The recent memorializing of the Henry Highland Garnet School Media Center in the name of Emma L. Grason Miller opens a new door into Chestertown’s African American history and a long-overdue appreciation for the school’s founding on Calvert Street.
One hundred six years ago, across College Avenue from Bethel Church, Emma Miller started a school for Black children that offered a curriculum beyond the 6th grade, for years the standard grade level in Kent County’s dozens of African American one-room schools.
It was an uphill battle. Keeping the schools open was challenging enough with low attendance during harvest season when boys were needed to help in the fields, and funding was scant.
Undeterred, Miller extolled the value of education to the children’s families and convinced them to contribute anything they could from their meager income. But the educator knew this was unsustainable and looked beyond the County for help.
She wrote an appeal to the State Legislation, followed by a visit to Annapolis to state her case for the future of education in Kent County. Legislators were impressed, and funds were forthcoming. The first structure of Henry Highland Garnet School across from Bethel Church was founded in 1916. The current Garnet was built in 1949.
As Karen Somerville tells the Spy, “Without Emma L Grason Miller, there would have been no Henry Highland Garnet School.”
The arc of Emma Miller’s life and fervent advocacy for the education of Kent’s Black youth is also a story about another woman, Mary Elizabeth Lange (1789-1882), a Catholic nun who founded the Oblate School for Colored Girls—later the Saint Frances School for Colored Girls—in Baltimore, the first religious congregation of women of African descent in the United States.
Lange fled Haiti to Cuba after the slave insurrection against French colonial rule, finally settling in Baltimore in 1813, when the free African-American population outnumbered enslaved people. Despite the many Protestant organizations providing services for the burgeoning free African-American population, “Mother Mary” Lange saw a greater need to address illiteracy and “empower youth with the ability to overcome obstacles in the face of hopelessness.” Currently, documents about the educator are at the Vatican to consider for canonization.
Near the end of Mother Mary Lang’s life, Emma Miller would have been a young student and imbued with the same zeal to serve her community. She did so, from Virginia to Talbot County and finally to Chestertown where she would become supervisor of schools and pave the way for the founding of Garnet School.
The Spy thinks it is not beyond the pale to consider further recognition for Emma L. Grason Miller. Henry Highland Garnet’s esteemed legacy as an abolitionist, orator, and educator could be shared with the woman who devoted her life to the school’s founding.
The Spy recently talked with Karen Somerville about Emma Grason Miller’s path to Chestertown, Mary Elizabeth Lange, and Miller’s attendance at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Last Spring, Somerville spearheaded the project to name the Garnet School Media Center after the educator and recently received a grant from the Chesapeake Heartland Institute at Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience to create a biographic video about Miller’s life and pioneering service to education in Kent County.
Born and raised in Kent County, MD, Karen Somerville is renowned for her singing appearances at the annual Women Helping Women concerts at The Garfield Theatre, the Chestertown Jazz Festival. She currently works with Hope Fellowship in Chestertown.
This video is approximately fifteen minutes in length.