The Revoluntionary College Project
Freedom Riders

ABOVE - Civil rights activist Julian Bond meets with concerned Washington College students.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sheila Austrian earned a degree in history from Washington College in 2003.  Originally a class paper, this edited version was published in Here on the Chester: Washington College Remembers Old Chestertown, edited by John Lang, published by the Literary House Press of Washington College in 2006.

 

Red SwirlThe Freedom Riders Come to Chestertown 

by Sheila West Austrian 

Washington College, like the rest of Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1962, seemed almost untouched by the social forces ripping apart racial segregation in schools, restaurants and hotels across the nation. And before gentrification imposed today’s economic segregation, the races lived in close and cordial proximity throughout Chestertown, with pockets of black families remaining in the historic district, especially down Cannon Street. College President Daniel Gibson worked hard to maintain good relations with the community but Freedom Riders were scheduled to visit Chestertown and he was sure some of his students would join the expected civil rights demonstrations. That could cause problems with the town, but he strongly believed the college should not interfere with the students’ right of free speech. Gibson was correct to worry, but Chestertown’s social fabric ultimately was strong enough to cope with this new challenge.

Washington College was small, financially strapped with fewer than 500 students, and extremely homogenous. Of 145 new students in 1962, 79 were from Maryland and most of the rest from other Mid-Atlantic states. Gibson had convinced the Board to move toward an enrollment of 750, but the admissions yield rate remained disappointingly low, amid faculty fears that growth would merely buttress the school’s reputation as a haven for the academically challenged.

Washington College certainly was a party school in the 1960s; issues of The Elm are filled with articles and photos depicting a whirl of dances and parties, many sponsored by the fraternities and sororities. The Kappa Alpha fraternity had hosted a Southern Ball the previous spring, with couples passing through an arch of swords raised by fraternity brothers dressed in pseudo-Confederate uniforms. An African-American band, the Pipe Dreamers, played “rhythmic music” at the Intrafraternity Council Dance in 1962, but no black guests appeared in the photo. Competition for the yearly Best-Dressed Girl contest was fierce. Robert Cleaver, who graduated in 1958, recalls no student discussions of integration issues but does remember an exhilarating Little Richard performance at the Uptown Club. He also remembers President Gibson placed the honky-tonk, a few steps from the campus, off limits when he learned students had “integrated” the black music club.

Students were concerned about broader issues as well. A test given at the college in March would give local draft boards “evidence of [which young men had] aptitude for continued undergraduate and graduate study.”  John Glenn had “conquered space”on February 20, and a Washington College graduate, Arthur Crisfield ’59, was among the first Peace Corps volunteers sent to Thailand. Students may have been geographically isolated, but they also were part of the new generation inspired by President Kennedy.

Theoretically, the college was not a segregated institution, for the admissions policy did not explicitly exclude blacks. The Registrar at the time, Ermon Foster, later told history professor Nathan Smith that any applications from African-Americans had been rejected. By the late 1950s, however, the administration quietly enrolled a few African-American students. Thomas Morris, an all-round athlete and an academic achiever in the class of 1962, had been the first. Two black women, Pat Godbolt and Dale Patterson, also were on campus that year.

Their presence generated some of the tension between President Gibson and the Board. When integration was first discussed, one Board member had fretted about the extra expense to the college. Wouldn’t it be very costly, he had pointed out, to build separate dorms, toilets and dining rooms? He was horrified to learn that the facilities would be shared. Another member of the Board vocally denounced integration as the “ruination” of the college but one of the older, and equally prejudiced, professors joked that he would “teach baboons if the Board told him to.” The college probably had felt daring when it decided to “experiment” with a few black students but newly hired faculty were disappointed by the slow progress. Nathan Smith, recruited to Chestertown from Chicago, had asked for assurance that the college was not segregated before taking the position. He found the on-paper and on-the-ground situations quite different.

Neither Washington College nor Chestertown were comfortable places for black students in 1962. Dale Patterson, who grew up in strictly segregated Baltimore, recalls the 1960s as “the decade from hell.” She enjoyed her chemistry classes, served as an RA, and worked in the dining hall to supplement scholarships and loans. Only fifteen years old when she matriculated, Patterson didn’t have much of a social life, for the sororities wouldn’t pledge blacks and she was too timid to venture into town. “I just decided that I would not ever go to the movie in Chestertown, because I refused to sit upstairs. I also did not want to be lynched.” Although Patterson noted that the college curriculum included no facets of black culture, she did give black music credit for breaking down barriers. “To my ways of thinking,” she said. “Berry Gordy single-handedly overcame the situation with Motown since everyone, black and white, wanted to hear the Supremes, the Temptations and the Miracles.”

Chestertown itself remained deeply divided along racial lines. Most black residents worked as farm laborers or in food processing plants. Aside from the black Garnett School and the black churches, there were few middle-class jobs open to African Americans. At Washington College, blacks were employed as kitchen or maintenance workers. They appear in yearbooks, but only as nameless faces in group photographs.

Professor Smith and several other faculty members attended meetings of the new NAACP branch. The organization concentrated on improving conditions at the local hospital, which maintained segregated and inferior facilities for the black patients. Concerned white faculty wives, members of the American Association of University Women, had participated in a survey of the segregated slum housing adjacent to the campus. They found that many black homes had no indoor plumbing and that fires from kerosene heaters were common. AAUW activists also interviewed local school board members to determine why Chestertown public schools remained segregated, despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision and the fact that most of the Western Shore had begun full integration in 1955. A senior faculty member bragged to the women about the existing system used to prove Chestertown schools were not segregated. Any black student wanting to transfer had to apply to the Board of Education. The principal of Garnett School then would convince the student to stay at Garnett, which at that time contained grades one through twelve. Faculty who shared the local anti-integration ethos often asked their colleagues’ wives, “why aren’t you in your kitchens? Why are you bothering about this stuff?”

For white citizens, Chestertown seemed almost like an idealized Norman Rockwell community. The Kent County News, a typical small town weekly, gave fulsome coverage to garden club meetings, golf tournaments, agricultural news and high school sports. The biggest event of the year was probably the introduction of dial telephones. No need to tell an operator the number, just listen for “a steady humming sound” and make the connection yourself. Kent County still had four high schools (in Galena and Rock Hall, as well as the two in Chestertown), a skating rink in Worton, and even illegal slot machines at the Kitty Knight House.

But until 1962, the town’s black citizens were all but invisible in the public record. The paper rarely showed any black faces, and then almost always in the two columns dedicated to African-American affairs: one for Garnett School and the other the social “News from Butlertown.” Where white teens listed a wide range of future aspirations, the Garnett School graduating elite were more likely to cite barber, beautician or stenographer as plans for the future. And where white newsmakers were normally named in the headline, African-Americans were not, as in a perfectly race-neutral article titled “County Negro Falls Off Boat; Is Drowned.”

Most white residents probably considered themselves fair-minded and reasonable, for their lives rarely intersected with their black neighbors on issues of substance. That placid situation changed in February, when Freedom Riders crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Freedom Riders, or busloads of white and black civil rights activists, had been making their non-violent demand for integrated access to public facilities in other states and cities for months. The Eastern Shore’s relative isolation ended on the third of February, a cold and rainy Saturday, when “two big Greyhound buses” and “nine or ten carloads of persons” arrived at the Bethel A.M.E, Church in Chestertown. Several dozen police cars, most from other jurisdictions, were waiting for them. So were hundreds of bystanders and about eighty cars at Bud Hubbard’s, a restaurant with a racist reputation and filled with angry white men drinking beer.

A little after three in the afternoon, crowds near Bud’s started pummeling the picketers, who eventually fled back to the church. Later “an angry mob of fifty Chestertown Negroes” returned to Bud’s, where police managed to avert a real brawl. According to Elm reporter Walt Marschner, several Washington College students marched with the picketers or met with the demonstrators at Bethel. He described an evening rally at the church that was “packed with emotion,” where tired demonstrators sang civil rights songs and danced in an impromptu conga line. College students, a few professors, and concerned black Chestertown residents, perhaps for the first time together, earnestly discussed efforts to solve the town’s racial problems. The reporter learned that the Garnett School principal, previously one of the most respected men in the black community, had left town rather than meet with the Freedom Riders. By standing with the white establishment, he lost much of his authority.

The Elm proved excellent news coverage of the Freedom Ride, with good background information and hour-by-hour commentary. The article was so good, in fact, that a Washington College professor with Supreme Court contacts sent each justice a copy. But the Elm’s editor in chief, whom Marschner characterized as an “Eastern Shore segregationist,” put his own stamp on the event with the misleading headline, “Freedom Raids Plague Chestertown.”

The Kent County News also played the story on its first page, focusing on the few arrests and giving the fracas at Bud’s special notice. In an editorial, “The Point Has Been Made,” the paper charged that the “so-called” freedom rides were merely a publicity ploy. Local restaurants, it asserted, had the legal right to “cater to any clientele they may choose.” A letter to the editor, from a Kennedyville resident, contained unintentional humor with a non-standard version of an old saying. Complaining about Negro demands, the writer warned, “Give them the finger and they will demand the whole hand.”

The News also printed letters from local African Americans who supported integration. One Garnett School graduate told readers about taking her family to the drug store for ice cream. “I don’t suppose you can imagine,” she wrote, “just how to go about explaining to small children why they can spend their money in such places, but the privilege of sitting down and eating is out of the question.” A few months later, the News ran a positive article about “Project Eastern Shore,” an interracial effort to improve community relations through a series of lectures and discussions. Whereas serious and violent protests continued for several years in nearby Cambridge, Chestertown’s leadership seems to have accepted the inevitability of social change and worked to make it happen peacefully.

President Gibson consulted with the Chairman of the Board of Visitors and Governors and then issued a statement four days after the demonstrations. Gibson chose his words carefully, to offend as few as possible. He left Washington College solidly on the fence, advising:

Washington College considers participation in activities supporting integration a matter to be decided by the individual students and their parents. The College neither encourages nor prohibits participation in sit-ins, petitions, etc. The College, however, does not condone violations of the law.

The Elm’s editor, H. Allen Stafford, continued to ridicule civil rights activism in bold type responses to student letters in favor of integration. He described the typical freedom rider as “a juvenile delinquent who enters uninvited, inflicts wounds, leaves, and only the wound remains.”  Pitting community mores against “youthful exhibitionism,” Stafford preached that “long-range interests” were harmed by demonstrations. Even the relatively liberal President Gibson, with typical Eastern Shore disregard for haste, thought integration might come to Washington College “in one hundred years. . . In any case, no sooner than fifty years.”

 

During the few weeks demonstrations took place in Chestertown, President Gibson downplayed any college activism to members of the Board. In a March 19 agenda sent in advance of a regular meeting on the 24th, Gibson said “small numbers of students” and to the best of his knowledge “no faculty” had demonstrated. When a student handbill urged participation, the President convinced the author of the impropriety of invoking the college name or using college mail facilities. He warned the Board that while “some ill will in the local community” resulted from the student action, banning participation would have worse consequences, including a “strong reaction within the faculty itself.”  And, as he reminded, “the vast majority of our students are not participating or even sympathetic to the methods being used.”

 

After a few weeks, the organized protestors moved on to different locales. Most Washington College students resumed the normal routine of classes, sports and social events. The guys at Bud’s kept drinking beer and talking tough but the town quietly moved to integrate its commercial and public facilities. Stam’s and the Chestertown Pharmacy just removed the stools from the soda fountain. By 1963, the movie theater, bowling alley and skating rink had dropped official segregation. The public schools and hospital followed suit. Washington College enrolled more black students during the next three decades but until the school made real efforts to increase diversity in the 1990s, few African Americans even considered applying.

 

Even today, African American college applicants probably think carefully before deciding to attend Washington College. In 2005 there were about fifty African American students and only a handful of black faculty. The local black middle-class remains miniscule and voluntary social and economic segregation usually keeps the races apart. Chestertown’s African American citizens generally do not attend college lectures, worship at the “white” churches, join the country club, or eat at table-service restaurants. Urban renewal housing units have replaced the slums around Bethel Church but unemployed young black men still slouch at the corner of High Street and College Avenue. They may have even less in common with today’s Washington College students than the two groups did in 1962. At least then, the dream was new and more than legal equality seemed possible.

 

Notes on Sources:

The Kent County News and the Washington College Elm and Pegasus provided context, quotations, chronology and a flavor for the time. So did the major national newspapers, which covered the racial disturbances on the Eastern Shore in depth. Archival materials in the Washington College Library were useful but often frustrating, as sensitive topics were referred to with great discretion. This paper, researched on a tight deadline for a creative writing course, is a reminder that history is about real people, facing real dilemmas, whose decisions profoundly affect the lives of those who follow. So many other stories remain to be told. Let’s try to listen.

 


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