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A Report on Integration In a Maryland Town: IV

By Paul S. Cowan

This is the concluding part of a series on integration in Chestertown, Maryland. The articles, which recently won the Dana Reed Prize for undergraduate writing, were filed from Chestertown last summer and were originally printed on the dates indicated in the Summer News.

IV: August 20, 1962 CHESTERTOWN, MD.

On the morning of the recent Campbell's unionization election here, one of the organizers for the Packinghouse Workers Union, a white women, felt sick to her stomach and was taken to the hospital. Although she vomited continually and was clearly quite sick, it took seven hours for a doctor to come. When he got around to diagnosing the case it turned out that the woman had suffered a rather severe heart attack.

The reason for the delay was fairly obvious. As a union organizer the woman had to spend most of her time with the Negro community and consequently became unpopular with the whites. Neither she nor her two Negro partners came from Kent County, and the team was called "a group of furriners" by the local newspaper. The white community might be unwilling to act violently toward her but it wasn't about to help her out when she got into trouble.

Although no one could begin to make a case that the hospital had deliberately withheld treatment, it seemed clear what had happened. As a Northerner I was infuriated by the whole thing, and wanted to make it the central point of the speech I was to give that night. When I spoke of this to my Negro partner he replied with a lesson I have had to relearn every day this summer. "It won't mean anything to these Negroes," he said. "This is the kind of treatment they have received all their lives. An incident like this one is too common-place--too much a part of the simple daily routine to disturb them at all."

The Union Loses

As a matter of fact the union lost its election at Campbell's. The factory might treat its workers very badly by Northern standards but few Negroes down here have ever had a chance to see what Northern standards are. To win the election, management had only to play upon the Negro's ignorance of life beyond the Eastern Shore, on the one hand, and aggravate the disagreements within the Negro community itself, on the other. During the week before the election white foremen contacted every worker in the factory with a warning that a union victory would mean the closing of the plant, or at least a drop in wages to the national minimum scale of $1.15 an hour. The foremen were widely believed. Management also persuaded a great many Negroes to vote against the union by arguing that if the "radical" segment of the colored community came to power Chestertown's white leaders would get angry, and withdraw from Negroes such benefits as they have been granted.

These spurious threats could remain unquestioned only because so few Negroes here can even imagine a time when segregation will end. In this sense Chestertown Negroes are unprepared for integration. They are small town Americans who have never received the local benefits which city people usually think of as a compensation for the narrowness of rural life. They cannot fully understand a set of arguments which were originally designed for urban communities, where Negroes had constantly been exposed to the sort of life that true equality can provide.

Negro Professions

Conditioned by 100 years of segregation and their prior history of slavery, Negroes here have naturally adapted themselves to the situation by creating their own world. It is a world as time-consuming as that of the white man, containing its own sets of peaks and troughs and daily routines. A fairly ambitious Chestertown white youth, for example, might plan to become a doctor or lawyer or store owner as a way of growing wealthy and serving his community. Young Negroes, similarly ambitious, aspire to the positions of undertaker or hair dresser or caterer. Traditionally no young Negro who has stayed in this community has been permitted to hold a professional job, in the white man's sense of the word. As a consequence the most ambitious young people develop skills either in positions where white men will accept them, such as catering; or where they can attract a great deal of fairly high priced Negro business, such as directing funerals; or in positions where they can gain their community's unquestioning respect, such as pastoring in a Negro Church or teaching in the Negro High School.

This presents a great problem for integrationists. There is no Negro in this town who considers work toward desegregation to be the primary part of his life. The Negro world, and its skilled professions, demand too much time from the best people, and guarantee them safety. It is this guarantee of safety, together with the chance to be considered an "exceptional Negro" by the white man, that makes Uncle Toms out of men like the high school principal here. But even a local minister, who speaks often of the need for integration and the sacrifices its attainment requires acts in his accustomed manner. Rather than designating his congregation's offerings for integrationist activities he uses all the money for repairs of his church or parsonage. Similarly most ministers here spend virtually all their time on projects for their churches, although their congregations explicitly look to them for leadership towards integration. Active work toward integration means constant exposure to the white world, and that is extremely difficult for most Negroes here.

Those men who do choose to work for integration face another problem which is rooted within the traditions of their community. There is no center to the Negro world here broader than the family or the local church. (And there are 11 Negro churches in a county of eight small districts.) Except through the church there is very little interchange between Negroes who live in different districts. The county's two factories, which centralize work, are beginning to change this pattern, but both are too recently arrived to have cut deeply into traditional habits of friendship. Besides, the work they require is too grueling to permit much social life after hours. Any kind of campaign outside the church is, as a consequence, extremely hard to organize.

Selective Buying

For example, one of the chief tasks of the group I have been working with is to organize a selective buying campaign--where Negroes will not shop at stores that refuse to hire them. It has been almost impossible to find a local Negro who will devote to the project as much time as it requires. When we talk to adult groups in churches we realize that they are unable to see the kind of world in which their children could live. Just to explain to local Negroes what we are trying to do, we have had to organize 8 or 9 committees who will go door-to-door in their districts explaining the purpose of a selective buying campaign; we have had to stage weekly meetings, where we talk to church congregations, in most of the district; and we have had to distribute explanatory literature each week through all the local churches. These people have never been exposed to the idea that community activity can mean social progress. It is this simple notion--that progress is possible but can only be achieved through cooperation--that an integrationist group must get across to combat the attitude, constantly reiterated by the local Negroes themselves, that "we people can never stick together, or get anywhere in the white man's world."

There are constant disappointments to this sort of work. You talk to a group of people and think that they understand you (your speech accompanied by a chorus of "that's right" and "I believe it") only to learn, days later, that no one has begun to carry out the program you suggested. You count on a man, thinking finally that you've found a real leader, and then find out that he's taken a vacation at a crucial moment, without telling anyone. You dream up ingenious techniques for organizing campaigns, set up attractive and informative evening meetings, and then see the techniques misused and the meetings sparsely attended.

But finally, you realize, this sort of failure must be discounted. Intellectuals have usually made one key mistake in projects like this one: they have blamed groups of people with less education for not responding to sophisticated language or carrying out complicated programs. But it is impossible to measure success by the accomplishment or failure of one campaign. When a people has been sealed into a hotbox world for centuries, unexposed to the real fruits of ambition, their progress toward equality must be determined on a smaller scale. If a child decides to transfer to a "white" high school, or a group of people really begins to understand that it was not born different but made so, then you have accomplished something. If you can teach them that they can gain equality by working for it, then the visible signs of progress are sure to come.

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