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A Report on Integration in a Maryland Town

By Paul S. Cowan

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


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.

An Integrated Picnic

Outside of the employer-employee relationships the lives of the two races rarely interest. 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 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 Camden 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 among 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 dependent 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.

II: July 30, 1962

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 enormous. A Negro cannot see the same town as a white, his accent is often unintelligible to his white em-employer (who may have been born two streets away), and no white would think of imitating the Negro style of dress.

White business men, 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 satisfy 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 field. "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 me in the midst of a relatively calm discussions. "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 don't choose to live in mine."

An Honest White Man

Older white 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 inflection 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? Their 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 44 percent 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," he 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 could last. Many of these Negroes could afford better, but habit and the relatively low rents set by their colored landlord have kept them immobile.

Working Private

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 areas, and of course no self-respecting store would take him on. As a consequence most of the people who today from 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 even seen." And despite years of suscribing 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 backgrounds.

Most of Chestertown's Negroes stayed at home and did nothing. Then, in the late 30'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 Campbell'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 sanguinity. The younger ones are caught between an attachment 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.

Six Self-Employed Negroes

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 undertaker. Young people, if they want to stay near their families, must confine their ambitions to the possible acquisition of skilled job either bottling pickles and herrings (at Vita) or plucking bones from dead chickens (at Campbell's).

The white communities' argument 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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