Union veterans formed The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) as a social and fraternal organization on April 6, 1866. It was founded to strengthen fellowship (Fraternity), provide care for soldiers and their dependents (Charity), and to celebrate and uphold the Constitution (Loyalty).
In 1868, the Commander-in-Chief of the G.A.R., General John A. Logan, established Decoration Day. His General Order No. 11 stated: “The 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of the comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Maryland had 56 G.A.R. posts, of which 22 were African American. The high percentage of “colored” posts in Maryland was due to the proportion of enslaved African Americans who served in the Army and Navy. During the Civil War, Maryland fielded seven regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). In Kent County, more than 400 African Americans volunteered or were conscripted into the Union forces. Many of these soldiers fought and died in the storied Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia in July 1860.
In 1882 local Black Veterans formed the Charles Sumner Post #25 in Kent County, Maryland. They named their post after Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a fierce advocate of emancipation and voting rights for African Americans. The naming of the post is particularly significant in light of the fact that Senator George Vickers from Kent County argued against Charles Sumner for passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Yearly inspection reports to the national organization reveal that at its peak, this post had 28 members who, despite their humble backgrounds, were able to pay dues and fit themselves out with G.A.R. dress uniforms for use in parades and official functions.
The most visible activity for the post was Decoration Day. A parade would form in Chestertown, led by veterans and followed by a train of musicians, decorated wagons, friends and school children. The parade traveled first to the white cemetery, where the graves of Civil War dead were strewn with flowers, and then to the black cemetery, where their brothers’ graves were similarly decorated. The former soldiers marched through the center of town to fire a musket salute over the Chester River, and then across the bridge to a local farm where a large picnic was held. As the only G.A.R. post in Chestertown, the Sumner Post organized the only annual celebration of Union victory in the area; despite a deep undercurrent of racism combined with strong pro-Southern sympathies in the local white populace, the veterans and their descendants proudly continued their tradition for several decades.
The G.A.R. encouraged the formation of allied groups, such as the Women’s Relief Corps, consisting primarily of the wives and daughters of veterans. The Charles Sumner Post had the distinction of creating the first Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC) in Maryland and, as such, was listed first in the Maryland register. In addition to providing support for the ill and bereaved, the WRC assisted in commemorating Decoration (Memorial) Day.
After meeting in several places around the county, the current building on Queen Street was built around 1908 and was a center of African American social and cultural life for six decades. The last member of G. A. R. Post #25 died in 1928, but the women relatives of the veterans continued to hold meetings and carry on the work of the post. The “Army Hall” as it was called, was often rented out for meetings, weddings, graduations and concerts. Many jazz notables performed the hall, including Chick Webb, who traveled by steamboat from Baltimore in 1937 to perform on the second-floor stage. In 1950, the five remaining women sold the property to the Centennial Beneficial Association, a group that had been meeting there and who preformed similar functions of the G. A. R. Subsequently, the building was owned by others until it fell into disrepair to the point of abandonment in the 1970s.
When slated for demolition, a coalition of preservationists, foundations and philanthropic citizens joined together in a thirteen-year campaign to transform the dilapidated building into the historically accurate and beautifully restored space that it is today. Sumner Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since reopening to the public in June 2014, the building as become a museum, entertainment and education space. It welcomes all residents of the community to a wide variety of programs and activities.
Sumner Hall would not be where it is today without the extraordinary vision and leadership of Leslie Prince Raimond. To learn more about her involvement, please click here.
Nina Johnson-Wright, former President of the Board of Directors for Sumner Hall, expressed the feelings of the stakeholders in this interview with the Chestertown Spy in September 2015: