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Kelsh may have been city's last black candidate

February 10, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Negro nominated.

It was a milestone in local black history, but just a passing mention in a Jan. 25, 1961, story in The Morning Herald.

Winslow Burhans had captured the Democratic nomination, on his way to a third term as Hagerstown's mayor.

The previous day's primary produced two momentous results in the city council races.

"Mrs. Kathryn H. Bentz won handily over two male opponents, becoming the first woman ever nominated to this municipal post."

After a subhead - Negro nominated - the story continued:

"Another precedent was set when Leonard W. Curlin, a Negro, won over H. Andrew Hamilton in the Republican contest in Ward One."

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Politically, the primary had less significance. Republicans in Hagerstown fare better against each other than they do against Democrats. Curlin went on to lose to Democrat William H. Baker in the general election by a nearly 2-1 ratio.

A Republican man running against a woman was the lone exception that year. Jacob W. Vorous defeated Bentz, a Democrat, by roughly the same 2-1 margin.

Forty years later, women have made it onto the City Council.

Blacks have not.

Out of more than a dozen people interviewed recently, black and white, none could remember the last black candidate in Hagerstown.

It might have been Robert H. Kelsh in 1973.

That year, Kelsh lost for the fourth consecutive time in the Democratic primary for city council. He was third out of six candidates, matching his best finish eight years earlier.

His platform in 1973 focused on reapportionment of the city's wards, more minorities in city jobs, better housing in the Jonathan Street area and urban renewal.

Kelsh didn't get a chance at a fifth campaign; he died in 1976.

What Janice Kelsh of Hagerstown remembers most about her father's runs for office is the frequent political gatherings at their home. She describes her father as enthusiastic and not the type to be discouraged by defeat.

Curlin, who switched careers from liquor salesman to pastor, also ran in the 1965 and 1969 Republican primaries, but didn't win either time. He died in 1981.

Kelsh and Curlin followed a trail cleared by William Henry Stewart, who was known by his middle name.

He may have been the first - and only other - black to run for city council in Hagerstown's history.

Stewart, who had his own barber shop next to his home on Jonathan Street, ran in the 1957 Republican primary. He lost to A.C. Miller, 186-160.

Stewart also ran in Ward One, which was defined in a Jan. 27, 1953, Morning Herald article as: "The east side of Winter Street from Washington Avenue to West Franklin Street. South side of North Street from colored YMCA to North Prospect Street."

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