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Coppin State’s Danita Tolson sworn in as Baltimore County NAACP president; Tony Fugett steps aside after 20 years

Dr. Danita Tolson, president of the NAACP Baltimore County Branch, at her home in Woodstock on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
Dr. Danita Tolson, president of the NAACP Baltimore County Branch, at her home in Woodstock on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

On the heels of a year that proved to be a touchstone for long-standing racial inequities, Danita Tolson knows she’ll be taking on a lot as she becomes head of Baltimore County’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Tolson was nominated by Anthony Fugett to take over as branch president and was sworn in as president during a virtual ceremony Jan. 6.

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Fugett, who led the county’s NAACP branch for 20 years, said he would continue to serve on the organization’s executive committee in an advisory function.

“I’ve been nonpartisan for what seems like an eternity,” said Fugett, an Owings Mills resident. “I’m looking at other things and options of a partisan nature. And I look forward to exploring what opportunities may exist for me in public service in Baltimore County.”

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Fugett said Tolson was elected because “she had what it took to be a leader in Baltimore County.”

Tolson, who has served as a vice president on Fugett’s executive committee, also chairs the health committees for the county and state NAACP branches.

With a doctorate of education and a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Tolson chairs Coppin State University’s undergraduate nursing program and has taught classes at Coppin as an assistant professor, as well as at the Johns Hopkins University and Bowie State University.

Assuming her role as president, Tolson said she wants to amplify the chapter’s voice through direct public engagement with residents and more robust media strategies.

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The Woodstock resident is well-equipped for the undertaking, said Willie Flowers, president of the Maryland NAACP, because community engagement is not new to her.

As a county NAACP vice president, she was “able to watch the needs of the branch and how that translates to support for the community,” Flowers said.

And in her role at Coppin, Tolson is working to recruit volunteer nurses — mostly students and faculty members at the school — to administer vaccines through the Baltimore City Health Department.

She also is skilled at examining macro-level issues that impact grassroots work, Flowers said.

Tolson is “taking responsibility and leadership of a very significant branch at a very significant time in history,” Flowers said. “And I think she has the resources and access to the support she needs to be successful in that role.”

The New York native’s chief priorities are bolstering membership and working with government agencies to address racial inequities in policing and improve relationships between law enforcement and underrepresented communities.

That may be an uphill battle. In a county where Black residents make up 30% of the population, an interim report from the county’s Equitable Policing and Advisory Group found that many “see the police as lacking empathy, operating in a climate of mistrust and exacerbating racial tension and fear,” according to the report.

Police, on the other hand, said they generally feel that they are effective with respect to police-community relations, but also don’t see clearly articulated standards of “community policing” within the department, according to the report.

And although Baltimore County last year enacted a slew of police reform measures, including banning chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene if they witness excessive force by another officer, Black Lives Matter advocates have said the measures stopped short of significant reforms, like banning no-knock warrants.

Part of her job, Tolson said, is to hold elected officials accountable, particularly for their appointments to offices like police chief.

“It’s time for the talk to stop and to put some things into action,” Tolson said.

Tony Fugett, former president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, right, speaks at a 2016 news conference.
Tony Fugett, former president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, right, speaks at a 2016 news conference. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

‘Stronger for his efforts’

Fugett, who Tolson said was a mentor to her, did not shy away from taking action during his two decades leading the branch.

A federal housing complaint filed in 2011 by the county NAACP and other parties, charging county government with maintaining policies that kept low-income residents out of the best neighborhoods, ushered in the passage of the Baltimore County Housing Opportunity Made Equal, or HOME, Act in 2019.

That complaint, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the county demonstrated a pattern of housing practices that disparately affected people of color, also led to the execution of a voluntary consent agreement in 2016 between the county and local stakeholders to build 1,000 more affordable housing units by 2028.

Fugett, the brother of the late Reginald F. Lewis — once one of the nation’s leading Black executives and for whom the Baltimore African American museum is named — also sits on the Equitable Policing and Advisory Group, where he has helped shape police reform recommendations.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. lauded Fugett as “a driving force for justice and equity in Baltimore County” and “a catalyst for social change.”

“Our communities are stronger for his efforts,” Olszewski said.

While now the former president, Fugett will represent the organization as he testifies in support of Red Maple Place, an affordable-housing project proposed in East Towson, during an Jan. 13 administrative law judge hearing. Several neighbors of the proposed development have strongly opposed the plan.

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