Black History Month: Exploring Delmarva’s African-American History Museums
One of the most popular museums to get into on this side of the country is the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Currently, there is a three-month waiting list to get tickets to see the thousands of exhibits at the museum dedicated to telling the the history of African Americans in this country.
However, there are plenty of stories rich in African-American history right here in our own backyard. There are several smaller museums across Delmarva that showcase this history, such as the Charles Sumner Hall in Chestertown, Maryland.
“It’s a special building. Everyone that walks in here can pretty much tell that this is a special place,” said Nina Johnson, executive director of Sumner Hall.
After fighting in the Civil War, 28 African American men returned to Chestertown, and founded Charles Sumner Post #25 of the Grand Army of the Republic.
“There’s a lot of history here in terms of what this building stood for in terms of the community, in terms of helping people, outreach, and doing whatever needed to be done to support people in the community,” said Johnson.
For blacks living in Kent County, this hall later became known as the place to be to watch musical legends perform. Robert Earl Price, member of the Sumner Hall Committee, said he saw many well-known performers pass through the historic place.
“Performer’s of the quality of Ella Fitzgerald and the Sisters of the Rhythm have appeared on the stage inside Sumner Hall,” Price said.
The building had fallen in disrepair through the years, but with support from the community and organizations in Kent County, Maryland worked to bring it back to its glory. Now in great shape, the hall is open to school, church, and community tours.
A little farther south on Maryland’s mid-shore, is the well-known Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge. This local monument is a tribute to Tubman, who spent a third of her life in Dorchester County before escaping in 1849. It was shortly thereafter that she started the legendary Underground Railroad.
“During the 50’s up until 1857 she made at least 11 trips within the vicinity of Dorchester County to help members of the Ross family to escape this area,” said William Jarmon, a curator for the museum and education center. “And she was very successful and that she never loss a passenger, as she would say on the Underground Railroad.”
This humble museum in downtown Cambridge is rich in Tubman history, and stories of African Americans from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“We have a wall of portraits of Harriet Tubman which are all after the Civil War,” Jarmon said. “We also have paintings and artwork of what she might have looked like when she was younger.”
Jarmon said that the Museum is great for people of all ages, and interactive tours are done where participants can get on a bus and travel the 125-mile trek Tubman took on the Underground Railroad byway.
Also in Dorchester County, there is a brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center opening the weekend of March 11-12. This attraction on 17 acres in Church Creek hopes to tell Tubman’s story in a way that has never been done before.
“Tubman is timeless, she speaks that regardless of your disadvantages you can make choices and decisions that positively impact the community, and in Tubman’s case, the nation,” said Dana Paterra, manager of the park.
Inside the new 16,000-square-foot building will be exhibits placed all over, documenting the history and influence Tubman had on the Eastern Shore and this country.
Paterra added that a Tubman biographer, Kate Clifford Larsen will be conducting a program and book signing at the new park. Also on hand will be the National Park Service’s Poet, Dr. Sonia Sanchez, doing readings of her Harriet Tubman Haikus, as well as conducting writing workshops for families. The grand opening will take place on both March 11 and 12.
These places are a treasure to our national history, as well as our local story, and do the honor of displaying the history of thousands of African Americans from Delmarva.
Below is a list of each attraction from above with the address:
Charles Sumner Hall
206 S. Queen Street, Chestertown, MD 21620
Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center
424 Race Street, Cambridge, MD 21613
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park
4068 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek, MD, 21622