Celebrating Kent County Black Entrepreneurs of the 50’s and 60’s
Worthy of a feature film, African American life in the 50’s and 60’s in Chestertown was bustling, and the black business owners at the time were the catalyst for that vitality. When businesses died out, so did the vitality, and narrators discussed that loss. The Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs online exhibit shares the stories of twenty-two African Americans who were either black business owners, their family, employees or clients of businesses open in the 50s and 60s. Over twenty black businesses were located in downtown Chestertown, MD. Residents described Cannon and Calvert Streets as a busy commerce area during the week and a bustling place on Friday and Saturday nights. And the infamous Charlie Graves’ Uptown Club on Calvert Street added to the vitality of the time by bringing in big name singers including James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Patti Labelle, Etta James, Ottis Redding, BB King and Ray Charles to perform to audiences well over a hundred folks.
The interviews are curated by Lani Seikaly and Airlee Johnson. “Though this was not my first experience collecting local African American oral histories, I continue to be passionate about and inspired by the narrators and their stories. The incredible work ethic along with a strong sense of community comes through in almost every interview I conducted. Glimpses of segregation and its impact are laced through the stories as well as the challenges of transitioning to integration. Economic challenges abounded but are moderated by the spirit, resourcefulness and good will of the people. As one narrator put it, ‘I didn’t even know I was poor because I had what a lot of people didn’t have and that’s a sense of love and community support.’” Lani Hall Seikaly “As a curator for this exhibit and spending childhood years on Cannon St., I’ve been able to revisit my personal history during this very bustling time. It has truly been a privilege to relive this time period as we talked to interviewees, collected pictures and took many trips down memory lane. I remember how all the proprietors were so friendly to the neighborhood children. There was a strong sense of community pride and extremely strong work ethic. Our active streets rivaled many commerce districts in larger cities, but on much smaller scales.” Airlee Ringgold Johnson