“From oysters to politics, Perkins made his mark” (Kent County News, March 10, 2011. Craig O’Donnell)

CHESTERTOWN — Oysters and ice cream might seem to be strange partners, but they were a big part of life here during much of the 1800s.

From oysters to politics, Perkins made his mark
An 1863 ad in the Kent News urges custormer to visit the Rising Sun Oyster Saloon. Courtesy image.

It was all due to one man, who built up a small empire around food and real estate. He was famous enough to have been mentioned, from time to time, in New York and Cleveland newspapers.

The man was William Perkins, an African American referred to in records of the time as a “colored freeman” who was among Maryland’s wealthiest black businessmen in the mid-1880s. In 1884, his holdings were estimated at $12,000, a big sum at the time.

His father was a waterman, Samuel Perkins. An 1828 newspaper ad touts Samuel’s “Masonic Hall Oyster Establishment – Best York River Oysters.”

William Perkins was born about 1820. By 1841, he ran his own ad for “OYSTERS!” served in a newly renovated “cellar under the Odd-Fellows’ Hall.”

Periodically in the 1840s and 50s, ads for “Oysters, Barbering, etc.” appeared under the name Samuel Perkins, where his son seems to have learned his trade. By 1856 father and son both had a reputation as restaurateurs.

Perkins was married, sometime after 1850, to Frances Ann “Fannie” Anderson. He was 49 in 1870’s census (her age varies from census to census, but she was a bit older). They had a 14-year-old son William.

By 1857, William Perkins opened an eatery under his own name and called it the Rising Sun, at Maple (then called Fish Street) and Cross streets. It was still open for business as late as 1891, but the ownership by then isn’t clear.

He clearly understood marketing. While the Kent News didn’t carry an ad of his in 1868, he got press anyway. On June 6, the paper reported “A SURPRISE – Printers, as well as preachers, are sometimes the subject of a surprise!

“This was the case a few days ago, when we received from the establishment of the well-known caterer, William Perkins, a basket well laden with ice-cream, strawberries and cake.

“On trial, we found the ice-cream to be the real article itself, the strawberries fresh and sweet, and the cake, of different varieties, most excellent.

“Our readers may imagine that we had a nice time of it; and of they should feel a revival of the latent appetite for these good things, just in season, it may be speedily gratified by walking around to ‘Bill’s’.”

Over the years, he got an unusual amount of press in the local papers, owned by white men who rarely said much about local African American affairs. Much of that was because he wasn’t afraid to step out, in the late 1860’s, as a political figure.

By 1884 the newspaper referred to him as “the great leader of the colored Republicans in Kent,” but noted “Bill has had a severe spell of sickness lately.” Editorial style in those days isn’t always direct. This could have meant he was ailing, or it could have meant that his businesses and investments weren’t doing well.

The national recession of 1882-85 caught him, and he had trouble repaying mortgages, loans and bills from his Baltimore ice supplier.

No wills were recorded in Kent records for Perkins and wife Frances. Apparently, after business reverses in the mid-1880s, he sank into poverty and left Chestertown for Baltimore. Frances can’t be traced.

On May 11, 1895, the Kent News copied a Baltimore Sun obituary:

“William Perkins, colored, aged seventy-five years, died Saturday at the Home for aged colored People, on Lee street, near Sharp.” (This is probably the Aged Men and Women’s Home for Colored People at 214-216 West Lee St, opened in 1870.)

“He was born in Kent co., where he resided the greater part of his life. He kept a restaurant in Chestertown many years and was well known to the people of the Eastern Shore. He served as delegate to State and county republican conventions, and during President [Benjamin] Harrison’s administration was appointed to a position in the custom-house [in Baltimore].”

Harrison was president from 1889-1893. The paper offered that Perkins favored James G. Blaine, a Republican U.S. senator and secretary of state, who was defeated for the nomination several times and lost the presidential race in 1884.

“For years he had a very wide reputation as an oyster cook. Indeed many people to-day declare that Bill Perkins could beat the world cooking oysters! He succeeded by industry and application to business in acquiring considerable property, but lost it all ‘in politics,’ and died very poor.”

And yet his final resting place remains unknown.

Between 1841 and 1895, Perkins worked hard for himself and for the local black community. It seems he touched every major African American social issue in his time.

As early as 1852, he was concerned with rights for African Americans. With his neighbor James A. Jones (a butcher, grocer, and tavern owner, called a “mulatto”) he went as a delegate to the 1852 Baltimore Convention. There they spoke in favor of an African homeland for freed slaves. They were appointed to its platform committee.

After emancipation in Maryland in 1864, Perkins became especially active in Radical Reconstruction politics in the late 1860s, and remained a stalwart Republican.

The elections of 1870 and 1872 pitted Perkins against Plummer and Usilton of the Kent News. But 25 years later the local obituary called him “one of the noted colored men of the land.

“Perkins was probably the most popular leader of his race in Maryland – certainly on this shore. … He was not an educated man – not having the opportunities of his race in the present time to this end – but he had by self application and study gained a sufficient ‘book learning’ to enable him to conduct a successful business and take a leading part in all the church and charity organizations of his race in Chestertown.”

It said the Janes’ Church congregation is “indebted for the substantial and really handsome church property now owned by that organization.”

That may refer to a $1,500 loan he took out from the Preachers’ Aid Society in 1877, secured by several lots. It is likely the loan went to build Zion Church, which was near today’s Wilmer Park. Eventually, when Perkins went bankrupt, the Preachers’ Aid Society took possession of his “Perkins’ Hall.”

Perkins Hall was a meeting room built in 1862. It was located on the “Foot of Cross Street,” now Philospher’s Terrace, near his house on the corner, near his 1858 ice house. The hall was used for entertainment and holiday gatherings. In the 1880s it was the starting point for the Decoration Day Parade, organized by Charles Sumner Post No. 25, G.A. R., for both white and African Americans.


Lost History Notes: U.S. Marshal Frederick Douglass entertained with President of Dorchester & Delaware Railroad in Cambridge; planned to speak in Somerset County’s Princess Anne

From research collection of William Alston-El and Old Anacostia Douglassonians. Copyright enforced with full force of US Constitution and Criminal Code.

Before presentation of “The Lost History of Frederick Douglass in Cambridgelast September at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in downtown Cambridge the consequential September 1877 visit of United States Marshal of the District of Columbia Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass, in company with Hon. John Mercer Langston, to Cambridge was unknown in the local, regional, statewide, national and international mythology of the Eastern Shore’s most famous prodigal son.

With nearly 100 people attending the dual presentation of Master Eastern Shore Historian Dr. Linda Duyer and Old Anacostia Douglassonian John H. Muller, hosted by Honorable Mr. Donald Pinder and Honorable William “Bill” Jarmon of the Harriet Tubman Organization it is evident there is an abundant interest in the lost history of Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass within Cambridge and adjacent communities of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Continuous scholastic investigation has yielded more context and perspective to the lost history of Frederick Douglass in Cambridge and the expanse of the Delmarva.

Closely connected within and to Shore communities through associations and affiliations with both the Baltimore Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Delaware Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Dr. Douglass was associated with fraternal organizations on the Shore led by members of the Bailey Tribe, as well as networks within fields of education, politics, and journalism on the Delmarva.

Covering unknown tens of thousands of miles criss-crossing the country and world by ferry, steamboat, stage coach, street car and railroad for more than a half-century Dr. Douglass was a travelling man.

On several occasions across years of research we have found Dr. Douglass involved with what today would be called public policy issues of “urbanism,” such as petitioning the United States Senate to approve a proposal for extended service of the Anacostia and Potomac River Railway Company, a company in which Douglass was an investor and held stock.

As an advocate for organized labor and integration of transportation accommodations, there are several lines of discussion Dr. Douglass and W. Wilson Byrne, President of the Dorchester and Delaware Rail Road, could have maintained during the course of their entertainment in Cambridge.

“Dorchester and Delaware Railroad.” Poor, Henry V. Poor’s Manual of the Railroads of the United States, 1870 – 1871. Vol. 3. New York: 1870. p. 451.

Based in Cambridge, Bryne organized investors and a survey in the late 1860s, with the line from Camrbridge in Dorchester County to Seaford, Delaware completed in 1869.

In future posts we will discuss more of the lost history of Frederick Douglass and the railroads as it relates to a collection of railroad lines, train stations and executives. We know folks out there love railroad history and therefore the lost local history of Douglass on the Shore is also the lost local history of Delmarva railroads.

Ghost Visit of Dr. Douglass to Princess Anne, county seat of Somerset County

During the course of known and lost visits Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass made to the Shore — St. Michaels, Talbot County (June 1877); Easton, Talbot County & Cambridge, Dorchester County (September 1877); Easton, Talbot County & Cambridge, Dorchester County (November 1878); Queenstown & Centreville Queen Anne’s County (October 1879); Salisbury, Wicomico County (February 1880); Wye Island and Wye House [Talbot County], June 1881; Denton, Caroline County (November 1883); Port Depost & Rising Sun, Cecil County, (December 1885) and Easton & St. Michaels [Talbot County] (March 1893) — we have found at least three “Ghosts Visits.”

These are at least three occasions Douglass had confirmed and intended to visit and speak within a community of Maryland’s Eastern Shore yet for reasons beyond his control, such as bad weather grounding travel across the Chesapeake Bay, he was unable to meet his ambitious schedule.

Along with Ghosts Visits to Caroline County (1879) and Kent County (1889) we can confirm Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass had full intention to speak in Princess Anne, the county seat of Maryland’s southernmost Somerset County (1877).