Barbara Jones was 14 years old when the home where her grandmother lived was set on fire on July 10, 1967, in an act of racial violence.
“We were all scared to lay down and go to sleep,” said Jones, who lived just around the corner in Laurel’s historically Black neighborhood known as the Grove. “We basically had to stay up all night to make sure nothing else happened.”
David Burley was 18 years old and hanging out with friends on property where the Laurel Library now stands, when he remembers seeing a car come through the neighborhood. Not long after, he saw smoke and flames rising from a home along 8th Street.
“I have a real vivid memory of it,” Burley said. “That evening there was a lot of confusion by people that lived in the area.”
Mike Carey was a teenager that night, too, and he mostly recalls the aftermath. He remembers how the police shut down all the streets near the Grove - which includes 8th, 9th, 10th and West streets - and kept patrol there along with the men of the neighborhood. He remembers that the Maryland State Police sent one of the first Black state troopers to assist and bring comfort to a shaken community.
“Everybody was surprised,” Carey said. They had heard about cross burnings in Howard County and other parts of Laurel, but “you didn’t expect they would come that close.”
This month marks 53 years since the worst racial violence aimed at the city’s tight-knit Black community. Gratefully, the residents of the targeted house, Norman Thomas and his family, discovered the fire quickly and were not physically harmed. More details about it can be found in a 2018 series that my colleague Kevin Leonard wrote for this newspaper. Today, those Grove residents who were children and teenagers that July night are adult witnesses to a national reckoning with systemic racism in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Jones, Burley, Carey, Carolyn Noel and Sandra Johnson all generously shared their memories with me about their childhoods in the Grove and how things have - or have not - changed in their experiences of racism.
Johnson is the historian at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, the anchor of the neighborhood, and put me in touch with the others. All five grew up in the Grove and are now in their 60s and 70s. They’ve moved away from the neighborhood - some still in Laurel, some a bit farther away - but all are still active members of St. Mark’s, which this year celebrates its 130th anniversary.
“We know segregation and discrimination firsthand,” Johnson said. “It was always a part of living in Laurel.”
As children, they could not swim at the municipal pool at the bottom of 9th Street or catch a movie at the old Laurel Theatre on Main Street. Carnivals were held at McCullough Field, which sits just across the street from the Grove. Though they could see, hear and smell the festivities, they were not allowed to join them.
Segregation was found even in the church, their spiritual home. St. Mark’s and other Black congregations were segregated into the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church, governed and administered separately from white congregations, until the establishment of the United Methodist Church in 1968.
They were part of the first wave of children to integrate schools in Prince George’s County in the fall of 1956, but there were still many battles to be fought. They and their families traveled by bus to attend the 1963 March on Washington. Carey was rejected for membership in the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department eight times between 1966 and 1968 before finally becoming its first Black member in 1970. This fall he will receive his 50-year pin.
So have things changed? Yes and no.
Burley pointed to the experience of his own children. “They grew up in Laurel,” he said. “They had the opportunities to do things that I could not do. I see that as being a great improvement since the early ’60s and ’70s.”
More subtle forms of racism, however, persist, Noel said, and occur in neighborhoods, in public spaces and on the job. She and others described times when they or their children were victims of racial profiling, including by police.
“I’m going through it more now as an adult than I did as a child, and that’s sad,” Noel said.
Johnson pointed out the good relationship St. Mark’s has with the Laurel Police Department in running its events. The group is glad that recent protests have gotten people’s attention, and they are particularly heartened by the presence of so many young white people.
“It’s very hurtful right now to think that in 2020 people don’t want to acknowledge it,” Johnson said of racism. “To have a good conversation about racism, a lot of white people have to take a good look in the mirror.”
Carey recalled the sacrifices that previous generations of African Americans made to secure the right to vote and urged people to exercise it.
The group is justly proud of the many enduring contributions the St. Mark’s community has made in Laurel. Emancipation Park and portions of the Laurel Library sit on the site of the former Laurel Grove School, which educated Black children during segregation.
St. Mark’s also boasts the oldest annual festival in the city. Emancipation Day, the yearly observance of which dates back to about 1902, celebrates the freeing of enslaved African Americans. It is always held the first Saturday in September, though it is canceled this year because of the pandemic. The festivities now are smaller than in the past, but in the last several years, the church has added a popular 5K run to raise funds for the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology.
“Being a member of St. Mark’s has really gotten us through,” Johnson said, “St. Mark’s was really the place that we came, in spite of everything that was going on. Our belief in God just got us through it all.”