History

In 2013, the Historical Society of Kent County, Maryland published a pamphlet – A Walking or Driving Tour of African-American History in Chestertown, Maryland – 1700s to the Present. Updated in 2015, it gives a thumbnail sketch of African-American life in Chestertown, including Sumner Hall. The pamphlet is available at the Historical Society and Sumner Hall.

The following excerpt from the pamphlet captures the history of Sumner Hall within the context of African-America life in Chestertown:

African-American life in Chestertown, Maryland was originally centered around the waterfront. This area (South Water Street and the first block of Cannon Street) was once the site of housing for both slaves and free Blacks in the early 19th century. The waterfront also provided, over the years, some major sources of employment for a growing free Black population: the fishing industry, a sawmill, a fertilizer company, a basket factor, a canning factory and an ice cream parlor owned by a free Black woman. African American residential and commercial areas varied over the years – mainly centered on Cannon and Calvert streets, but also on Philosopher’s Terrace, Lawyer’s Row and Church Alley.

Several watershed events in the life of the town in the 20th Century are of note, including the founding of Garnett school, the economic development of Cannon Street, and the organization of the G.A.R.

In 1882, William Perkins and 25 veterans of the Civil War organized the Charles A. Sumner Post #25 of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). They incorporated in 1908 and this hall was built by the Landing family and others, including Black Civil War veterans, some of them former slaves. It is one of only two such U.S.C.T. (U.S. Colored Troops) veterans’ halls still standing in the United States.

After the death of the last Civil War veteran in 1928, the building continued to be used as a social meeting place. In the 1930’s the Eastern Shore Club (Samuel McGreer, Earl Frazier, Leonard Johnson, Sr. and Leonard Houston, Sr.) held dances, promoted local performers and the national all-girls’ band, the Sweethearts of Rhythm. In the 1940’s they brought in the young Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb.  They also formed the Charles Sumner Beneficial Society for the purpose of helping fellow veterans and local families in need with medical and burial expenses. The wives and daughters formed an auxiliary society called the Charles Sumner Women’s Relief Corps (W.R.C.), a local branch ofa national organization connected with the G.A.R. The traditional core belief of mutual help started with the Civil War veterans.

In the Jim Crow Era, the Centennial Beneficial Lodge #9 Society met in the hall, and with President, Earl Frazier, fought for civil rights for three decades. It was one of the few places where African Americans could socialize. The Centennial Beneficial Association owned the hall from 1950 to 1978, when the few surviving members sold the building to Elmer Campher as a church.

After falling into disrepair and near demolition, a coalition of preservationists, foundations and philanthropic citizens joined together in a decade-long capital campaign and a display of generosity that amassed over half a million dollars to bring the building back to life.

Since reopening in June 2014, the building has become a small museum, entertainment and educational space. Gradually reweaving the center into the cultural fabric of the local community while simultaneously exposing the facility as a site of national importance, it is attracting scholars, artists, students and tourists to this storied Eastern Shore hamlet.