Chestertown celebrates Memorial Day ‘as one’

CHESTERTOWN — At first blush, this year’s observance of Memorial Day in Chestertown seemed like so many others.

On Monday, May 27, there was a parade down High Street with fire trucks, classic vehicles, Scouts, patriotic music, and a lot of red, white and blue; followed by someone of note speaking from a temporary stage in the shadow of iconic Stam’s Hall; followed by a wreath-laying ceremony in Monument Park.

Not withstanding all those similarities to past Memorial Day celebrations here, the 2024 iteration was different.

New this year, Sumner Hall, the Grand Army of the Republic post chartered in 1882 by local Black veterans, joined the program as a full partner — sponsoring a talk by retired Master Sgt. Barbara Johnson-Takano and collaborating with the Historical Society of Kent County and the Chestertown Garden Club in a “walking tour” of Monument Park.

Ruth Shoge, representing the Sumner Hall board of directors, provided a brief history of the GAR with emphasis on the post in Chestertown.

Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic as a national social and fraternal organization on April 6, 1866, about a year after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. 

Charles Sumner Post #25 — named for the U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was a fierce advocate of emancipation and voting rights for African Americans — was one of 56 Maryland GAR posts, of which 22 were African American. 

Today, Post #25 is one of only two GAR posts still standing in the United States and the only one still open to the public, according to Shoge.

She said that annually the most visible activity of the Sumner Hall post occurred on Decoration Day, what we now know as Memorial 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 the graves were similarly decorated.

According to Shoge, this continued for several decades up until the 1950s.

She said the addition of Sumner Hall to the modern-day observance of the holiday “gives rebirth where everyone celebrates Memorial Day as one.”

Per tradition, the parade, sponsored by Dixon Valve & Coupling Co., kicked off at 10 a.m. and traveled several blocks down High Street to the corner of Court Street, where the portable stage used for the May 24-26 Tea Party Festival was still set up.

Mark Mumford, now retired after serving 30 years as Clerk of the Circuit Court for Kent County, was an 11th hour fill-in as keynote speaker.

The affable Mumford said he was “pinch-hitting” for Wayne Gilchrest of Betterton, a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam who subsequently served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gilchrest was unable to attend because of illness.

Mumford began his remarks by summarizing the history of Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May.

Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of U.S. military personnel who died while serving their country.

It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.

After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars.

Mumford recited the Gettysburg Address, which President Abraham Lincoln delivered during the dedication of the Gettysburg Civil War Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, and “In Flanders Field,” a poem penned by Lt. Col. John McCrae during World War I that speaks to the duty of the living to carry on the fight and honor the sacrifice of those who gave their lives.

He asked all veterans in attendance to step out into the street to be recognized, and gave a special shout-out to Air Force veteran Milton Uzelac, 95, who was a fighter pilot during the Korean War.

Now living in Tampa, Florida, Uzelac visits his daughter in Chestertown every Memorial Day.

In her remarks, Barbara Johnson-Takano talked about growing up in Chestertown as the second youngest of five siblings. She attended local public schools, beginning when schools were still segregated, and graduated from Kent County High School in 1973.

She served 23 years in the Army, retiring in 1997 as a master sergeant and holding a supervisory position in cardiac catheterization.

Johnson-Takano, who is a Black woman, said she faced discrimination in school and in the military — and she persevered.

She concluded her remarks with a recitation of Psalm 46, which begins with the verse, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

The parade kicked off under gray skies and a sprinkling of rain. A few umbrellas popped open while Mumford, Shoge and Johnson-Takano spoke. 

As the rain became steady, everyone was able to take cover under the canopy of trees in the adjacent Monument Park for the culminating activity.

Joan Andersen, librarian of the Historical Society of Kent County, narrated the “walking tour” as potted red geraniums were placed at monuments for the “patriots of Kent County who risked their lives and fortunes for freedom during the American Revolution” all the way up to those who served in Desert Storm  (1990-91). 

The last two monuments to be erected pay homage to veterans who for too long were overlooked, the “Colored Troops” who fought for the North in the Civil War and the five local soldiers who were killed in action in the protracted conflict in Southeast Asia.

The largest monument, situated squarely in the center of the park in downtown Chestertown and within view of the county courthouse, is dedicated to Civil War veterans — one side dedicated to the Confederacy and the other to the Union.

It was erected in June 1917 by Judge James A. Pearce “in commemoration of the patriotism and valor of a once divided but now reunited country … Under the sod the Blue and the Gray waiting alike the judgement day.”

The verse is the same on each side of the monument, with one side listing 37 names of Confederate soldiers and the Union side listing 22 names and denoting an additional 130 privates who served in blue.

They are all white men.

Eighty years later, in April of 1997, a monument to African Americans from Kent County who served in the Civil War was erected under the sponsorship of Parker White American Legion Post 143. The inscription on the obelisk reads: “In Memory of the African-American Soldiers and Sailors who fought for their Freedom and the Preservation of the Union 1861-1865.”

Kent County’s servicemen who were mortally wounded in Vietnam were honored on Memorial Day 2018 at the conclusion of a tribute that began with the traditional parade down High Street.

A bronze plaque at the base of the four-sided monument — which honors veterans of World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — lists the names of Kent’s five fallen Vietnam veterans. They served in the military at a time when it was unpopular to do so.

Unlike soldiers and sailors who served in previous wars, those of the Vietnam era did not receive a hero’s welcome when they returned home.

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