Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs of the 50’s and 60’s
May 4 - May 27
Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs of the 50’s and 60’s Gallery will be on display in the Studio Gallery during the month of May.
Curators’ Statement for Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs of the 50’s and 60’s
Thanks to a Maryland Traditions preservation grant, RiverArts has been able to stage an exhibition sharing the stories of twenty-five African Americans who were either black business owners, their family, employees or clients of businesses open in the 50’s and 60’s. Over 15 black businesses alone were located on a two block section of Cannon Street which residents described as a busy commerce area during the week and a bustling place on Friday and Saturday nights. And the infamous Charlie Graves’ Uptown Club on Calvert Street added to the vitality of the time by bringing in big name singers including James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Patti Labelle, Etta James, Ottis Redding, BB King and Ray Charles to perform to audiences well over one hundred folks.
Though this is not our first experience collecting local African American oral histories, we continue to be passionate about and inspired by the narrators and their stories. The incredible work ethic along with a strong sense of community comes through in almost every interview we did. Glimpses of segregation and its impact are laced through the stories as well as the challenges of transitioning to integration. Economic challenges abounded but are moderated by the spirit, resourcefulness and good will of the people. As one interviewee put it, “I didn’t even know I was poor because I had what a lot of people didn’t have and that’s a sense of love and community support.”
Worthy of a feature film, African American life in the 50’s and 60’s in Chestertown was a bustling place and the black business owners at the time were the catalyst for that vitality. When businesses died out, so did the vitality, and narrators discussed that loss.
To make the stories more accessible, we created short YouTube videos and a website, Eastern Shore Stories, to bring them together in one collection. We hope you enjoy viewing the video clips, photos and stories as much as we loved collecting them.
Lani Hall Seikaly & Airlee Ringgold Johnson, Curators
Airlee Ringgold Johnson,
Airlee Ringgold Johnson, the eldest sibling of the late Samuel and Eleanor Ringgold, graduated from Garnet High School, Chestertown, MD in 1966. She attended the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore where she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1970. After leaving the Eastern Shore in 1970, her career began in New York City with the fashion industry. After three years she relocated to Atlanta, GA as a Fashion Merchandise Manager with a Fortune 500 company. Airlee is married to Hank Johnson, a retired career military officer, and they are the proud parents of Kanisa Tiffany Johnson-Baker and Travis Jonson of Montgomery County, Maryland.
Airlee and Hank were assigned to Germany five months after their marriage. While in Germany, Airlee worked as a field registrar at Ramstein Air Force Base’s Education Center. Airlee obtained a Master’s of Science Degree in Human Resources Management from the University of Utah in 1976 while at Ramstein.
Upon returning to the states, Airlee began her real estate career in Montgomery, County, MD which lasted for over 20 years. During this period, she worked independently as a realtor, managed her own real estate team, and started a real estate investment company with her husband.
Airlee and Hank relocated to Chestertown, Maryland in 2002. During subsequent years, she worked as a Career Counselor for the Department of Social Services in Queen Anne’s County and has been involved with numerous community organizations in both Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties. Currently, her involvements include the following: Member of Community Baptist Church in Barclay MD, Chairperson of Kent County’s Legacy Day, A Founding Member of the Social Action Committee which addresses local racial inclusion issues, Co-Curator for Black Entrepreneurs in the 50’s and 60’s Study/Exhibit, Board of Directors of Historical Society for Kent County, Member of Chester River Rowing Club, Member of Democratic Club of Kent County, Volunteer for C. V. Starr Center of Washington College, Volunteer for Garfield Theatre.
Airlee has always maintained active roles in all of the many communities where she’s resided. She’s always followed her creed, “In order to make a difference in your community, you must be active in your community.”
Airlee believes whole-heartedly in staying physically fit and maintains an active membership at Chestertown’s Aquafit where she does water aerobics, swims and weight trains.
Airlee was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2018.
Lani Hall Seikaly
Lani Hall Seikaly is Chairman and Immediate Past President of Chestertown RiverArts where she has been involved in the administration, communications, and program development of the 6-year-old organization. She is passionate about oral history and photography and co-chaired the Humans of Kent County project. Since RiverArts has opened in 2012, she has curated four oral history and photography exhibitions at RiverArts including Stories of African Americans Growing Up in Kent County, World War II Home Front, and Working at Vita Foods. She currently works with Washington College students in the collection of stories and artifacts from WWII for the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience StoryQuest project.
A leader in the effort to have Chestertown designated an A&E District in 2016, Seikaly chairs the Greater Chestertown Initiative, a group of non-profit, business and other community leaders interested in collaborating to make Chestertown a great place to live and work.
Seikaly has had extensive experience in school improvement planning, web-based professional development and data tools, school-based administration, leadership training and technical assistance to low performing schools. As a founding partner of Hillcrest and Main, Inc., she specialized in building school leader capacity to use data to improve student achievement. As project director for the School Improvement in Maryland Web Site, Seikaly managed the development of a site that makes school, district and state assessment data readily available online and created online professional development for school leaders to use data to improve student achievement. Using the resources of the online course, she has trained school leaders across the state including 18 Title I School Leadership Teams. Seikaly has been a technical assistance provider for several of the CCSSO state collaboratives. She has also facilitated professional development for a Michigan state grant to support school leaders in over 40 schools use state assessment and local classroom data to improve student achievement. She has presented at national conferences including the Education Commission of the States, CCSSO’s Large Scale Assessment Conference, and the National Education Summit.
Earlier in her career, Seikaly directed the Department of Instructional and Information Technology for the Montgomery County Public Schools where she managed the early implementation of the school system’s Global Access Technology Plan, a 10 year effort to provide networked computers in every classroom of 180 schools and the necessary professional development to use the technology to enhance learning and teaching. She had 27 years experience in schools as a middle school principal, a coordinator of a Computer / Math / Science Magnet Program, a media specialist, and an English resource teacher.
Image above: Humans of Kent County 2016