Black History Month comes alive in Cambridge

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper A discussion panel consisting of, from left, Bill Jarmon, Bill Batson, Shirley Jackson, Herschel Johnson and Annette Newton recently presented a personal view of growing up black in Dorchester County.

Panel discusses the reality of growing up black in Dorchester County

CAMBRIDGE — In recognition of Black History month, on Feb. 20 a discussion panel and a small audience gathered at the Dorchester County Historical Society to present a group talk about Cambridge and Dorchester County in the time of the civil unrest of the 1960s.
Entitled “Civil Unrest and the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge,” it was an ambitious undertaking. Forty-nine years ago, violent conflict and rioting tore Cambridge apart, and the heart of the African-American community burned to the ground in this city. It is not a comfortable thing to talk about, whether your skin is dark or light, and in truth the discussion that afternoon never dug deep into the terrible events of those times.

Can you blame the participants for being reticent? No. These are painful, life-changing things to remember, even if your view was only from the sidelines as a horrified spectator. These are things rarely discussed in private — life is better spent enjoying what pleasures we have now, rather than bring up the bad times. Consequently, the panel contributors talked about their background, and their experiences growing up locally in Cambridge and nearby towns.

The discussion panel was chaired by Bill Jarmon of the Harriet Tubman Organization, and co-chaired by Bill Batson, both of whom were working as teachers in the Cambridge African-American community in the ‘60s. Also speaking in the panel were Shirley Jackson, who was working as an LPN in hospitals; The Dorchester Banner’s Hometown Heroes Lifetime Achievement award winner Herschel Johnson; and Annette Newton, who served as Gloria Richardson’s secretary during the civil unrest in Cambridge.

Nick Roetzel, who was a northern lawyer and an admitted “outside agitator” during the civil rights struggles in Mississippi in the late ‘60s, opened the discussion by setting the stage. In summing up the times in question, he stated that “the bridge (across the Choptank, opened in 1935) broke down the (isolationist) attitudes, Brown vs the Board of Education raised everyone’s expectations, and when Phillips and the other canning companies closed, black male unemployment went through the roof,” setting the stage for great tension in the city.

Though the local newspapers, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, published the opinion that “oh we don’t have a problem here,” there was a problem. It was a simmering problem, it wasn’t articulated.

Bill Jarmon spoke first for the panel, offering a history of African-American settlement in Dorchester County. He welcomed the audience to “a discussion we tried to start some 20 years ago here in Cambridge.” Mr. Jarmon noted that the first black residents of Dorchester were indentured servants brought to Jamestown by Dutch trading ships who needed supplies, and had only human cargo to trade. As the new world developed, trade with England and other countries was dependent on local agriculture, which demanded a considerable amount of human labor. The end result was the slave trade.

However, in the middle of the 1800s half of Dorchester County’s African-American population consisted of free blacks, many imported from Virginia, a state that was pushing free blacks out of the state for fear of the black population exceeding the number of whites. These free blacks managed to purchase land along the rivers in southern Dorchester, and you would find, said Mr. Jarmon, “that blacks were on one side of the river, and whites were on the other side. So from the very beginning we find there was a separation of the races.

“Eventually we found there were so many laws being passed on the local level, the state level, and the federal level, that said, essentially, that African-Americans had no rights. There was no citizenship for people of color.

“Cambridge was very progressive in race relations,” continued Mr. Jarmon. “In 1870, they decided to allow the second ward of Cambridge to elect its own commissioner,” though it wasn’t until 1970 when voters in a predominantly black ward could vote for a black commissioner.

“I was born into a society where I had to understand whether or not I could do certain things. You observed, and you did what you could do, and didn’t do what you could not do. We understood the rules — you can’t do this you can’t do that.” Mr. Jarmon inferred that the conflict between the rules — white rules versus black rules, Pine Street versus Race Street — was the basis of the book title Civil War on Race Street (Peter Levy, 2003).
Bill Batson talked about growing up in North Dorchester, being and educator in a segregated school system (St. Clair Elementary), and often being in the City of Cambridge during the times of unrest. He worked on a farm, and said that the whites and blacks would sit at the same table, but not at the same time — the whites would eat first, then the blacks would eat. “’But that’s how relationships were.”

Mr. Batson said that, in his youth he was encouraged to get an education, “because nobody can take that away from you.” He said that in North Dorchester things were different, that practical matters took precedence over civil unrest. His community fought for public transportation, because if you didn’t have a car, it was difficult to get to Cambridge for shopping or business.

Shirley Jackson also grew up in the North Dorchester area, and went to a segregated school in Vienna. In her youth, in 1938-39, she said that her father was traveling down to Cambridge at night to the Board of Education and the PTA, to lobby for transportation; for a bus to carry the kids of North Dorchester to the school in Vienna, instead of having to walk two or three miles to school each way. She spoke of the difficulties of attending school and doing chores at home, trying to fit in sports at school with no transportation home.

“Our growing up years were always something we always cherished,” she said. “The family and community were much closer together, you knew all your neighbors.” Her father worked as a sharecropper, where “he got one-fourth and the owner got three-fourths of what was made on the farm, and he got a place to live.”

She went to nursing school and became an LPN, where she worked at the Eastern Shore State Hospital during the riots in Cambridge. “I worked on the second shift, and I couldn’t get home because of the National Guard” securing Pine Street.

Herschel Johnson was another North Dorchester resident in his youth, moving from school to school as his family changed houses. “I could have walked to North Dorchester High,” he said, “because it was that close to where I lived. But we were bused to Cambridge.” He talked of fitting in with the behavioral necessities of the times, about busing and walking to school long distances, but he also said, “I would not change the time I came along. Because you appreciate what you went through to get where you are.”

He lived in Seaford for a time, and “experienced segregation, as in the movies, where you had to be upstairs because you weren’t allowed to be downstairs. But living where we lived in the country you didn’t experience it that much until you went into Cambridge, where I moved when I came out of the Air Force.” He spoke of having to sit in the back of the bus in Florida and Texas during his stint in the service, and the blunt iniquities of racial separation there in the far South. He told a story about being afraid, when a white lady sat next to him on the bus from Baltimore on his return from the South, “because in Florida, that didn’t happen!”
“When I moved into Cambridge, it was in the ‘60’s, and I lived on Pine Street when Pine Street burned. I went down to Bethel Church for the demonstration, but because I had a job I didn’t want to lose, I didn’t march. I chose not to demonstrate, even though I felt that I should. I benefited from those people who went out there and demonstrated.”

By way of introduction, Bill Jarmon pointed out that he and Annette Newton were both from Cambridge, they were “city kids,” and a little more aggressive than the country kids.
Ms. Newton talked of working for Gloria Richardson, leader of the Cambridge movement, during the demonstrations. She told about going to Baltimore to collect money donated to keep the movement going.

During the demonstrations, said Ms. Newton, “if I went downtown, down Race street, I was ready to beat someone up. Because they made you feel angry. You’re not doing anything, and they’d be calling you names and all that kind of stuff. It was a new thing for us, to get used to in the community, because they could be plain bold with their talk; even little kids would come up and pester you like that, and the parents wouldn’t correct them. But it was a good experience for me, because I was able to settle myself down” and she went on to get her GED, pass the state boards and go on to nursing school.”

“Most of the time we tried to curb our behavior,” said Ms. Newton, “because it might cause other people to get negative behavior when they really didn’t deserve it.”

In the end, the discussion just brushed closely to the history of the civil rights demonstrations in Cambridge, without really digging deep. Time was limited, and audience members were given a basic look at what it was like, growing up black in Cambridge and Dorchester County in earlier years, and learned about the institutionalized segregation that ruled the lives of both black and white citizens of the day. Hopefully, this was only the first panel discussion on race hosted by the Historical Society, and for the sake of enlightenment and better understanding, we will be treated to many more in the future.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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