Worcester’s First Black Elected Official Profiled In Autobiography

Worcester’s First Black Elected Official Profiled In Autobiography

BERLIN – Worcester County’s first African American elected official details the struggles he experienced throughout the course of his life in an autobiography released this month.

James Lee Purnell Jr., longtime Berlin resident and former county commissioner, partnered with his niece Kimberly Chase to publish an autobiography that was released Sept. 9. The book is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book editions.

“In the past five or six years, a lot of people — not only in the county but throughout the state — asked me to write about the situations I encountered being a young boy growing up in a segregated area in Worcester County,” Purnell said.

After decades as a local school bus driver and 20 years in public office, Purnell is well known on the Eastern Shore. He was elected to serve as District 3 commissioner for Worcester County in 1994 and held that post until 2014, when he opted not to run for re-election.

Purnell said he was often asked about his experiences, both as the county’s first African American elected official and as a child growing up in Worcester County during the 1930s. In the years since retiring from office, Purnell decided to share his memories in a book. With the help of Chase, he spent more than a year putting together “James Lee Purnell Jr. Memories of Struggles and Progress in a Segregated Worcester County, Maryland.”

Purnell said the book begins with details from his childhood and goes on to describe experiences from throughout his life, including his time as a commissioner.

Though he declined to go into too much detail — pointing out that he wanted people to read the entire book — Purnell said he’d written about struggles he and his family dealt with during the first part of the 20th century. He said that as African Americans, they hadn’t been allowed to dine in Berlin’s downtown restaurants.

“My parents and their parents encountered these situations,” he said. “At that time I don’t think they realized what was being inflicted on them because of the way they were brought up. All they’d do was go to work and go home and accept life as it was not knowing it wasn’t good for them.”

He believes that by telling his personal history in a book, the area’s younger generation will better understand Worcester County’s past.

“There are kids who come along today who do not know such issues of racism happened where we live,” he said. “This helps bridge that gap we’ve been facing for many years. It helps people understand.”

Purnell says the situation for African Americans in Worcester County has improved gradually through the decades.

“We began to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We ain’t got to the end of the tunnel yet but we can see the light.”

Purnell will celebrate the release of his autobiography with a book signing Sat. Sept. 30 at the Germantown School Community Heritage Center from 5-8 p.m. Admission is free and both he and Chase will be present to discuss the book, which will be available for purchase that evening. It is also available online at www.ancestorybook.com.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.