The governing body of an Eastern Shore town where slaves were once sold in the public square has approved the installation of two anti-racist street murals in its downtown area, resolving a controversy that has roiled the community for weeks.
Mayor Chris Cerino of Chestertown, the seat of Kent County, joined all four members of the town council in approving the painting of “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe” in oversized letters on the pavement of streets in two prominent locations, the historic business district on the waterfront and a traditionally Black neighborhood uptown.
The approval came a day before a divided council in nearby Talbot County voted not to remove a monument honoring Confederate soldiers that critics have been trying to take down for more than a decade.
The Chestertown decision puts to rest a debate that grew contentious in the time that has passed since a trio of residents, all members of a local advocacy group, submitted a proposal for the project in July.
At the outset of Monday’s public meeting on Zoom, Cerino and one council member opposed the plan, two others were known to back it, and one more was seen as a swing vote. But the testimony of more than 20 local residents, including three professors from Washington College, brought about unanimous support during the nearly three-hour session.
“When we proposed the idea, we had no idea it would turn into the long-term drama it did,” says Maria Wood, a Chestertown resident who helped write and publicize the proposal. “In the end, our elected officials were willing to listen to their constituents and the community. The process worked for us in this instance.”
The drama began July 6, when Wood, a community arts director, and Arlene Lee, a retired lawyer, both white, and Wanda Boyer, a social services professional who is Black, brought the idea of the street paintings to a council meeting.
The three are members of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice, a local group that offered its endorsement.
The idea, Woods says, was to create a local version of anti-racist signs that have sprung up in cities and towns across America in what has been termed a national reckoning on racial inequality since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of law enforcement this year.
Shortly after Floyd’s death, Cerino said in a speech in Chestertown that the city, a community of about 5,000 people, would lend its support to efforts advocating inclusiveness.
But when the three presented the idea, he balked, arguing that the street murals would clash with the quaint Colonial architecture of Chestertown, much of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
He and the council members were inundated with emails in opposition to the idea over the next few weeks, he says, some on the grounds that the murals would come across as too divisive for such a small community.
Others, he says, argued that Black Lives Matter is more than just a positive human sentiment; it’s also the name of what they see as a left-leaning political organization whose goals they don’t support. And many said painting any message on a public street is legally problematic.
The more than 300 emails the mayor alone received were not only unusually passionate but “split right down the middle” on the issue, Cerino says, a situation that left him feeling not a little shellshocked.
“This was the most contentious issue I’ve dealt with in my seven years as mayor, by far,” he said later.
Critics of the proposal raised yet another question: If a mural or another public statement were in fact to be approved, should it take the suggested form? Many, Cerino says, argued that the downtown area — a recognized historic district that fronts on the Chester River — might not be the right place to paint in giant letters words that some might find incendiary.
To Boyer, that was a no-brainer from the beginning.
Historians say it was in those few blocks that enslaved people were once taken off boats, paraded in chains to the steps of the historic Custom House, often beaten, and put up for public auction.
Boyer, who grew up in what she describes as a mostly African American part of Chestertown, recalls playing around that building as a child in the 1970s, looking through the metal bars that covered a window at ground level, and seeing shackles on the walls that she later learned were once used to imprison slaves.
Black residents still feel less than welcome venturing downtown, she says, where many of the historic buildings that still define Chestertown in the public imagination were built by enslaved people — and where, she says, there are still no Black-owned businesses.
“What better place to put a public statement that Black Lives Matter than right there on High Street?” Boyer says, adding that locating the words within a block or two of the Custom House was a point on which her group would not compromise.
The second mural — the one that reads “We Can’t Breathe” — is to be painted on College Avenue in the uptown area, a largely Black neighborhood.
Cerino says the outcome might have been different had opponents of the plan come out in greater numbers Monday. Of the more than three dozen who attended the Zoom meeting, only two spoke against the planned murals.
That, Wood says, was in keeping with the nature of the debate over the past five weeks, as those against the proposal largely remained anonymous — including a group of High Street residents who hired a local attorney to oppose the murals on the grounds that they would violate zoning ordinances.
Wood, Boyer and Lee, meanwhile, had threatened to force the issue if the proposal were defeated, up to and including pushing to impeach the mayor and council members, all of them Democrats.
In the end, the council voted to adopt the two phrases as official city statements, a move that constituted Chestertown’s approval. The murals are to be painted in the streets by volunteers as part of a still-unscheduled community event and will be left in place for a year, then reevaluated. Backers are responsible for their maintenance.
In Talbot County, meanwhile, the county council on Tuesday resolved, for now, the equally polarizing case of “the Talbot Boys.” The bronze statue that has stood on the lawn of the county courthouse in Easton since 1916 — and drawn fire for years.
The statue, which depicts a soldier brandishing a Confederate flag, rests on a base that memorializes the names of 84 county men who fought for the South during the Civil War. It’s believed to be the only remaining Confederate monument on public property in Maryland, other than those on battlefields or cemeteries.
It was 16 years ago that critics of the monument narrowly convinced the council to approve a statue of the abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, a Talbot County native, to be placed nearby. It went up in 2011.
Four years later, activists and others called for the removal of the Talbot Boys statue amid a national outcry following the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine Black worshippers dead and sparked a nationwide reassessment of public symbols valorizing the Confederacy. The council voted 3-2 at that time to retain the statue.
With three new members in place since then, the county council again voted 3-2 on Tuesday to keep the monument, defying calls from the local branch of the NAACP, the ACLU and scores of citizens who have signed online petitions, posted on Facebook pages, and voiced their opinions during the nearly three-hour session.
In recent weeks, other communities on Maryland’s traditionally conservative Eastern Shore also have reckoned with the wave of activism that has swept the country since Floyd’s death in late May.
The Wicomico County executive decided after months of public debate to remove a plaque dedicated to John Winder, a Confederate general, from the lawn of the county courthouse in Salisbury. In Queen Anne’s County, Schools Superintendent Andrea Kane came under fire for promoting events tied Black Lives Matter.
Back in Kent County, Boyer says she expected her group’s campaign to end in “disappointment” and found herself “very surprised” at the outcome.
It represents one small but important step forward in what she sees as a long journey toward inclusiveness.