Celebrating Cambridge Heroines: Women at the Frontlines of Social Change

By Jessica Brannock, Communications Intern

Standing on the steps of the Cambridge Courthouse in 1963, Gloria Richardson addressed a crowd of reporters. As the leader of the Cambridge Movement, Richardson spoke of the ongoing efforts to desegregate the city’s school systems and ensure better jobs and housing for the African-American community. Today, this historic image of Richardson is commemorated in the Local African-American Heritage Mural in Cambridge, Maryland.

Stacked mural photo
Initial and completed stages of the Local African-American Heritage Mural in Cambridge, Maryland. Images provided by Michael and Heather Rosato, edited with permission.

The piece is one of several murals created by artist Michael Rosato along the Chesapeake Country Mural Trail. The placement of each figure is significant to the reading of the mural and the community’s story. “Everything radiates out from Harriet [Tubman] in the middle, she’s the foundation of that whole community,” Rosato said. “She’s the inspiration for freedom and respect, just an incredible woman.”

In recent years, Harriet Tubman has received local and national recognition with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Dorchester County, Maryland.

While prominent characters like Tubman, Richardson, and even Ella Fitzgerald can be picked out of the crowd, each figure stands on their own. Spotlights of the community’s history flow from left to right, with the last image featuring a modern-day athlete from Cambridge South Dorchester High School. “I wanted the modern kids to have a sense of ownership too, to feel that they are a part of the story,” Rosato said. “Their future is going to be the history of Cambridge.”

Today, the legacy of the Cambridge Movement is not mired in the past but has taken off with a new wave of activism and 21st century leaders. Co-founders of the Eastern Shore Network for Change (ESNC), Kisha Petticolas and Dion Banks have led community initiatives to continue the work of Gloria Richardson and bring people together.

Petticolas and Banks met in 2012 while campaigning for the re-election of Mayor Victoria Jackson- Stanley—the first African-American and woman elected Mayor of the City of Cambridge, Maryland. “Through our work at the ESNC, Dion [Banks] and I have found that the one thing that seems to constantly block this community from moving forward is failing to acknowledge our painful history concerning race,” Petticolas said.

In the summer of 2017, the ESNC hosted Reflections on Pine, a series of events that commemorated the Cambridge Movement and created a community-wide platform to discuss the incidents that lead to the burning of Pine Street in 1967. One event included a public interview with Richardson—now in her nineties, where she shared her experiences leading the movement. While Richardson succeeded in securing freedoms for the Cambridge community, many of the same economic and social issues are still felt today. The fight is not over. “I do this work because I believe everyone deserves to have the same basic opportunities in life,” Petticolas said. “We all deserve to be educated, employed, well paid for the work that we do, live in a home that is clean and safe, and to be respected for who we are.”

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Co-founders of the Eastern Shore Network for Change, Kisha Petticolas (left) and Dion Banks (right) pose for a photo with Gloria Richardson (center) during Reflections on Pine in 2017 [Image credit ESNC].

For over a century, women in Dorchester County have fought for social change, leaving legacies which propelled succeeding generations into new waves of activism and opportunity. “I am just a link in a chain that started hundreds of years ago by a woman whose name I will never know and I certainly will not be the last link,” said Petticolas. “I am hopeful that through our work at ESNC we are able to find the next link in the chain, and wouldn’t it be nice if she could be the last link?”

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