Restoring the Soul
By Niambi Davis
In the days following the Civil War and into the early 20th century, Black communities in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties created institutions to serve their own social, economic and educational needs. As the focus of these communities changed, what had once been centers of activity fell into disrepair. Inspired by their significance and by the spirit of the founders, a group of long-time residents, returning sons and daughters and concerned citizens came together. These men and women worked to restore both buildings to their physical and historical standing as the souls of their communities.
KENNARD HIGH SCHOOL: Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Center, Centreville
In the early 1900s, education for Queen Anne’s County’s African-American students took place in overcrowded, one-room schools. In 1919, Lucretia Kennard (later Daniels) became Supervisor of Colored Schools in Queen Anne’s County, the only high school for Black students was the Centreville Colored Industrial High School. Kennard took action, rallying the county’s Black community to create their own educational opportunity. Collectively, their small donations added up to make possible the construction of a new high school to serve African-American students. In the fall of 1936, Kennard High School opened its doors. Sadly, Lucretia Kennard Daniels did not live to see her dream realized.
Madelyn Hollis, one of three remaining original Kennard High School teachers, recalls her tiny classroom. “It was so small I had to teach standing in the door.” In spite of its modest beginnings, the school became a center for the entire Black community in Queen Anne’s County. It brought together students, and by default their families, from the small towns that bordered Kent County to those located near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Instead of moving on after a year or two at Kennard, many teachers stayed and became lifelong members of the community, joining churches, serving the community and growing their own families.
In the 1950s, Maryland established the separate but equal doctrine which resulted in the construction of a new Kennard High School across the street from its namesake. With school integration and the opening of Queen Anne’s County High School, the last Kennard High School graduate crossed the stage in 1966.
Clayton Washington, President, Kennard Alumni Association,
inside what was the first classroom of math teacher, Madelyn Hollis.
After being vacant for 40 years, the building was in need of restoration. Hollis recalls a conversation with a county official who recommended tearing it down. “Black people collected dimes, nickels and whatever they could to build Kennard,” she told him. “If I have anything to do with it, that will never happen.”
When Clayton Washington, a Kennard High School graduate and now President of the Kennard Alumni Association, returned home to Queen Anne’s County, he saw a need. “I had a set of skills and a desire to do the best possible job I could.” Further motivation was the promise he made to Hollis: “If we start, I promise I’ll see it through to the end.” In the spirit of the original donors, a group of concerned citizens and alumni came together to rescue and restore Kennard. Sometimes money ran out. Still, they persevered through various fundraising activities including the annual fall gala, the alumni’s signature event and major fundraiser, now in its 13th year.
Restoration to the building began in March 2010. In April 2017, the building opened its doors to the public. Kennard High School is now home to the Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Center. Washington considers the opening of the Center’s museum as the most important milestone in the restoration of the school. “Our aim is to tell the story of how we evolved from a one-room school to Kennard High School. We want to tell the story of African Americans in Queen Anne’s County, and how we lived and worked together as a community.”
GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC: Charles Sumner Post No. 25, Chestertown
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. Also known as Sumner Hall, it was named for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a tireless advocate for passage of the 15th Amendment that would grant African-American men the right to vote.
At the height of its membership, 28 men were members of GAR Post No. 25. For Kent County, it was the embodiment of pride and self-sufficiency. The veterans used their pensions to uplift their community by becoming landowners, community leaders, entrepreneurs and employers. Women also played an active role alongside the men while creating their own history. The first Women’s Relief Corps in the state of Maryland was created by Post #25. In 1908, after meeting in several locations around Kent County, a permanent home for Charles Sumner Post No. 25 was built at 206 East Queen Street in Chestertown.
When the last veteran died, the women of the organization continued the work of Sumner Hall until 1950, when they sold the building. The structure changed hands many times before falling into complete disrepair in the 1970s. In 1985, a developer purchased the land. Fortunately, before the building could be torn down, research uncovered its historical significance. What followed was a 13-year labor of love to save its legacy. Dr. Ruth Shoge, First Vice President of Sumner Hall, retired Dean of Library and Academic Technology at Washington College, describes the coalition as preservationists, foundations and philanthropic citizens. “There was nothing to lose and everything to gain in the restoration of one of the most significant landmarks in Kent County, in fact in the country,” Dr. Shoge notes. “It is the only one of two African-American GAR posts still standing in America.” The other is in Buford, Georgia.
Artifacts from the Sumner Hall Permanent Exhibit
For Sumner Hall President Larry Wilson, a Kent County native and retired Navy Chief, his involvement in history came later in life. “I had no interest in history in school because it wasn’t about us,” he said. Now his vision for Post No. 25 is that it should be a place for the community, especially its young people, to discover the African-American history of Kent County, to be proud of that history, and to remember and honor veterans.
Inspired by the original purpose, Sumner Hall has returned to the same spirit of collective cooperation. In August, downtown Chestertown comes alive with its annual Legacy Day celebration. Historic exhibits, symposiums, collaborations with artists and national museums, jazz concerts, a children’s library and read-in are some of what can be found at Sumner Hall. Everyone involved in the new life of this historic landmark envisions a time when Sumner Hall is recognized, both locally and nationally, as a premiere showcase for the life and memories of Kent County veterans and for the African-American experience on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.