By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
In the summer of 1963, the idyllic town of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore became a war zone in Black America’s struggle for civil rights. In the heat of one of those harrowing protests, Gloria Richardson, the charismatic leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee or CNAC, swatted aside the bayonet of a White National Guardsman to his astonishment and the others who witnessed her courage. Her act of bravery in the violent face of White supremacy became one of the iconic images of defiance from the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
Despite the heroic efforts of Richardson and others (including protest that ended in an uprising in 1967, when H. Rap Brown came to Cambridge), Maryland’s Eastern Shore has remained informally governed by Jim Crow mores until this day. Despite its veneer of genteel colloquialism, the Eastern Shore often seethes with oppression more reminiscent of Bull Connor’s Birmingham of the 1960s.
Award-winning AFRO reporters Taya Graham and Stephen Janis have been more steadfast and consistent– sometimes at their own peril– reporting on intractable Jim Crow on the state’s Eastern Shore than any journalists over the last decade. And the duo recently released a documentary chronicling a burgeoning effort aimed at breaking the back of insidious systemic racism embodied in the sleepy town of Pocomoke City in Worcester County, Maryland.
“The Friendliest Town,” specifically examines the plight of Kelvin Sewell, who in 2011, became Pocomoke City’s first Black police chief. Sewell had been a veteran homicide detective with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) for more than two decades. Although he had grown weary of the wars while he was a detective and narcotics officer within one of the most violent cities on earth, Sewell still had a desire to serve. So, he decided that the opportunity to lead the Pocomoke City Police Department could be a new chapter for him and his family; a chapter minus the ubiquitous murder and mayhem that has poisoned Baltimore for so long. And Sewell would have the opportunity to eschew the aggressive policing tactics of the BPD, in favor of a community policing model in his new role as Pocomoke’s chief. It seemed like a great opportunity for Sewell, and initially everything worked out marvelously.
Chief Sewell had an immediate positive impact on Pocomoke City and its people.
“Sewell’s system worked: crime plummeted. Residents both Black and White became ardent supporters of Sewell’s new paradigm of policing. It seemed all was well,” reads the synopsis for The Friendliest Town. “Yet a conflict was brewing that would turn the city upside down; an ongoing dispute over racial discrimination engulfed Sewell and his officer in a battle that would not only cost them their jobs and professional reputations, but would thrust them into an emotional legal battle that would touch all segments of the community.”
But, instead of lying down, the Black community rose up. And ultimately, The Friendliest Town documents the awakening of Pocomoke’s Black community.
“Ostensibly the story of The Friendliest Town is about Pocomoke’s first Black police chief trying to reform policing from within, and succeeding. But it was also about a community embracing what he was doing, and fighting back against the history of racism on the Eastern shore when it engulfed Kelvin and threatened to undo all the good he and his supporters had achieved,” said Graham and Janis in a statement to the AFRO.
The documentary made its North American debut across various platforms recently and it is distributed by Gravitas Ventures. It is produced and written by Graham and Janis and Janis makes his directorial debut.
“Ultimately we traveled to the Eastern Shore for the better part of five years because we felt like we were witnessing history; a communal effort to refute the idea that policing must persecute communities of color in this country,” they added. “And when a nearly all-White council tried to dismantle what they had achieved, they organized successfully, challenged the status quo and ultimately won.”
The reality is Graham and Janis on the pages of the AFRO and through their work for the Real News Network, reported on and stayed on top of stories that revealed blatantly racist policies and practices in Eastern Shore enclaves often ignored or forgotten about.
I witnessed my friends and colleagues travel back and forth from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore for years, doggedly pursuing and reporting on stories that got little or no ink in other publications. Not just the numerous and sometimes intricate iterations of the Pocomoke story. But, Graham and Janis also reported on the various tangents connected to the death of Anton Black, the Black teen who died in the custody of the Greensboro, Md. police department in September 2019.
The Friendliest Town is the well-crafted culmination of their expert storytelling from the Eastern Shore. It is vital journalism reporting on the plight of Black people still harassed and harmed in the 21st century by the remnants of the Antebellum South. Those stories probably wouldn’t have been fully told if not for their vigilance.
Yet, there are still many more stories to tell.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.