Chronicling African American History in Kent County

Written by Amelia Blades Steward

Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project is an innovative collaboration between Washington College, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and a broad array of community partners in Kent County. The project began after Lonnie Bunch, then Director of the National African American Museum of History of Culture, visited Sumner Hall at the beginning of the project. He inquired how Washington College could collaborate on preserving and interpreting African American history in Kent County.

According to the project’s website (, the project’s name derives from the Chesapeake region’s identity as the heartland of African American history and culture since the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1619. Kent County, where Washington College is located, is in many ways a microcosm of that history, with its own rich and diverse African American heritage dating back nearly four centuries.

Through the Chesapeake Heartland Project, Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, and its local partners, including the public schools, religious communities, and other nonprofits, are preserving, sharing, curating, and interpreting a broad array of material that documents the many facets of Kent County’s African American history and culture.

Pat Nugent, Ph.D., Deputy Director of The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, states, “One of the unique approaches we took in the planning of this project was to use the tools of oral history to ask community members about how they would like the project to take shape in the future.”

Over the past three years, the project asked hundreds of community members how to make this collaboration meaningful and, according to the website, the community said that the project should create platforms for community interpretation; support and strengthen local schools, nonprofits, and Black-led businesses and organizations; foster cross-generational and interracial conversation; engage, employ, and train local teenagers; document life’s more joyous experiences along with injustice and activism; and identify how racism has worked in the past, while actively undoing racism in the present.

One of the project’s community historians, Airlee Ringgold Johnson, adds, “We listened very closely to the community. And they told us they want to be able to tell their story, our story, and not have the college interpret our story.”

“For them to be able to steward those stories is really important to them and getting the message right. That involves archiving things over four centuries for future generations – everything from 1793 to the present day, like the protests that happened in 2020 in Kent County around Legacy Day.”

The Chesapeake Heartland Project weaves stories and storytellers together, as residents work closely with Washington College students, Chesapeake Heartland staff, and sub-grant partners: Sumner Hall, Kent County Public Library, and Kent Cultural Alliance. Together, they explore, collect, record, and interpret their own community’s African American stories, both past and present, and provide open access to the Chesapeake Heartland collection on its “Digital Archive” page that launched in February 2021.

“The primary focus of the Chesapeake Heartland project is the digital archive, which just turned a year old,” states Amber McGinnis, Assistant Director for Communications & Outreach, The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

The digital archives are made up primarily from collections within the community and have approximately 6,000 images, including home movies, family photos, audio recordings, documents and 3D objects. The items can be browsed by object name, by decade, by collection, by words, and by categories. About 75% of the items have been identified. Partners in these efforts include the Miller Library at Washington College, the Historical Society of Kent County, and the Kent County Public Library.

This genteel young woman in Kent County was photographed shortly after the Civil War. This image is among several hundred artifacts from the Historical Society of Kent County that were recently digitized and archived through a partnership between the Historical Society, the Kent County Public Library, Miller Library at Washington College, the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, and the Chesapeake Heartland Project.

The project’s community historians go out and literally pound the pavement to gather items and complete the identification of the archived items they have. That includes working with local churches and their congregants to contribute to the archive. Community Curation events, where college students show older residents within the community how to use the archive through iPads, help make the project intergenerational as the community gets engaged with identifying the individuals in the images in the archives. A senior community cataloguing group also comes together regularly to identify some of the large groupings of pictures with the college students.

Chesapeake Heartland Community Historian Airlee Ringgold Johnson and Kent County resident Melvin Shorter, an active member of the Thomas H. Kiah #101 Masonic Lodge, review items Melvin recently brought to the project to be digitized and included in its archive.

“People can add descriptions to items online through a comment button. We are developing what we are calling the audio button tool that would allow people to add their own voice descriptions to items as well. We are creating these processes hoping they will be valuable for students and teachers and future researchers,” adds Pat.

“We are getting many community members who are giving us feedback and that is really helpful because that shows us that they are looking at our website. They are not only looking at it, but they are making comments online.”

The African American “Humanities Truck” takes the project’s show on the road and has the capabilities to go out into the community and digitize items on site if a community member is not comfortable dropping off their precious memories. The truck also goes to different areas, tailoring its exhibits to the area it is visiting. It is a mobile museum that is designed to meet community members on their own grounds.

During a pop-up exhibit at Chestertown’s Sumner Hall, Kent County resident Irene Moore views items from “The Commodore Collection,” 18th and 19th century documents chronicling Kent County’s free and enslaved people of color. The documents, discovered inside the attic of a local house being demolished in the spring of 2021, were rescued by the Chesapeake Heartland Project.

“We are trying to overcome some of the distances between the town and the rest of the county with the Humanities Truck so as not to demand that people everywhere around the county always come to Chestertown for cultural events. We want to go out to meet folks on their own grounds, addressing such barriers as transportation and the digital divide. The truck is truly a community resource and community members are encouraged to sign up to use it,” Pat states.

“We are feeling the regional impact of the community’s appreciation in having a mobile museum dedicated to African American History and Culture. Much of our history has been lost or discounted. By expanding our truck visits to other Eastern Shore communities, we can demonstrate how our region is a microcosm of African American history,” Airlee adds.

In addition to engaging the community at large, the Chesapeake Heartland project engages youth. According to Amber, the Starr Center hires about 30 Washington College interns to be part of the team, which conducts oral histories with Kent County residents, digitizes and catalogues the digital files and serves as truck ambassadors on the Humanities Truck.

A new high school summer program, called “Hip Hop Time Capsule,” engages about 10 paid high school interns in the summer months with the project. Through this experience, interns create music and poetry to interpret and celebrate Kent County’s African American history. Last summer, Chesapeake Heartland’s Hip Hop Time Capsule paired Kent County teenagers and Washington College students with musicians and college professors to research, explore, and document the rich history of African American music in Kent County across several genres. The project will return this summer, with applications for the internship (June 23 – July 22) due on April 15, 2022. Visit

“These students were seeing the ways in which they were deeply connected to the history of Kent County and how their family members were deeply connected to it – unlocking pride in this place and understanding the contributions their community has made to it. So, to me, hearing those reflections was really moving – seeing the benefit of how local students are sharing local history with their peers. It can unlock a different type of pride in the American experience,” Pat concludes.

“We will remain focused on Kent County for the next year to continue to fine-tune our community curation tools and practices. We believe that Chesapeake Heartland’s digital archive will be able to serve the broader Eastern Shore community in the near future. As we expand, we will continue to build on our grassroots approach to archiving by partnering with local organizations to support their own community-led digitization efforts.”

Another important aspect of the Chesapeake Heartlands Project is the Chesapeake Heartland Community Curation Fellowships, awarded to Kent County community members and organizations for collaborative programming and research in connection to local African American history and culture. The program seeks specifically to support initiatives that connect with, draw upon, or contribute to the Chesapeake Heartland Digital Archive. Fellowship projects might take the form of collaborative research projects, workshops, events, exhibits, documentaries, concerts, performances, or art projects.

This year, each fellow will make a presentation along with other fellows, community members, and project stakeholders. A stipend of up to $3,000 is available to successful applicants, with an additional $2,000 available for project costs (such as stipends for project collaborators and interns, or funds for presentations, educational materials, travel, supplies, events, etc.). The deadline for applications is April 30, 2022, and is available at

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