CHESTERTOWN, MD— Less than half a century after legal desegregation came to Kent County, many stories of the community’s long and complex racial history are only beginning to be told. But two special public programs on November 15 will present firsthand accounts of extraordinary family and personal sagas stretching back 200 years. Writer Dionne Ford will explore the history of her own family in “From Slaves to Senators: A Kent County Family in Black and White,” at 4:30 pm at Washington College; a roundtable discussion at the Heron Point retirement community, “Growing Up in the 1960s in Chestertown,” will follow at 8 pm.
Ford’s talk, hosted by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and co-sponsored by the Black Studies Program and Office of Multicultural Affairs, will be held in Litrenta Lecture Hall, John S. Toll Science Center. The evening roundtable will take place in Heron Point’s Wesley Hall, 501 Campus Ave., Chestertown. Both events are free and open to the public.
Ford’s journey into her Eastern Shore family’s interracial roots began at the age of 12 with a simple question: “Grandpa, are you white?” His answer sent her on a lifelong quest to piece together the stories of the masters and slaves, Confederates and senators, preachers and entertainers whose lives eventually led to her own. Ford's great-great-grandfather, William R. Stuart, was a white Eastern Shore native and Confederate soldier who had several children with one of his African-American slaves, Tempy Burton. (Stuart’s father, also named William R. Stuart, was an early alumnus of Washington College.)
Ford blogs about her search for her ancestors at http://dionneford.com, often interweaving stories of her great-great-grandparents with those of her interracial immediate family. Her reflections on racial identity and self-determination have also appeared in the New York Times, the NAACP’s blog, and Brain, Child magazine. A former TV reporter, Ford has received several fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and is currently at work on a novel about a black expatriate in Brazil. Her November 15 talk will focus on the process of delving into what she calls “a not uncommon but often untold part of American history,” and its implications for her family.
The evening program, featuring Chestertown natives Armond Fletcher, Milford Murray, and Ellsworth Tolliver, will focus on a later period of Kent County history, but will explore some of the same themes: where and why American society draws racial lines, how these lines shift over time, and how we might transcend them today. Each of these three speakers experienced racial segregation firsthand and was an active participant in the struggle to integrate Kent County schools and instigate civil rights reform on a local level.
In sharing their stories, they hope to contribute to a larger understanding of the legacy of segregation on the Eastern Shore, and encourage dialogue across racial lines. “Both of these programs deal with different aspects of a topic that shapes all of our lives, and we hope that many people will be able to continue the conversation from one event to the other,” says Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center.
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Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is dedicated to fostering innovative approaches to the American past and present. Through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach, and a special focus on written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between the academic world and the public at large. For more information on the Center, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.
Photograph: Dionne Ford poses with her daughters at the entrance to Washington College, where her great-great-great-grandfather was a student.