This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for more than 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
We all have treasures stuffed into our families’ attics and basements – some we know about, but others only find the day of light when a property is sold or torn down, often removing the history and provenance that makes their stories unique. Such was the case with a recently found collection of family papers handed down for many generations and found in the attic of a soon-to-be-demolished 200-year-old house near Chestertown.
In the spring of 2021, through the quick action of community members, the generosity of several donors, and the efforts of Adam Goodheart, Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College, about a hundred documents illuminating the lives of African Americans in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, both free and enslaved, were saved from dispersal and now have a home in Kent County.
According to a Washington Post article written by Michael E. Ruane, on June 28, 2021, Nancy Bordely Lane was cleaning out the 1803 property, slated for demolition, when the documents were found. The property had remained in the same family since 1667. The documents were headed for the garbage but instead were delivered to Dixon’s Crumpton Auction in Crumpton. Pictures of the documents surfaced on the auction house’s Facebook page. Darius Johnson of Chestertown, a Washington College alum, was among the people who saw the documents online. Darius is part of the Chesapeake Heartland project at Washington College, in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and local partners.
“It was a fluke that I saw the auction listing online. My fiancé and I were looking for furniture and followed the site on Facebook and the listing just popped up on my feed,” he remarks. “My descendants go back hundreds of years on both sides of my family. There was documentation about one situation in the 1820s when a free black man with the last name of Wilson, which are my descendants, had his farm taken away from him due to a supposed debt. This could point to the disenfranchisement of black ownership of land at the time. To see familiar family names in these documents makes it real for people today.”
Among the approximately 2,000 pages are 100 documents that illuminate aspects of African American life from the late 1600s to the early 1800s. These papers include receipts of purchase, runaway slave notices, and receipts of freed African Americans – some of which may be some of the oldest of their kind. Another interesting find was two books on slavery – one advocating its benefits and one advocating its evils – possibly revealing that someone connected to the household was conflicted about this issue.
The portion of the archive documenting the lives of both the free and enslaved African Americans has been named the Commodore Collection, in honor of Washington College alumnus Norris Commodore ’73 and his family who were instrumental in helping rescue the documents. The family also has deep roots in Kent County, and Norris Commodore was the first African American from the local community to graduate from the college.
A decision was made to give the Commodore Collection to Sumner Hall, a cultural nonprofit in Chestertown that serves as a museum, educational site, performance stage, social hall, and gallery. The Commodore Collection will belong to Sumner Hall while being conserved and archived at Washington College’s Miller Library. The papers are being digitized in their entirety as part of “Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project,” an initiative that documents and shares four centuries of Black heritage in the region and are becoming accessible on the Sumner Hall website.
According to Ruth Shoge, First Vice President of Sumner Hall’s Board of Directors and retired Dean of Library and Academic Technology at Washington College, the college hopes to create a fund to support the education of all people in Kent County about this collection and its part in Kent County’s history.
“We are not equipped yet to house the collection, as we don’t have the proper environment or space for these historical documents,” she explains. “The Commodore Collection of original historical documents on the early experiences of African Americans in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties is a rare find. The documents, which are intellectually enriching, also evoke an emotional response to the harsh reality of the lives of enslaved and freed Black people in 17th and 18th century America.”
Ruth continues, “It is very important to Sumner Hall that this collection has been given to us in perpetuity. The ownership of this collection is an honor and, in a special way, a homecoming for the memories of our ancestors. This collection supports our mission of promoting an understanding of the African American experience within the overall context of American history and culture.”
When the Civil War ended, Union Army veterans founded the Grand Army of the Republic, organized on the principles of fraternity, charity, and loyalty to the Constitution. Of the 22 African American posts in Maryland, one of them was Kent County’s Grand Army of the Republic/Charles Sumner Post No. 25 in Chestertown, built circa 1908 and fully restored in 2014. Also known as Sumner Hall, it was named for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a tireless advocate for the passage of the 15th Amendment that would grant African American men the right to vote.
“Today, it is only one of two African-American GAR posts still standing in America,” Ruth states. The other is in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Sumner Hall’s mission is to be a place of remembrance of African Americans who served in the U.S. Civil War by honoring all African American veterans of the U.S. Armed Services; promoting an understanding of the African American experience within the overall context of American history and culture; and advocating for social justice and racial equity in all aspects of civic life.
“We are grateful for those individuals who made this possible. It fulfills the vision of Sumner Hall and what we want to achieve – putting the African American experience in the context of American history and culture in this region. These documents are in context both historically and culturally. It makes history come alive,” she adds.
“We believe that there is a lineage connection between the enslaved people in these documents and current residents of Kent County. It will be interesting to draw those connections in the coming days. Seeing these documents is part of coming face-to-face with the harsh realities that they represent. They also show glimpses of the strength and resilience of our ancestors who worked to free themselves and their families and to become skilled laborers and gain ownership of property here,” Ruth shares.
Ruth points out that Sumner Hall would like to have a facility to properly accommodate collections like the Commodore Collection.
“The 1906 building we are in was in a predominately African American neighborhood when it was built, but now it sits in a white neighborhood. We have grown in the past six years and don’t have much more room to expand in the building. We are currently undergoing a Strategic and Fundraising Plan to decide how to deal with reaching our vision in the future,” Ruth says.
“As our program footprint grows, the more we are known for what we do, the more is expected of us. We want to maximize our progress and move forward with more exhibits, speakers, symposiums and to expand our Kwanza and Juneteenth events.”
President of Sumner Hall’s Board of Directors, Larry Wilson, says, “The Commodore Collection is a very meaningful record of African American life and survival. I believe that it is very important to know our history and to learn from the lives of our ancestors as we work together for equal rights, justice and freedom in this county and across the country. We look forward to having exhibits at Sumner Hall based on these materials soon.”
Support for the Commodore Collection project has been provided by the Commodore family, the Hedgelawn Foundation, the Kent Cultural Alliance, Dixon’s Crumpton Auction, Inc., and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Sumner Hall is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and by special arrangements. As a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, the organization is funded by donations and memberships. To learn more or to support the efforts of Sumner Hall, visit sumnerhall.org.
Legacy Day 2021
Legacy Day celebrates the rich cultural heritage of African Americans in Kent County. This free event is sponsored by Sumner Hall and the Historical Society of Kent County for all residents to recognize their shared history and have a good time. This year’s theme is Outstanding African American Athletes of Kent County.
During the month of August, there is an exhibition at the Bordley Center, Historical Society of Kent County, located at the corner of Cross and High streets in Chestertown.
On Friday, August 20, there will be a Recognition Ceremony and Reception for Honorees at Janes United Methodist Church, located at 120 South Cross Street in Chestertown starting at 7 p.m.
On Saturday, August 21 there will be a 10 a.m. Genealogy Workshop online via Facebook from Sumner Hall featuring historian, Dr. Clara Small. At 5:30 p.m. the Opening Ceremony will be held at Wilmer Park in Chestertown. At 6 p.m., enjoy an Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert with Sylvia Frazier and the Vaughn Bratcher Project and a dance party starting at 8 p.m. with DJ Real, both in Wilmer Park.