how to live the right way. About 40% of their children are illegitimate. Of course our people are slipping, too; I don't know what's wrong these days, but I don't want to see it continue. You," reminded my partner, "are different; you're educated.

Indeed, a good many of Chestertown's Negroes do live in conditions appalling to whites, and to Negroes accustomed to better things. Their thin wood-frame houses which cover two unpaved streets near the center of town are cracked and peeling. One wonders (as, most likely, people have wondered for the past 30 years) just how much longer these houses can last. Many of these Negroes could afford better, but habit and the relatively low rents set by their colored landlords have kept them immobile.

Until World War II a Negro had no need of education to get on in Chestertown. He had no possible source of employment save as a domestic for a white family, or occasionally as a gardner or field worker. There were no factories in the area, and of course no self-respecting store would take him on. As a consequence most of the people who today form Chestertown's Negro middle class left home to "work private" in New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. Few of them ever intended to stay away (family roots are extremely strong among Chestertown Negroes), and by the time the war began most of them were back, in view of the homes where they had been born. But even today some of them boast of how "Mrs.---called my husband the best kitchen man she had ever seen." And despite years of subscribing to national newspapers, they are far more conscious of the private life of the hiring class than of the international events that have surrounded them. (For example one night my landlady gave me a detailed account of the Titanic's sinking, including an extensive list of its first-class passengers and a fairly clear account of most of their background.

Most of Chestertown's Negroes stayed at home and did nothing. Then, in the late 80's, Vita Foods established a factory to take advantage of the extremely rich soil on the Eastern Shore. This, together with the war industries that sprouted throughout Maryland, offered full employment for both Negro and white.

Vita takes on about 600 steady employees, most of them Negroes, and its existence made steady employment possible in the years after the war. Now Chestertown also plays host to a Cambell's Food factory, one of the many refugees from "creeping unionism" in the East. This allows the white community, if pressed, to point out that there is almost full employment for colored people, "and they receive better money than most of our white salesgirls, too."

Many of the older Negroes, recalling what life was like during their youths, share in this sanguineness. The younger ones are caught between an attatchment to home and their families' traditions, and the knowledge that they might do better elsewhere, or even in Chestertown if they defy their parents. (Getting away from home is a real problem for these young people. One of the brightest of them, for instance, quit Morgan State College in Baltimore after three months because he was too homesick; others have thought to make careers in the army, and then quit after two lonely years.)

At present, apart from ministers and teachers at the colored school, exactly six Negroes are self-sufficient: two own barber shops, one a beauty parlor, two have restaurants, and there is one under-taker. Young people, if they want to stay near their families, must confine ambitions to the possible acquisition of a skilled job either bottling pickles and herrings (at Vita) or plucking bones from dead chickens (at Campbell's)

The white communities arguement is that integration will come "through evolution rather than revolution." One might answer that the hiring of a few Negro sales-girls and floor-sweepers in white-owned shops hardly constitutes a revolution, but to say such things is to talk to oneself. Reason is no answer to the constant refrain: "we don't want trouble."

Some of the more liberal whites have learned just how deep-seated is this resistance to change. Several weeks ago the wife of one of the Gentile store owners invited a Negro to her house, to address some of the town's University graduates. Several days later she received a note saying that her house would be bombed if she continued to do such things. She immediately resigned from the University women's club, and her husband issued a public apology.

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