Darius Johnson

Kent County isn’t the easiest place for a black man to thrive and prosper. I didn’t fully realize this until I returned to the Eastern Shore after living in Baltimore County for a few years. I had a job that gave me the opportunity to travel around the state working with high school students to raise awareness about career opportunities in the built environment, and that experience really “took the blinders off” for me. So when I returned to the Eastern Shore, and Kent County specifically, I had a different perspective of the community that I grew up in. On one hand, I recognized that there wasn’t much around that catered to my culture. On the other hand, I recognized a deep desire within myself to build a stronger connection to my roots–and history helped fill the void that I was missing in the world around me. One of the connectors for me was the Chesapeake Heartland project, which ultimately led me to Sumner Hall through one of the project’s events.

In the time that followed, I would randomly find myself at Sumner Hall for events and community meetings, and I gradually developed a stronger understanding of what that space meant to me. Honestly, some of my favorite times at Sumner Hall were moments that I shared with Gordon Wallace, where we would have some pretty deep discussions about race, class, and community there. And in a way, I think having those conversations, in that space, really illuminated the topics that we were talking about. Imagery is a powerful thing – and the imagery, from the exhibits and displays around the building to the names of the founders surrounding the ceiling – really were empowering in a subtle way. We both agreed that the space empowered us to lean into our own identities as black men from Kent County.

One of the recent “shining stars” of Sumner Hall from my perspective is the collection of books centered around black history and culture. I once told Sumner Hall board member Barbara [Foster], that if I had had access to those books as a child, I would be on “another level” and be so much more confident in who I am. For context, I once won a reading contest held by Chestertown Middle School when I was in 8th grade, and not only did I read more words than anyone in the school, but I also read more than the entire 7th-grade class who won the “class competition.” Calling myself an avid reader is an understatement. But the sad thing is that none of the books I read were focused on black history and culture, or written by black authors. In hindsight, I believe the reason for this goes back to my earlier point of Kent County not catering to my culture. It didn’t foster or empower my identity as a black youth, to the point where I really just overlooked those books. I’m compensating for that now, for sure, but man, I would’ve loved to have read more about my culture back then.

All that said, Sumner Hall is one of my favorite places in Chestertown. Professionally, it’s been a space for my organization, Kent Attainable Housing, to use because we primarily operate “virtually” and as a new organization, it’s extremely helpful to have a physical location that we can use as needed. Personally, it’s one of the only spaces in town, in the county, and on the Eastern Shore, that feels truly representative of who I am as a black man in “today’s America.” It’s honestly a shame that there are so few “black-focused” or “black-owned” spaces in Kent County when it has such a rich black history. But I am grateful that Sumner Hall is there, existing in all its glory for those who are ready to explore what it has to offer. I encourage anyone, and everyone, to visit and support Sumner Hall in any way that they can.