Dorchester jail a prisoner of history Symbol of racism or vital landmark?

July 04, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE -- When it was erected in 1883 -- reportedly on a hurried schedule so a convict could be hanged behind its gray stone walls -- Dorchester County's jail was hailed as a monument to law and order.

Although its dungeon-like cells were last used to house prisoners four years ago, the two-story structure in the heart of Cambridge is as much a monument today as ever. And its symbolism could determine whether it stands or falls.

"The jail is basically a historical building and should be preserved," said Thomas A. Flowers, a former county commissioner who has joined scores of other residents in urging Dorchester officials not to demolish the vacant granite-and-brick building behind the county courthouse.

Tear it down, says Dwight Cromwell, a 45-year-old Cambridge native who, as a teen-ager in the early 1960s, spent many nights in a crowded jail cell with other civil rights demonstrators.

"We have a lot of ill feelings toward it," he said. "If you're into preserving old architecture, I guess the jail would mean something to you. But to us, it means oppression, it means nothing but hard feelings. The jail don't mean anything but incarceration."

In the early 1960s, local blacks, assisted by students from Northern colleges and what some community leaders called "professional integrationists," picketed establishments for months to try to end segregation.

In 1963, 500 National Guardsmen were ordered to restore calm after efforts to end segregation in public businesses grew violent. They stayed a year. In 1967, Cambridge again made news during two nights of fires and rioting that followed racially rooted turmoil elsewhere in the nation.

The debate over the old jail's future has caught Dorchester County's commissioners in a politically tricky juggling act, involving the conflicting local sentiment and what is financially possible.

The county does not have the $1 million or more needed to renovate the jail, and officials do not want to sell the property because they fear losing control of land in the midst of other government buildings.

Previous commissions have voted to demolish the jail. But because that plan was linked to renovations proposed for the nearby courthouse, when the courthouse remodeling was delayed, the jail was allowed to stand. Now that the $3 million courthouse project no longer involves the jail, the jail's future is again in doubt.

The matter is even more complicated because it has refocused attention on Cambridge's role in the tumultuous 1960s civil rights era, a chapter in local history that many residents would like to put behind them.

"People are trying to make this a black-white issue," said Commissioner Jack C. Colbourne. "That's the last thing we need."

Although he once voted to demolish the jail, Mr. Colbourne said he and other commissioners are leaning toward leasing the property to a businessman who would agree to restore the building. He said one such proposal is expected to be given to county officials soon, although details about the proposed use of the building have not been made clear.

For one county commissioner, the old jail brings back bad memories.

"It makes me feel good about nothing," said Lemuel D. Chester, the commission's only black and a former prisoner himself, having spent time behind bars there for, among other things, his part in the anti-discrimination activities.

But Mr. Chester said that as an elected official, his preference for demolishing the jail is secondary to other interests.

"I'm more interested in jobs for blacks and getting blacks in public office," he said.

Save for the feathered jailbirds that coo from nests jammed between the thick window bars, the jail has been empty since 1989, when inmates were transferred to a temporary holding facility while a new detention center was under construction outside the city. The new jail opened in 1991.

These days, peeling paint hangs from the old jail ceilings and walls. Prisoner drawings of Jesus and shapely women adorn some walls, but pigeon droppings cover most of the floors and window ledges.

Although the jail was likened to a palace for criminals when it opened 110 years ago, over time the building grew cramped with an increasing inmate population.

Two tiers of 20 8-foot-by-8-foot cells were designed to hold 40 prisoners. When the first civil rights demonstrations hit Cambridge in 1963, so many people were arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing that as many as 10 people were detained in a single cell, recalls Mr. Cromwell, who was 13 when he spent his first night in jail.

Support for getting rid of the building has been met recently by strong opposition, particularly among members of the county and city historical societies.

The argument has been spirited and, at Tuesday night's commission meeting, took on a new twist when a Cambridge businessman hinted that a different kind of civil disobedience could be associated with the jail if officials decide to raze it.

"I feel like I would like to be one of several hundred people to make a human circle around that structure to prevent you from tearing it down," the businessman, Jimmy Simmons, said to applause from spectators.

Yolanda St. Claire-Hurst, who spent time in the jail for her role in the Cambridge demonstrations, said she would like to see the jail kept as a part of the downtown landscape.

"If it stayed, it could always be a reminder of what was and what should be," said Mrs. St. Claire-Hurst, who lives in Baltimore. "Some of the kids today don't understand what their parents went through. This might help them realize."

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