A Maryland city examines a past of racial division to move forward

Victoria Jackson-Stanley was a teenager when two square blocks of her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland, went up in flames during racial unrest on July 24, 1967.

Man standing among building's ruins (© AP Images)
The Reverend Conrad J. Branch in the ruins of the Zion Baptist Church, destroyed by the 1967 fire. (© AP Images)

Today Jackson-Stanley is the mayor of Cambridge, a city of 12,000 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that is seeing a revitalization to its historic downtown thanks to tourism and new businesses. Fifty years after the black section of her town burned to the ground, she and others are working to move this town forward as one community — black and white.

The city is commemorating the anniversary of that riot from July 20 to 23, as a way to address its troubled past. For most of its history, blacks and whites in Cambridge worked together but lived separately. As the city moved on from the fire, it was rarely openly addressed. On the agenda for the anniversary are some of the same civil rights leaders who participated in the peaceful protests against the city’s segregationist policies during the 1960s.

“The memories are so very painful, but there’s no use pretending they aren’t part of our legacy,” Jackson-Stanley told the Baltimore Sun. “You’ve got to acknowledge it before you can move on,” said Jackson-Stanley, Cambridge’s first African-American mayor and first female mayor.

The small city played an outsize role during America’s civil rights era, when protests led by Cambridge resident Gloria Richardson Dandridge against the city’s segregationist policies attracted the attention of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy. The city’s struggle became known as “The Cambridge Movement.”

The mayor remembers

Jackson-Stanley was there during an earlier incident in 1963 when the governor deployed the Maryland National Guard to Cambridge in the wake of violence among protesters, counter-protesters and police.

“I remember the National Guard lining up with their bayonets on the corner of Park Lane and High Street,” she said.

Her father’s participation in the movement cost him several jobs, and he was in danger from enemies of the movement, Jackson-Stanley said. “I had a lot of concerns about his safety.”

Today, as Cambridge’s mayor, her concerns are for the future of the city where she’s spent her entire life. “I love my town,” she said. “I have seven generations in my church that I can count alone.”

People gathered in church listening to speaker (© AP Images)
Worshippers gather inside Bethel A.M.E. Church in Cambridge in 1963. Local churches were central meeting places for the black community before and after the fire. (© AP Images)

Changing economy

For the first half of the 20th century, the Phillips Packing Company — the world’s largest packer of tomato products — was Cambridge’s biggest employer. But when it closed in the early 1960s, the city lost thousands of jobs, most of them in the black community.

In the decades since, other manufacturing has come and gone from Cambridge: a tuna-canning company, a yearbook publisher, an aerospace manufacturer. During these years, blacks and whites continued to work side by side but mostly lived in separate areas.

In recent years, tourism has been a significant part of Cambridge’s economy. Along with other towns and cities on the Eastern Shore, Cambridge has scenic views of the Chesapeake Bay and a historic downtown along Race Street. Business leaders believe it is coming into its own and can compete with other, more affluent Eastern Shore locales such as Salisbury and Easton. Also close by is a golf resort.

People walking on sidewalk past shops (Cambridge Main Street)
Evening shoppers in downtown Cambridge. (Cambridge Main Street)

Cambridge is one of Maryland’s oldest cities and is rich in history. It was settled by the British in 1684 and once home to tobacco plantations. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in this county. A new Cambridge museum and a nearby national park commemorate her life.

Emerging young leaders

Dion Banks, 45, is too young to remember the unrest of the 1960s. Although his parents participated in Cambridge’s civil rights movement, he didn’t know how intense the strife had been.

Portrait photo of Dion Banks (Courtesy of Dion Banks)
Dion Banks (Courtesy photo)

By the time Banks came of age, a number of African Americans were community leaders, such as Jackson-Stanley, who spent her early career working in social services, and George Ames, who became the first African American judge in the county’s history and served as president of the county chamber of commerce.

“I never had any type of negative experience in terms of race [while] living here,” Banks said. But, he said, when he returned to Cambridge after college and 10 years in Chicago, he “started realizing there were some things that needed to be addressed.” He described the never-discussed memories of the fire as a wound that had not been allowed to properly heal.

With local attorney Kisha Petticolas, Banks founded the Eastern Shore Network for Change as a resource for community-based programs and social-service institutions. In 2012 the group held a town hall meeting on race relations in Cambridge called “45 Years After the Fire: How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”

“We had about 150 people show up — half black, half white,” Banks said. “An unbelievable turnout. People got emotional, people started crying. There was a little bit of shouting going on, and then it dawned on me that that was the first public conversation ever held about what happened 45 years ago.”

The experience spurred Banks and Petticolas to plan for the 50th anniversary in July 2017. “We have a very rich civil rights history here in Cambridge that has never truly been told,” Banks said.

The “come here”

Brett Summers moved to Cambridge from Washington in 2000, when he was 36. That makes him a “come here” in the local jargon, not a “from here,” as the natives are called. Summers is part of the Cambridge Venture Capital Fund, eight business owners who have put their money behind their belief in Cambridge’s future.

“There’s a great restaurant scene that’s developed in Cambridge,” Summers said. The fund’s goal is to keep those diners downtown. “We want them to feel like they can spend their money and have a great time in Cambridge, not elsewhere. To create that environment, we need more retail businesses, so we’re willing to put our money where bankers are not.”

Man preparing crab cakes on large griddle (Cambridge Main Street)
A worker makes crab cakes at the Taste of Cambridge crab cook-off. (Cambridge Main Street)

The group will invest up to $50,000 in new retail businesses to help them pay for inventory, interior improvements and operating capital. The money is to be paid back over five to seven years.

Looking back to look forward

This month’s anniversary events, called “Reflections on Pine,” will examine not only the civil rights era in Cambridge, but the decades prior to the closing of the Phillips tomato packing plant, a time when Cambridge had a second thriving downtown area for its black citizens.

Back then, Pine Street was known as Black Wall Street (after New York’s financial district) and was part of the network of black entertainment venues known as the Chitlin Circuit. “It was like a little New York,” Banks said. “All the greats came through here: James Brown, Cab Calloway, you name it.”

Earlier economic hardship and the policies of segregation led to the end of that era, but it is the kind of thriving environment the city is trying to regain today. “Reflections on Pine” will include a conversation with civil rights leader Dandridge (now 95), a street festival, a walking tour of Pine Street, and a community discussion on race in Cambridge through the years.

At a time when everyone in Cambridge is working together to push the town forward — even the old Phillips plant is set be transformed into a combination microbrewery and business incubator supporting local food entrepreneurs — the community is telling the story of its own past as it looks to its future.

“Our economic base has changed significantly since Phillips and those other industries have moved on and moved out,” Jackson-Stanley said. “Our goal now is to try to rebuild.”