Russ Allen: Harwich And Racism, Part 1

In an unprecedented event that almost did not happen, and despite COVID-19 restrictions, an estimated 1,000 people gathered in Harwich Center’s Brooks Park on a June Saturday afternoon to demonstrate. Initially proposed as a march from Route 28 and Bank Street to the Harwich Community Center by Susannah Brown and Hope Jorgensen, two Monomoy Regional High School eighth grade students, their plans evoked negative social media comments that made their parents cancel, one mother pleading on Facebook that it not be rescheduled. Others took up the mantle and moved the event to Bank Street Beach before relocating to Brooks Park. With the support of the Harwich Police Department, the march became a peaceful call to end racism.

What is its relevance to Harwich? Similar events are highlighting a national social problem simmering for years. Worldwide moral concerns have found voice among Cape Cod residents. But what is the connection between racism and Harwich?

Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.” It expresses institutionally or systemically, culturally, and individually or personally, and applies to the interaction of individuals or groups self-considered superior to others. Recognized as immoral by most ethical systems, it is often ignored, unacknowledged or unaddressed save for precipitating causes such as the death of George Floyd.

Racism on Cape Cod has a diverse history, but its most common instances are rooted in human slavery. Native Americans and Pilgrim settlers enslaved victims of war, criminals, debtors, indentured servants, or African natives brought here on ships owned or captained by residents of Harwich. However, African slaves were never numerous in the northern colonies and most were household servants.

While slavery by default ended in the Commonwealth Massachusetts by 1790, it continued south of the Mason-Dixon Line with the tacit support of residents of Massachusetts, a hub of the Triangular Trade. Momentary anti-slavery sympathy was garnered in Harwich by the experience of Captain Jonathan Walker, a coastal trader who brought fugitive slaves north to freedom on his boat. When he was arrested and punished by having his hand branded in 1844, the people of Harwich rallied in support of his wife and seven children.

Nevertheless, a planned four-day anti-slavery event in Harwich in September 1848 ended when its outside organizers were run out of town after criticizing some of the local churches for their support of slavery and willingness to benefit financially from the practice. Part of the reason for this laissez faire attitude was the social and business relationships between Harwich’s sea captains (some of whom supported the 1848 event) and southern plantation owners, according to James Coogan in “Slavery and Indentured Servants on Cape Cod,” a talk given at the Tale of the Cod on May 20, 2013.

The passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1850 allowing the expansion of slavery into newly formed states changed popular attitudes in Harwich and elsewhere. In 1851 a meeting was held in the Union Hall denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act, and in 1854 the Pilgrim Congregational Church was formed in Harwich Port by persons opposed to slavery. In September 1860, the Cape Cod Anti-Slavery Convention, meeting in the Harwich Exchange with over a thousand in attendance, called for “immediate and unconditional Abolition.”

Of the 3,421 residents of Harwich in 1860, 1,723 were male. A little under one-fifth, or 340 of them, fought in the Civil War, 29 more than required by the federal government. (There were also two “Freed Colored” included in the 1860 U.S. Census Report.) It may not be accurate to say that their service was motivated by opposition to slavery. Given the draft law’s option for hiring paid replacements and the funds allocated to soldiers by the town itself, as well as the stated purpose of the war as being to save the Union, other factors were at work. Civil War historian James MacPherson writes that the chief motivation for its soldiers was their loyalty to each other.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s made a powerful impression on Pamela Chatterton-Purdy. Though living in Chicago at the time, in 2008 the Harwich Port artist created a series of artworks that focused on Dr. King and the milestone events that launched and sustained the movement. Titled “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement,” the work became a traveling exhibit commemorating the movement and the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. The original 12-piece exhibit had its first public viewing Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008, at Saint Joan of Arc Church in Orleans, in a show sponsored by the Nauset Interfaith Association (NIA).

Formed by Orleans clergy shortly after 9/11, the NIA includes clergy and lay representatives of 22 religious’ communities from the lower and outer Cape. This non-profit is organized into action teams, one of which is named after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Established in 2015, its focus is on “educating ourselves and our communities about the nature of institutional, cultural, and individual racism.” It sponsors the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast and has hosted speakers on slavery and Cape Cod and a recent trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. From 2015 to 2019, the team held monthly discussions with local police chiefs on racism which led to a 2018 conference on police/community relations at Cape Cod Community College. Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, it began organizing small group discussions of Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” which have continued virtually. Recent events have led to a renewed interest in the work of the NIA and this action teams, along with a request from the police chiefs to resume those conversations.

As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the population of Harwich equaled 12,386. Whites made up 94.5 percent of the residents and African Americans at 0.71 percent or 88 persons are one small segment of the town’s minority racial makeup. What is their day-to-day experience of racism? What forces are at work to address that reality? Is Harwich’s racism in evidence or is it latent? Is it systemic, institutional, cultural or individual? Since recent issues moved center stage many have emphasized the importance of listening to the stories of those who most effected by racism. What are those stories for African American and other residents of Harwich? The second part of this series will address some of those questions.