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A Report on Integration In a Maryland Town: III

By Paul S. Cowan

This is the third part of a four-part series on Integration and segregation in Chestertown, Maryland. The articles were filed from Chestertown last summer and were originally printed on the dates indicated in the Summer News. The articles recently won the Dana Reed Prize.

III: August 9, 1962 CHESTERTOWN, MD.

The Chestertown Chamber of Commerce meets in one of the few air-conditioned rooms in town, a large, nicely furnished place on the second floor of the bank here. Most of its members are professional men who arrive promptly for meetings, dispatch their business efficiently and return to their comfortable suburban homes. Just now, the Commerce's main item of business is the publication of a small brochure describing the placid luxuriousness of life here in Kent County.

Because these men are professionals, they can afford to be liberal about civil rights: a rise in the Negro's economic standard will not affect them directly. Besides, their liberality is not the kind that will cause any changes. After several weeks of negotiating with a group of the town's Negro leaders, for example, the recommended to the City Council that a bi-racial council be established to discuss possibilities for fuller Negro employment. The suggestion had a double edged safeguard. If the City Council were rash enough to act upon it--which seemed to the Chamber highly unlikely--the Council would be a do-nothing organization, composed of Negro Uncle Toms and white conservatives.

By sending along this recommendation, the Chamber was able to get the problem of integration off its books, and move along to more pressing affairs. None of its members-believe that integration is an important question, for none can apply the concept of community responsibility to the "colored folk" in town. If Negro housing threatens the health of all of Chestertown's citizens, for example, it is still up to the Negro to improve his conditions: "You have your own grey ladies at the hospital. Why can't they do something to teach your people proper hygiene?" It is useless to argue with this sort of statement. Not even the most liberal white leader can imagine a time when he will have to consider the Negro as a member of the real world.

Segregation at the Hospital

The inflexibility of this attitude makes the integrationist feel that he has scored a major triumph if a member of the white community concedes the most minor point. For instance, Chestertown has a large, new hospital which can comfortably house around 50 patients. In it there are eight beds for Negroes, four to a room. Infectious and non-infectious patients sometimes must breathe the same air; slightly ill babies must lie next to old women; all Negro men and women must share the same bathroom.

None of this was known to the man who had raised funds for the hospital. In fact he boasted of his success in getting the Negroes out of their original hospital quarters, in a leaky basement. When he was first informed that they were not exactly living in splendor now, he reflected that "the first move came 15 years ago. Maybe another change will take as long as 15 years; but don't worry. It will come." Finally, after talking with some Negroes who had had first-hand experience with the hospital, he agreed that something should be done now. This was a major concession.

The Chestertown NAAPC

Until the Freedom riders held demonstrations here last February Chestertown did not have an NAACP. Of course, there was no other organization through which they could work for their rights. When the NAACP was finally established last March, and began discussing the procurement of jobs in Chestertown stores, it was branded radical by the more conservative members of the Negro community.

The organization is severely hampered by its lack of funds, space, co-ordination and experience. Few of its members can afford to give enough time or money. Its structure, and the way its meetings are conducted, stem directly from the only two kinds of institutions these Negroes have ever-known: the church, and a rather formal kind of town meeting democracy.

Like most Negro church services here, NAACP meetings usually get underway about 45 minutes late. They are usually held in a formally arranged church meeting hall, which permits a fairly strict adherence to parliamentary order. Even the most trivial decisions must be moved, seconded, and then voted upon.

The setting of these meetings often creates tiny irritations. A session might last as long as four hours, for instance, and during that time no one can smoke. The table where the secretary sits might have an altar candle on top of it, and no notes can be taken until the gathering decides whether religion permits the removal of the candle. Often the room grows stuffy, and one can keep cool only by manipulating a fold-out fan which bears a picture of the Saviour on its front cover.

Every NAACP meeting is begun by the singing of a hymn and the recitation of a prayer--and the secretary's minutes faithfully recall the hymns and prayers of the previous week.

Throughout the meetings, which are usually attended by about 30 of the town's 900 adult Negroes, religion is present. A speaker knows quite well that he can arouse his audience by invoking a familiar tone or a key word. Almost mechanically the audience's "that's right" follows any reference to the Lord, or to a Biblical legend, or any catch phrase like "do or die" "that's right, do or die").

Most of the people who attend these meetings are middle aged or older, although membership in the organization itself shows a fairly even distribution of ages. There is good reason for this. The younger people came faithfully, when the group was first established but soon grew bored, finding that the meetings rambled on for hours at a time with promises, protests, and trivial discussions replacing concrete ideas for action.

On the other hand, it is quite difficult for leaders of the NAACP to determine just what actions they should take. For one thing they must contend with a deep-seated apathy among most members of the Negro community and a bitter resentment among some of its older leaders. Besides this, most of the people in the organization have tiring jobs which occupy most of their time during the week. Men and women returning from work at Campbell's have not even enough time to change out of their white uniforms before doing their shopping. Each night the women must make sure that all their uniforms and equipment for work are washed and cleaned; many people must go off to do other jobs.

The real problem for NAACP leaders, however, is the segregation has left them totally unfamiliar with the white world, and its ways of doing business. And since the white community holds all political and economic power here, negotiations must be carried out on its terms.

But few Negroes are well-enough read to judge the white man by his literature; none, of course, has ever been invited into his living room; the only impressions Negroes have of white society derive from what they have seen as domestic servants or what they have gathered from movies and television programs.

When the NAACP does decide to act it often makes serious mistakes, largely as a result of its faulty understanding of how the white community operates. For instance several months ago a group was formed to discuss job possibilities with the Chamber of Commerce here. However, there was never a stable bargaining team, and each week a different set of NAACP members would visit the Chamber office to talk things over. Of course, since much of the meeting time was consumed by the Chamber's briefing the NAACP on what had been decided the week before, the Chamber soon began to feel a justifiable sense of frustration.

Few town leaders recognize NAACP members as the true spokesmen of the Negro community. Instead they refer to a wealthier class of local Negroes: men who, by slightly superior education, have long been leaders in their isolated world. These people, of course, have as much to lose by integration as the most conservative white man. They band together with white leaders to keep segregation alive.

A Powerful Uncle Tom

The principal of the Negro High School here has been the most powerful figure in the colored community for the past 30 years. White men speak his name with a certain amount of respect, and a few even call him "Dr." in recognition of some questionable degree. This title adds to the impression that the principal is forever trying to sustain: by using (and often misusing) large words and grand concepts, he succeeds in persuading the majority of the Negro community that his intelligence and high level of education have made him omniscient. To prevent anyone from challenging this notion, the principal has skillfully got rid of most of the other knowledgeable people who have been on the high school staff.

He is, of course, extremely careful to follow the directives of the white community. Recently the students at the Negro high school held fair, which their band was supposed to inaugurate by marching down the town's main street. A conference between the principal and the police resulted in an eleventh hour decision to change the route, and the band was instructed to follow a set of smaller streets in the Negro quarter. The principal's actions during the Freedom Rides were equally predictable. He left town himself and drew up another order saying that no teacher was to participate in the demonstration, under threat of expulsion.

A Negro Slumlord

Negroes who have become wealthy in Chestertown know that their fate depends upon the approval of the white community. Most of the worst slums here are owned by a Negro businessman who knows that his property can be condemned whenever white leaders decide to step in. This man is also a member of the Cambell's personnel department. During this month's union campaign he received some sort of payment to go among local Negroes, campaigning for management. Since he wields considerable financial influence within the colored community, he was fairly successful in allowing Cambell's executives to put across the firm's argument without openly raising the racial question.

It is men such as the school principal and the slumlord whom the white community has in mind when it discusses Negro leadership, and when it contends that even Negroes don't want integration. To gain wealth and prominence in this segregated community most of the ambitious Negroes choose to become Uncle Toms. By so doing they guarantee themselves the political support of the white community and, consequently, the support of less wealthy Negroes who are financially dependant on them.

Taken together these wealthy Uncle Toms and the militant members of the NAACP comprise only a small proportion of the Negro community here. Most Negroes have remained silent about civil rights. "You workin' for civil rights?" one young Negro asked a colored member of our project. "Man, you backin' the wrong horse. They'll never let you get anywhere so you better get out and make the money you can."

Although few Negroes in this town are well off, it would be wrong to formulate a direct equation between segregation and poverty. Many colored people here own nice suburban houses, and almost everyone has a car and a television set. For the past generation, at least concentrated on doing as well as possible within the confines of this topsy-turvy half-world. Since "doing well" often means that husband and wife must work as many as twelve hours day, few people have time to worry about anything outside their personal problems: food, entertainment, and a little extra money. Unless a group such as the NAACP sets out deliberately to arouse the community, not many of these Negroes would even think about taking the risks that the phrase "fighting for equal rights" implies

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