This former slave town in coastal Maryland seethed with racial unrest for more than a century

Mahlia Posey | TIMELINE

Most of the uprisings that took place in 1967 came in large Northern urban centers, places where the Great Migration had brought a sudden influx of black families into crowded neighborhoods cordoned off by redlining and white violence. But that year, other kinds of towns also found themselves as crucibles for America’s fraught racial history.

Cambridge, a sleepy Maryland town along the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, became an unlikely epicenter of the nation’s civil rights movement with the help of H. Rap Brown. Brown visited the former slave town, after an invitation from activist Gloria Richardson, and in a matter of hours managed to light a fire that had been burning there for decades.

But without understanding what happened in Cambridge between the colonial era and the civil rights era, it’s difficult to understand the riot of July 24,1967.

The first black residents of Dorchester County came as indentured servants on Dutch merchant ships, which only had human cargo to trade. With the New World developing, trade with other countries depended on local agriculture, which required human labor. The slave trade was the end result.

But in the mid-1800s half of Dorchester County’s black population was free, many coming from Virginia, a state that had pushed those free blacks out of their home out of fear of the black population exceeding the white population.

The free blacks purchased land along the rivers in the southern parts of the county, while the whites were on the other side.

In Dorchester County, Cambridge was seen as progressive. In 1870, they allowed the second ward to elect its own commissioner, according to Bill Jarmon of Cambridge’s Dorchester Harriet Tubman Organization. Even so, their first black commissioner wouldn’t come until 1970.

During the first half of the 19th century, Cambridge gained economic prosperity as a market for tobacco, seafood, and muskrat pelts. It was Maryland’s second largest port after Baltimore. The city was also a hub for the local slave trade, with auctions happening regularly. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery just a few miles away from Cambridge. She escaped in 1849 with her two brothers and in the following years returned to her hometown to help free as many as 60 to 70 other people, including a niece who fled the auction block on the steps of the same Cambridge courthouse that is still in use today. Tubman made 12 trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852 to 1860.

While the 1865 abolition of slavery sent the economies of many slave-owning regions into a tailspin, Cambridge was able to remain afloat largely due to a robust canning and packing industry.

By the 1930s, the Phillips Packing Company was one of the largest manufacturing operations on the eastern seaboard, employing over a quarter of Cambridge’s 8000 residents. The two world wars gave an even greater boost to the industry, and Phillips became one of the nation’s leading providers of C-rations. Generations of blacks and poor whites earned their living at the company, so when it closed down in the early 1960s, the entire town felt it.

The postwar liquidation of Phillips Packing Company added to the city’s growing social problems. The collapse of the company — and the ensuing economic and racial conditions — gave rise to what would be known as the Cambridge five-year mass movement.

1963, Gloria Richardson, a Howard-educated woman from a prominent local black family, stepped forward to lead the movement and the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. She focused the protests to demand both economic and social equality — targeting discrimination in employment, poor wages, schools, healthcare and public facilities.

Richardson shifted away from the non-violent resistance philosophy and used more forceful tactics, like armed self-defense, causing several high-profile standoffs. One of them escalated into a riot in June 1963, which prompted Governor John Millard Tawes to impose martial law for two years — the longest occupation of any community since Reconstruction.

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy eventually negotiated with Richardson to create an agreement — called the “Treaty of Cambridge,” or sometimes the “Cambridge Accord” — for the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee to suspend protests in return for an end to disparities in housing, employment, schools, and access to public spaces. The all-white Dorchester Business and Citizen Association opposed the move, and segregationists in Cambridge forced a public referendum on the amendments to the city charter that would have outlawed segregation.

Gloria Richardson opposed participation in the referendum on the grounds that people’s constitutional rights cannot be granted or withheld by popular vote. She held a press conference encouraging her supporters to boycott the vote as well, saying, “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.”

The association’s actions led to the pro-segregation referendum passing in a vote, 53% to 47%. However, protection for a segregated Cambridge would last for just nine more months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodations nationwide.

Nonetheless, unofficial discrimination continued in Cambridge, leaving many in the black community in bad shape both socially and economically. For them, unemployment was at 29 percent, while the rate for whites was just 7 percent.

Richardson’s secretary, Ms. Annette Newton, said on a Black History Month panel last year, “If I went downtown, down Race street, I was ready to beat someone up. Because they made you feel angry. You’re not doing anything, and they’d be calling you names and all that kind of stuff. It was a new thing for us, to get used to in the community, because they could be plain bold with their talk; even little kids would come up and pester you like that, and the parents wouldn’t correct them.”

In 1967, a group of activists approached Richardson, asking her to arrange for H. Rap Brown, the newly elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to speak to the Cambridge community. Known as an outspoken advocate of black power who no longer believed in the nonviolent philosophy, Brown’s most famous statement was “violence is as American as apple pie.”

Brown arrived, jumped on the hood of a car, and gave an electrifying speech to a crowd of several hundred people on the 600 block of Pine Street. In a transcript of Brown’s speech made possible by Wayne E. Page and featured in his master’s thesis, “H. Rap Brown and Cambridge Incident: A Case Study,” Brown is quoted as saying:

“A great black man named Langston Hughes wrote a poem one time called ‘A Dream Deferred.’ The poem went ‘What happens to a dream that were deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore? — and then run? Or does it sag like a heavy load? Or does it explode?’ Uh… that question was never answered. Detroit answered that question. Detroit exploded. New York, Newark exploded. Harlem exploded. Dayton exploded. Cincinnati exploded. It’s time for Cambridge to explode, baby.”

Within hours, someone took him literally and the black side of town starting burning.

It’s still unclear who started the fire and why, but the all-white fire department, citing fears of an ambush, let the flames burn for hours. As a result, 20 buildings burned to the ground.

The next day, then-Governor Spiro Agnew (who would later serve as Richard Nixon’s vice-president) mobilized the National Guard on a manhunt for Brown, who was later charged with inciting a riot.

Brown remained at large for 18 months before being arrested on unrelated charges. The inciting charge was later dropped, because by then he was in prison in New York for a robbery and shootout.

Governor Agnew refused federal aid and maligned the black community the day after the fire, according to Richardson. In a 1994 interview with Maryland Historical Magazine, Richardson said, “Anything else that was left over from the two years or three years before — got an agreement on from Washington, Agnew stopped it. That was it…I think the federal government was sincere at that time, but it was just Agnew that said no. He hated Rap Brown.”

Three days after the riot in Cambridge, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission, named after the Illinois governor who chaired it. Johnson believed outside agitators were to blame for the rioting and arson that occurred in so many cities and towns like Cambridge. But the Kerner Commission dismissed his claim and found the fires that occurred on July 24th, 1967 were caused by years of systematic discrimination against the black residents of Cambridge.

Today, a brand new Hyatt Hotel sits on the waterfront, accompanied by new boutiques on Race Street. In 2015, nearly 50 years after Gloria Richardson led the fight for civil rights, Cambridge elected Victoria Jackson-Stanley, the first black woman to serve as mayor. Councilman William Nichols serves as the only black councilman on the Dorchester County City Council. In a 1994 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Richardson said, “two of those neighborhoods, that we couldn’t even walk in before, elected black representatives to the City Council. So there has been, structurally, some change.”

scroll to top