For a black man trying to make something of himself, Chestertown has always been and remains a "terrible" place to live.
So says Lee Landrus Wicks, 87, who came back to Chestertown after 30 years of working in a Navy cafeteria in Washington.
"It is 100 percent better for a black man in D.C," says Wicks. "You can find a place to live there. You can find a job. There is noththing in this town for black people to do."
Still, Wicks came back home. For the past 10 years, he has lived in a run-down, three-room, paint-peeling duplex on Cannon Street in a part of Chestertown that Mayor Elmer E. Horsey calls a "slum." Small towns being what they are--small-- Wicks' "slum" duplex is less than a block away from Hynson- Ringgold House, the opulent 18th century landmark residence of the president of Washington College.
When Wicks grew up around Chestertown, white people controlled it; blacks were poor and powerless. During the years he spent in Washington, Wicks says white control of Chestertown did not weaken. Blacks, for the most part, remain poor and powerless.
Still, he came back.
"I came back here to rest and live until I die," says Wicks, who is short, broad and wears horn-rimmed glasses. He was never married. He lives on Social Security and veterans' disability checks totaling $500 a month.
In the summertime, after the heat of the day gives way to breezes off the Chester River, Wicks sits in a lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of his duplex. He reads his Bible and socializes with his friend and roommate, Ernest Spuell. He plays "ready, set, go" with children who race up and down Cannon Street. He visits his sister Lucille who lives on the next block, and hops rides across town with friends to services at the Bethel AME Church.
"I had enough of the city life," says Wicks, who lived for years with friends on Fort Davis Street in Southeast Washington. "I came back here because I am old. When you are old, you have seen practically everything that you want to see."
Wicks moved to Chestertown in the 1920s from Broadneck, a nearby farm hamlet, after his father, a farmhand, died. His mother came to town seeking work as a domestic. If his father had not died, Wicks believes he would have become a school teacher, the most "outstanding" occupation then open to blacks. As it turned out, his education ended in 10th grade. But Wicks kept his eyes open, and 60 years later he can recall the small town he saw as a teen-ager.
He saw that "the black man always had to go in the back." He saw that the town's richest man, a white man named Wilbur Watson Hubbard, owner of Peerless Fertilizer Company, lived in a white-columned mansion on the Chester River while blacks who worked for him lived "uptown" in tumble- down company shacks that had no paint, no plumbing, no electricity. He saw that schools, restaurants, theaters, banks, stores and even a black-owned ice cream parlor were segregated.
"The first job I had in Chestertown was for Mr. Abraham Robinson (a black man). He had an ice cream place that served whites and blacks, colored on one side, whites on the other. He made his own ice cream.
"He didn't have much colored trade. Only on Saturday nights, they'd come in. The colored people never ate nothing but chocolate, vanilla, pineapple. We had a whole list of flavors up on the board . . . I would say, 'What kind of ice cream will you have?' They'd say, 'What kind of ice cream you got?' Most of 'em couldn't read. You'd name every flavor you had on the board and they'd go right back to vanilla. Used to make me so mad."
After his years in Washington, having watched politicized blacks seize power, Wicks is critical of Chestertown's diffident black community.
"Most of the black people in this town have never been ambitious enough to try to strive out to do anything to better their condition," says Wicks. "Whatever the white man said has been all right with them. But the generation coming up now has seen different and knows different. It is up to them to reach out and grasp."
Wicks does not claim there has been no improvement in race relations in Chestertown, which is 20 percent black.
"People are more sociable," he says. "You can go into places and be waited on. We have colored girls working in the bank. We have them in the stores. They make the park (the town square) a beautiful place, taking up the good cement pavement and putting down bricks. They're beautifying the town."
n the past five years,
the beautification of
Chestertown has re sulted in the demolition
of 50 dilapidated houses, nearly all of them black residences. In place of the shacks, the town, with federal assistance, has built 22 subsidized housing units. The brick units are all occupied, and there is a 100-family waiting list. Other low-cost housing has been built in the last two decades outside of Chestertown, some of it eight miles away. Wicks, echoing other Chestertown blacks, says he thinks white people would prefer that blacks live outside of the restoration- conscious town.
"The way it seems is that they are just tearing down the houses. They are not building anything for black people to live in," says Wicks. "They are pushing them out as far as they can. If black people had decent places to live in, they wouldn't want to move out to Washington Park or Fairlee (two low-cost housing projects). Those places are very inconvenient for shopping and transportation."
For himself, Wicks hopes his landlord, who charges him $80 a month, will not tear down his ratty but convenient duplex. So as not to rankle the landlord, he doesn't complain about peeling paint or cracked windows.
While Chestertown may be a "terrible" place for young blacks trying to make a living, Wicks says thattat his age he would live nowhere else.
"I pray to God night and morning and he is blessing me," he says. "I don't have a pain or ache. I'm living happy."