When Sam Cooke wrote the lyrics to “A Change is Gonna Come,” he probably never heard of Cecil County, Maryland, but he definitely had places like Cecil County in mind when he wrote in 1963: “I go to the movie/ And I go down town/somebody keep telling me don’t hang around.”
It was the era of “Jim Crow” with “Whites Only” signs over the doors of public and private establishments. But race was not the only area of society due for a change in America. An overhaul was in store for politics, government, international relations, transportation, entertainment and even toys in the 1960s. All of these changes and more are the subject of an exhibit about the 1960s opening at the Historical Society of Cecil County on Nov. 23: “A Change is Gonna Come,” a virtual tour of events in the county, the nation, and the world, and how all of these events impacted our lives during the 1960s.
The society’s exhibit begins at the dawn of the decade, the presidential election of 1960, and a visit from the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to Perryville and Elkton. Just a few months after Kennedy’s inauguration, groups of so called “Freedom Riders” rode into the county to challenge the segregation laws by entering restaurants and requesting service. Some were arrested. It would be another four years until Cecil County Public Schools were fully integrated as both the Levi Coppin and George Washington Carver schools would close, ending 100 years of segregated education in the county. That same year, 1965, Maryland’s first vocational technical high school opened at Bay View.
Remember “duck and cover?” It had its genesis in the 1950s, but was added to the local lexicon as worldwide tensions over nuclear arms came to a boil in the ‘60s. First it was over Berlin, and then the tiny Caribbean island of Cuba, where nuclear tipped missiles could reach Cecil County in under 30 minutes. For the next quarter century, the nuclear threat remained very real and the “duck and cover” theme became, more or less, a way of life.
Another fight was brewing on another battlefield far away in a place called Vietnam. At first, the American commitment was limited to arms and advisors, but that commitment grew until there were over 500,000 men and women fighting and dying in that Southeast Asian land. Cecil County proudly boasts many veterans of that conflict. Nine of them did not come home alive. This exhibit proudly honors them all for their sacrifice.
All was not doom and gloom in the 1960s. Remember Barbie Dolls, G.I. Joe, James Bond or the British musical invasion featuring the greatest rock band of all time, The Beatles? How about the Princess phone? Right in the midst of all of this chaos came the transistor radio and the opening of Cecil County’s first radio station. WSER went on the air on in 1963, featuring the latest music, and both national and international news, plus local sporting events, grand openings and news from across Cecil County.
1963 saw two more major changes in local media: the last telephone switchboard in Maryland closed as Armstrong Phone Company in Rising Sun switched to direct dial and Jim Cheeseman arrived in Cecil County never to leave. Jim brought a unique photographic eye to news coverage. He and his photography would impact how we saw local news stories for about 20 years. The Historical Society of Cecil County is proud to be the repository of Jim’s work and to make it available to everyone.
Cecil County was growing in other ways in the 1960s. The Elkton Drive-In, opened in the 1950s, came into its own during the ‘60s advertising third anniversary gala 3-cent admission. And just down the road, Thomas Estates exemplified the expanding housing market as residents moved away from America’s cities and both created and populated the suburbs; a trend we continue to live with today. Another trend of the ‘60s was expanding government services. That growth is shown with the dedication of a new addition to the Cecil County Courthouse in 1966 and the addition of patrol cars for the sheriff’s office two years later.
There was, indeed, much to be happy about and praise worthy in the 1960s, but some events, frankly, we could just as well have lived without. On Nov. 14, 1963, President John Kennedy returned to Cecil County amidst much fanfare to dedicate that portion of Interstate 95 that ran through the county. Just eight days later, our young president was dead, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Cecil County, along with the rest of the nation, was plunged into mourning.
Just as we were recovering from one awful tragedy, when we thought things had to get better, another disaster struck directly at the heart of Cecil County. Flight 214 bound for Newark, N.J., was struck by lightning on the evening of Dec. 8, exploded in flames over the eastern end of the county, and crashed. All aboard perished. A firefighter from North East also lost his life when he suffered a heart attack as he attempted to save others.
Just five years later, President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, then a U.S. Senator from New York, was himself assassinated while campaigning for the presidency. Robert Kennedy’s funeral train, witnessed by some 1000 persons at the Elkton train station, passed through Cecil County on its way to Washington, DC. in June 1968. The last event covered by our exhibit is the destruction by fire of the Tome School in Port Deposit, ending a long reign as a premier educational institution in Cecil County.
Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
“A Change is Gonna Come” opens on Nov. 23 at the Historical Society of Cecil County at 135 E. Main St. in Elkton.