Aug 22, 2018 12:00AM ● Published by Brian Saucedo
By Margie Elsberg
On Legacy Day in Chestertown every August, the crowd that fills Fountain Park and dances into the night on High Street grows larger every year. Maybe it’s the big band that rarely takes a break, maybe it’s the fish fry, crab cakes and more, and maybe it’s the fun of catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a really long time. From the looks of the crowd, though, one thing is clear: everyone is welcome on Legacy Day.
This year, Legacy Day is set for Saturday, August 18: a free genealogy workshop at 10 a.m.; a gospel concert at Jane’s Church at 2 p.m., one block from Fountain Park; a classic car (and more) parade at 5 p.m.; and a downtown street party ‘til 10 p.m.
Five years ago, when Kent County’s latest festival was brand new, it was all about Charlie Graves’ Uptown Club, a storied stop on vaudeville’s “Chitlin Circuit” in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Fats Domino, B.B. King, Etta James, James Brown, Patti Labelle, Ray Charles, and countless others packed the club on weekend nights in the heart of African American Chestertown.
It’s true. Just ask anybody over 55 or 60 who’s black and grew up in Kent County and watch them smile. They’ll be happy to tell you what Charlie Graves’ Upton Club was like. It was a great theme for the first Legacy Day.
Airlee Ringgold Johnson, Legacy Day chair, speaks at an Honorees Reception in 2017, welcoming long-retired teachers who taught at Garnet High during the 1960s before Kent County Public Schools were integrated.
Legacy Day’s creators know how to throw a party that will bring folks of every stripe to town, and it works every year. It’s always about history and legacy, and the parade fills downtown at 5 p.m. The honorees lead a long line of classic cars, motorcycles, drum corps, dance troupes, marching bands, and fire engines with all their lights flashing.
Then, as soon as the last engine has rolled by, a big band—Soulfied Village will be back this year—takes the stage, turns High Street into a dance floor, and fills downtown with rock, soul and funk until 10 p.m.
But Legacy Day is more than a parade and street party. Produced by Sumner Hall, the historic Grand Army of the Republic post in downtown Chestertown, the festival provides a 20th century history lesson about the local African American community. The theme this year continues Legacy Day’s focus on integration in Kent County public schools.
Last year, Legacy Day celebrated educators who taught in the public schools for African American children that dotted Kent County before integration in 1967. (Caroline County was the last Maryland county to integrate its schools a year later.) This year, Legacy Day honors the students, both black and white, who made history when they transferred from separate and unequal schools to a single system.
When the teachers and principals were in the spotlight last year, former Garnet teacher Loretta Freeman was the Grand Marshall of the Legacy Day parade, waving from the back seat of a gleaming 1937 Buick Roadster convertible to crowds that lined High Street. A bright yellow school bus followed the Roadster, carrying long-retired teachers and principals as well as representatives of teachers who are no longer living or who couldn’t make the trip to Chestertown.
Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, Mrs. Freeman probably couldn’t have imagined that she’d ever be a parade Grand Marshall in Chestertown. Freshly graduated from Bowie State College, she had landed a job teaching English and social studies at Garnet High in Chestertown, the flagship of Kent County’s African American school system. Garnet had always offered elementary level classes, but by 1953 it had expanded and was the only high school for black students in the county.
Garnet was a place of discipline and demanding standards, ruled by legendary principal Elmer T. Hawkins, and it was a source of enormous community pride.
In outlying church-centered hamlets throughout the rural county, dedicated teachers taught two, three or four grades at a time in one-, two- or three-room schoolhouses, some without indoor plumbing. Supplies were scarce, mostly second-hand, but the goal was clear: all black students would be well prepared for Garnet High and perhaps beyond.
When county schools were fully integrated, the name “Garnet” was removed from the building and the school became Chestertown Middle School. Freeman was assigned to the re-named and re-purposed school as a librarian. That’s when she and the other African American teachers, all college graduates and some with advanced degrees, discovered there had been more inequities than they’d realized.
“We didn’t know the white teachers received more money than the black teachers, and we didn’t know the black teachers were more qualified than the white teachers,” Freeman says. “After integration, many of the white teachers had to go back to school to receive their degrees, but they still acted as though they were superior to us.” She pauses, “It all settled down after a while, though.”
A Garnet High School yearbook photo included in the 2017 Legacy Day exhibition shows teachers who taught in the school for African American students during the 1960s. In 1967, Kent County Public Schools were integrated and Garnet High was closed. The building became Chestertown Middle School.
This year, it will be students from the transition years, both African American and white, who will be the Legacy Day stars leading the parade. Excerpts from interviews with some of those students as well as yearbooks, photos and other mementos, will be on display throughout August at the Kent County Historical Society’s Bordley Center across the street from Fountain Park. If last year’s interest is any indication, this year’s exhibit should be a success. Last year, more than 300 adults and children toured the center’s Legacy Day exhibit.
The Legacy Day interviews with students of the late 1960s have stirred a wide range of memories: an elementary school teacher who gave an African American girl a hug on her first day in an otherwise all-white class; delight that the high school teams were suddenly winning; an invitation to a white friend’s party that started well but ended when a shotgun-wielding neighbor warned them to leave and never return.
Even the African American students who made friends, who liked most of their teachers and did well in school talk now about how hard it was to make history.
“The decision to close Garnet was one of the worst decisions that could have been made; it felt as if all of our memories and all of the history were being left behind,” Dianne Carroll now says. “Some of the (white) kids I met were very friendly and the friendliness helped us get through the year, but it was a very traumatic year. Our purpose was to go there, get our diploma and get out.”
“We wanted to be part of the community and to be productive and not be excluded because we were black, but that’s the way it was,” Herbert Warren says. Even though he was elected president of his junior class in 1971 and felt that blacks were treated fairly by the teachers, he was already planning to leave Chestertown after graduation.
“If you stayed in Kent County, the job you got was probably the job you would have for the rest of your life, because the only way you could advance was if the person ahead of you died or moved away.”
“If you stayed in Kent County, the job you got was probably the job you would have for the rest of your life, because the only way you could advance was if the person ahead of
you died or moved away.”
Warren, Ellsworth Tolliver, Kenneth Walley and Michele Towson were among the few African Americans who attended white schools before 1967, encouraged by parents who were active in the civil rights movement. Tolliver, now a member of the Chestertown Town Council, says he moved from Garnet to Chestertown Elementary in the fifth grade and found himself in a class with only one other African American student. He made friends and remembers that his sixth grade teacher, Miss Fagin, was especially supportive, but making history at the age of 10 and 11 was lonely business. “I have to say,” he explains, “It was different.”
By seventh grade, all schools were integrated and Tolliver spent his junior and senior years at the new Kent County High School. He excelled in school but didn’t always feel that blacks were treated fairly, so he joined about 20 African Americans students who decided to protest the annual Honor Society induction ceremony.
The principal, Tom Newman, heard of the plan and urged the group to be patient, Tolliver says, and the event revealed why. He and his classmate, Michele Towson, were named the first African American members of the KCHS Honor Society.
Barbara inden Bosch and Armond Fletcher carry the banner of Chestertown’s Diversity Dialogue Group in the 2017 Legacy Day parade.
Now an attorney in Baltimore, Towson was, indeed, an outstanding student who considered integration “an adventure.” In addition to Honor Society honors, she was elected to class offices in her freshman, junior and senior years, joined the yearbook staff, sang in the chorus, played volleyball, captained the cheerleader squad, and served on a steering committee of leaders from Chestertown, Galena and Rock Hall high schools that helped plan the new high school in Worton.
Despite her achievements, however, when Towson approached the guidance counselor to discuss college, “the counselor told me to forget it,” Michele says. She found encouragement at the local AFL-CIO union hall and was accepted by both Boston College and Ohio State. “I took great pride,” Towson says, “in showing my letters of acceptance to the unhelpful counselor.”
Sud Deringer, a retired Kent County Public Schools guidance counselor who is white, was a high schooler in the late 1960s. He feels that centuries of prejudice, lack of education and poverty made it folly to think that integrating schools would suddenly make everyone equal. He says race was never discussed at home when he was young, though he played mixed pick-up basketball by the Chestertown train station and knew there was a separate school for black kids. “In elementary school, I didn’t think for a minute about the fact that we were all white," Deringer says. "I just didn’t put it together.”
He realizes now that he was looking at life through the lens of youthful white privilege.
“To take away Garnet from the African American kids was just criminal,” Deringer says. “They were disenfranchised, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It extended my
friend base—Muriel “Merle” Ringgold Thomas was my best friend. I played sports, and all of a sudden we had better depth on our teams.”
Deringer says he didn’t see the prejudice or mistreatment around him while he was in high school.
He and Merle Ringgold talked on the phone endlessly, and sometimes he would go to the Uptown Club with Charlie Graves’ son, things he never mentioned to his dad.
“My father would not have liked that,” he said.
Merle Ringgold’s sister, Eleanor Rochelle “Rellie” Ringgold, started ninth grade at Chestertown High in 1967, after Garnet was renamed and became Chestertown Middle School. Eventually she graduated with the first class to finish 12th grade at the new consolidated Kent County High School.
Rellie Ringgold says she and her friends were nervous at first about integration but maintains that “nothing awful happened.” Still, she was one of the teens at the mixed race party in College Heights when the neighbor with a shotgun threatened several African Americans teens. The following morning, she adds, the man’s daughter apologized for her father’s behavior.
Ringgold, who retired after careers in the U.S. Army and at Montgomery and Chesapeake Colleges, says she did well in her classes but missed the strong sense of community support and shared mission that her older sisters had at Garnet. In high school, she managed the field hockey team and served as scorekeeper for the basketball team.
Ringgold loves to recall that when the new Kent County High School basketball team had a winning record—a record that wasn’t surpassed until recently—it wasn’t lost on anyone that the team was all-black. “Some friends developed a special cheer in the team’s honor,” she says. “We’ve got a soul team. All coffee and no cream.”
Historian Bill Leary says the idea of Legacy Day has always been to encourage people from all communities to learn about their shared history. “On our first Legacy Day, some 1,500 people gathered on High Street to dance the night away at the very moment when most of the nation was fixated on the violence in Ferguson, Missouri.” And last year, he said, Legacy Day brought people together “in the wake of the ugly display of racism and hatred in Charlottesville.”
Members of a teen dance troupe do their routine for the crowds lining Chestertown’s High Street during the 2017 Legacy Day parade.
Airlee Ringgold Johnson is the creator and driving force behind Legacy Day, and she says the celebration has evolved over the past five years. “Legacy Day started as a celebration of the rich cultural heritage of African Americans in Kent County,” she says, “but it’s become a community-wide party where residents recognize their shared history and have a good time.”
This year’s Legacy Day will likely have a class reunion feel to it, but mostly it will be what it’s always been, a diverse celebration with great music for people who love a good party.
Legacy Day vendors on the edge of Chestertown’s Fountain Park watch the 2017 parade. The parade kicks off an evening that includes live band music and a street party that lasts until 10:00 pm
For more information about Legacy Day’s no-fee genealogy workshop at the Chestertown Public Library, the parade and street party, all on Saturday, August 18, as well as the month long exhibition at the Bordley Center, go to the Sumner Hall website: Garpost25.org.