Treaty of Cambridge
Although Cambridge, Maryland’s Black residents had long had the right to vote–an African American sat on the Cambridge city council as early as 1912–they had virtually no power. African Americans rented actual chicken shack homes, lacked basic plumbing, had the highest rates of unemployment, and were forced to drive two hours to Baltimore to get decent medical care. So it had been widely accepted by Cambridge’s Black residents that the vote was not enough. The few African Americans with any sort of access to Cambridge’s power structure prior to the 1960s followed a gradual approach to civil rights.
This began to change on Christmas Eve 1961. On that day, SNCC field secretaries Reggie Robinson and Bill Hansen arrived in town and immediately began organizing protests over the city’s unfair conditions. The Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, (CNAC), grew out of these peaceful student protests. Gloria Richardson, from the locally prominent St. Clair family, co-chaired the organization alongside Inez Grubb. Some in SNCC thought Cambridge a less challenging and dangerous place than the Mississippi Delta or Alabama, but they would soon see that geography did not stop violence in the 1960s.
As CNAC challenged Jim Crow head-on with increasing intensity, picketing any public place that would not hire Black people, conducting sit-ins in Cambridge became increasingly violent. White mobs regularly attacked protesters. Race Street, which separated the city’s Black and white communities, became a battle zone. SNCC field secretary Cleveland Sellers, then a Howard University student who was deeply involved with the Cambridge Movement as part of the university’s Nonviolent Action Group, recalled, “By the time we got to town, Cambridge’s blacks had stopped extolling the virtues of passive resistance. Guns were carried as a matter of course and it was understood that they would be used.”
Events in Cambridge, so close to the nation’s capital, alarmed and embarrassed the Kennedy administration, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy began talks with CNAC and other civil rights organizations. The Cambridge group reached an agreement with the Kennedy administration that would’ve brought about significant changes in Cambridge and brought an end to the rampant violence. It was dubbed the “Treaty of Cambridge.”
Key elements of the “treaty” committed the local government to school desegregation and desegregation of public facilities, established a human rights commission, and created a provision for public housing. But almost immediately after the talks, Cambridge’s local government began backing away from the deal, specifically arguing the desegregation of public accommodations had to be approved by a public referendum. Angered, CNAC leader Gloria Richardson called for a boycott of the vote.
By now CNAC was the symbol of radical Black activism in Cambridge. Moderate Black and white citizens viewed Richardson as a troublemaker. From Richardson’s point of view, however, “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 that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” She believed that even if the amendment was passed, the city’s primary business association, the Dorchester [County] Business and Citizens Association (DBCA) would find a way to later challenge its legality in court.
At the special election, white citizens turned out in record numbers. DBCA’s referendum passed with a 53.6% vote by eligible voters. For its part, CNAC continued to protest, but the DBCA wound up with a greater political voice. They invited Alabama governor George Wallace to speak in Cambridge during his presidential campaign in May 1964, and a riot ensued.
Although CNAC’s influence diminished somewhat with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Treaty of Cambridge marked an important transition in the importance of public accommodations for Black citizens on the Eastern Shore.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008), 40-49.
Gloria Richardson Dandridge, “The Energy of the People Passing through Me,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 273-297.
Peter B. Levy, Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).