Monday, June 19, 2017

Chesapeake Journal: Sumner Hall

photograph by Hallie Cohen
Every environment has its own narrative which explains the reason for its existence or thriving way of life that once was. The Eastern Maryland shore is composed of shallow waters and numerous ports  where steamships could easily dock. There are magical little nooks with names like Cliffs City where the last one-room school house in Kent County is now memorialized as a museum. During the l9th century Annapolis was the biggest show in town. The numerous villages along the Chesapeake Bay which, with all its myriad inlets and coves constitutes a remarkable ll,000 miles of coast line, were all accessible to Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore by train. Slavery itself was affected when the economy went from tobacco to wheat, the latter requiring short-term labor. It was actually less expensive to hire a worker for two weeks than to own and care for a slave.  Economics not enlightenment became one of the most persuasive arguments for abolition. When you travel to Chestertown, the home of Washington College (the only school that George Washington personally allowed to use his name), you witness the legacy of both geography and topography all integrated in a landscape where time has stood still; Chestertown has been described as "the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere." If you're ever down in Chestertown seek out Pat Nugent who teaches at Washington College and whose expertise lies in the African-American experience in the Eastern Maryland area. He's a wellspring of knowledge when it comes to the colorful  and sometimes checkered history of the area. With steamships and railways becoming supperannuated, the population has only grown from 10,000 to 20,000 in modern times. Campbell's Soup and Vita Herring once estimable presences are now gone. There has been only modest development since the days when Baltimore with its deepwater port and connection to the West took over as a central shipping center. The silver grey brick structure of the Custom House on Water Street, built by the slave owner and trader Thomas Ringgold, co-exists with Sumner Hall, built in l908 to commemorate the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union army veterans in which the members of the town's growing black middle class fought. Visiting Chestertown is like going on one of those archeological digs where the evolution of a civilization has withstood the elements and is pristinely preserved for posterity.

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