A Report on Integration In a Maryland Town: III

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").