Sumner Hall speaks of important African American experiences, from the time of the U.S. Civil War to the present day. Within these walls, veterans and their families talked, planned, learned, celebrated and help one another find security in their lives. Their personal stories, rich in character building lessons, still resonate with us today.
Home of the Charles Sumner Poste #25, Grand Army of the Republic, the post was chartered in 1882 by local Black Veterans in Chestertown, 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 had argued against Charles Sumner for passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Annual 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.
Union veterans formed The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) as a national 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). Its most significant value to its members was to lobby for the payment of pension and disability payments to its members. The G.A.R. also has the distinction of being the first racially integrated national organization in the United States.
Charles Sumner Post #25 was one of 56 Maryland 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 Union Army and Navy. During the Civil War, Maryland fielded seven regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). In Kent County, nearly 500 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 1864. An exhibit about the G.A.R. is a permanent display at Sumner Hall. In addition, visitors may browse through a book that lists the African American soldiers who fought in the war, along with known details about them.
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.”
Indeed, the most visible activity of the Charles Sumner Post #25 occurred on Decoration Day each year. 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 national 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. It became a center of African American social and cultural life for six decades. Although the last member of G. A. R. Post #25 died in 1928, the women relatives of the veterans continued to hold meetings and carry on the work of the post for many more years. The “Army Hall” as it was then 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 members sold the property to the Centennial Beneficial Association, a group that had been meeting there and which had performed 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 has served as a museum, entertainment venue, education space and site of community celebrations. The story of the renovation of Sumner Hall is available at the museum.
While many local citizens were active in the resurrection of Sumner Hall, Leslie Prince Raimond, as the Executive Director of the Kent County Arts Council, was the key leader who kept the vision of a renovated national monument alive. Learn more about her role here.
Sumner Hall became a fully independent organization in July 2015 when a new Board of Directors assumed responsibility. In September 2015, Nina Johnson-Wright, then President of the Board of Directors of Sumner Hall, shared her vision for the future role of the organization in the community in this interview with the Chestertown Spy.
Today’s Sumner Hall is the creation of its dedicated volunteers, led by its Board of Directors and committee members. The leaders of Sumner Hall resisted the temptation to create a “traditional museum” that would have focused on our national significance as the first order of business. The Board consciously determined to create a lively, locally relevant museum – in the spirit of our founders – to raise the voices of African Americans in community conversations and celebrations. The Board also pledged to “practice what we preach” as the museum grew and developed its identity. The values of inclusion, respect, collaboration, transparency, and accountability underpin Sumner Hall. As a result, Sumner Hall has become a community space where discussions and action planning about racial injustice, police-youth relations, and food insecurity take place. Sumner Hall has become a known trusted community space marked by its diversity, equity, and inclusiveness in leadership, programs, exhibitions, initiatives and celebrations.
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.