CHESTERTOWN The Freedom Riders came to town nearly 50 years ago Feb. 3, 1962. It was a day that lives in the memory of many Kent Countians.
As part of Black History Month, a panel discussion Saturday will look at the civil rights struggle in Chestertown. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the discussion will include the Rev. Elsworth Tolliver, Milford Murray and Armond Fletcher. The panel is at 11 a.m. at the Chestertown branch of the Kent County Library, and some of the conversation will focus on the Freedom Riders.
The original Freedom Riders were a biracial group that challenged segregation in the summer of 1961 by riding interstate buses into the Deep South. They met with violent opposition, including arrests and beatings; at least one bus was set afire. But the riders succeeded in showing that nonviolent action could help end racism. Inspired by the initial rides, groups of young people continued to visit segregated areas, working to bring about a change in racial attitudes. Early in 1962, it was Chestertown's turn.
At that time, Kent County's schools were segregated and would remain so for several more years. Washington College had at most two or three black students, and many of their fellow students and faculty showed little inclination to treat them as equals.
The Kent County News routinely noted the race of black people who appeared in the news, while whites were never identified by race. No black person served on the county commissioners, the town councils or the police force. Black customers were unwelcome in the local bars and restaurants except for takeout service. In the old movie theater, now the Prince Theatre, blacks could sit only in the balcony.
Hoping to make the town aware of its institutional racism, the Freedom Riders arrived in two buses and about 10 private cars on Feb. 3. They assembled at Bethel A.M.E. Church on College Avenue at 11 a.m. Tolliver said on Tuesday that his grandfather, the Rev. Frederick Jones Sr., then the pastor of the church, was instrumental in arranging their visit. The church became the staging area for the demonstrations, with food, a first-aid station, and training for the protesters.
"Ours is a non-violent, peaceful movement," said a handout quoted in the Washington College student newspaper, The Elm. Protesters were to speak softly and politely, and to enter and leave premises in a peaceful and orderly manner. They were to let their group leaders do all the talking, and not to respond to curses or blows. The protesters also got printed copies of the state trespassing laws.
The Elm gave the most detailed account of the day's events in its Feb. 9, 1962, issue. While the story's headline, "Freedom Riders Plague Chestertown," suggested some bias against the protesters, the write-up itself was straightforward and showed considerable sympathy for their goals.
The marchers targeted several local restaurants. A report in the Kent News mentioned Bud's Restaurant, the Riverside Restaurant, the Tally-Ho, the Home Restaurant and the Queen Anne's Bowling Center. According to The Elm, the marchers expected Bud's, a High Street bar and restaurant at the site now occupied by the Benny Smith Funeral Home, to be the spot most likely to give them trouble.
Forewarned, the Maryland State Police were preparing for possible trouble between the marchers and white residents. The Elm reported that some 30 police cars had arrived at the National Guard armory by early afternoon. The police presence included four dogs and their handlers.
The Elm said that most of the protesters were northern college students, about half from New York City and another large group from Swarthmore, near Philadelphia. A large group also came from Baltimore. While both races were represented, most were white. A standard tactic was for a biracial group to approach a business being targeted. Some of the whites would stay uninvolved except as witnesses.
A number of black Chestertown residents also joined the marches. One was Tyrone Johnson, then about 20 years old. He said on Monday, "I had never seen so many state troopers I didn't know there were that many." Johnson, who now lives in Pennsylvania, said he was inspired to join the march by reading about the original Freedom Riders.
He recalled seeing white men with baseball bats and other makeshift weapons outside Gus's Pool Hall on High Street. He remembered going to several restaurants, where the marchers asked to be served. He said that about four of his friends joined the march down High Street, but others held back.
He also recalled that, as the line of march passed the movie theater, one young white man "ran out of the crowd and spit in my face." On a recent trip to town, he said he had visited the man and had a friendly talk. "We didn't talk about the Freedom Riders, though."
Another local marcher was Lycurgus Henry of Georgetown, Del., who worked at Vita Foods at the time. He said on Wednesday that he had marched twice, and was chosen to lead groups that tried to get served at Bud's and at Lombardo's Pizza across the street.
Henry said that when the demonstrators arrived, the restaurant owner would come to the door and read the trespassing law. At that point, anyone in the group who stayed on the property could be prosecuted. That group of protesters would then leave and another would take its place and the routine would be repeated. Henry took part in the marches on two weekends.
Henry said he was disappointed to see many of his white co-workers from Vita opposing the marchers. "It made the atmosphere at work very difficult," he said. Lunchrooms and toilet facilities at Vita were segregated, he said, but both races worked side by side in the production areas. And they were all encouraged to attend a weekly "meditation hour," featuring inspirational talks by ministers and others. "(The workplace segregation) didn't make that much sense," Henry said.
As expected, Bud's was the site of the worst resistance to the marchers on Feb. 3. Bud Hubbard, the owner, made no secret of his hostility to the marchers, and according to The Elm, he invited some 300 "friends" to the bar that day. They began arriving before noon, and Hubbard reportedly gave them plenty of beer.
The first group of Freedom Riders came to the restaurant at 3 p.m.; state police were waiting, trying to control the crowd. Hubbard read the trespassing law and asked the marchers to leave his property, which they did. Some of the white crowd then pursued the marchers down High Street toward town. At the Vita Foods factory (now the site of Dixon Valve and Coupling Inc.), they were met by local blacks who chased the whites away.
A second group of protesters arrived at Bud's about an hour later, The Elm reported, when about 50 local blacks marched on the restaurant. At that point, more violence broke out and police made three arrests. Two blacks were charged with carrying concealed weapons, and one white man was charged with assaulting a state police photographer. The arrests were the main focus of the coverage in the Kent News and the New York Times.
After the second march on Bud's, the protesters dispersed and returned to Bethel church. Several Washington College students and faculty members joined them for discussions of race relations. Tolliver, who was 7 years old at the time, remembers two students who came to his grandfather's house and played guitars for him and his cousin Robert Brown.
In a statement released in response to the changing times, then college president Daniel Gibson neither encouraged nor forbade students from picketing and sit-ins a statement some on campus found too timid, to judge by subsequent letters to The Elm.
There is no record of comments from Mayor Philip Wilmer or other local officials.
Elmer Hawkins, then principal of Garnett High School, left town for the weekend rather than meet with the marchers, very likely a difficult decision for him. Tolliver said that Hawkins lost respect in the black community because of it; at the same time, Jones' influence increased.
In addition to its report on the arrests, the Feb. 7, 1962, Kent News ran an editorial, "The Point Has Been Made." Editor Bill Usilton wrote that the visit by "the so-called Freedom Riders" was a publicity stunt and declared further protests unnecessary. The paper proceeded to ignore follow-up demonstrations, which continued for several more weeks.
However, the story remained alive in the paper's letter columns. Johnson, in a letter published Feb. 14, 1962, asked white readers, "If the Lord was to appear here on earth as a colored man, would you shut your doors in His face? Would you refuse to serve Him?" He added, possibly recalling the person who spit on him, "Man is supposed to think, not be dumb like animals."
Henry also wrote a letter that ran Feb. 17. He said he had taken part in demonstrations for two weeks. He concluded, "Some people ask, 'Aren't you people satisfied yet?' Well, my answer is NO. We won't be satisfied until we are given a democracy that is true, a freedom that is free, and justice that is just."
The Elm, in its March 3, 1962, issue, reported on follow-up demonstrations, which it described as "quiet and orderly." On Feb. 10, 1962, local blacks revisited several of the restaurants. This time, the reaction was limited to a few eggs thrown at the marchers, but there was no progress in desegregating the restaurants, either. On Feb. 17, 1962, Jones presided over the founding of a Kent County chapter of the NAACP; more than 100 attended its second meeting, Feb. 20, 1962.
The Freedom Riders were the opening act in the era of activism that marked the 1960s. The Riders' courage and nonviolence struck a chord with younger black residents. Fletcher, who will be one of the panelists Feb. 26, recalls being among 11 black students who transferred, in 1966, from Garnett High School to then all-white Chestertown High where they endured taunting, fights and social isolation. That began to change when some of the black students began to play sports, including Fletcher on the basketball team.
Fletcher contrasted the animosity he experienced with what he said he often sees now, students from the middle school walking together in racially mixed groups, holding hands. He describes today's youth as "code busters," referring to their ability to act as if the barriers their elders faced had never existed.
The generation that broke down the barriers is still with us, and their stories speak as eloquently as ever. Henry, looking back at his time as a marcher, said on Tuesday, "Somebody had to die, somebody had to go to jail or be beaten up, to get where we are today."
Some of their stories will be told Feb. 26 at the library.