What began as an effort to speed up Baltimore's Preakness Parade has grown into an angry dispute between the parade's out-of-town producer and some of the city's black marching bands.
"I told her, 'Who in God's name gave you the right to come to Baltimore City and tell us that we Baltimoreans cannot march in our Preakness Parade?' " said Margaret Robertson, a North Carey Street resident and volunteer with the New Edition Marching Band.
The source of Mrs. Robertson's frustration, parade producer Valerie Lagauskas of New York, was feeling more than a little frustrated herself.
"It is unfortunate that these groups are so self-centered that they really don't care about all of the children of Baltimore," Ms. Lagauskas charged.
Yesterday's sharp exchanges also included criticism by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc., the private non-profit group formed several years ago by the city, the state and local businesses to organize Preakness-related activities.
"There is simply a lack of sensitivity that is evident when you read these letters [from the parade organizers] to these groups. . . . I tried to convey to the Preakness people that there was a certain amount of insensitivity that was going to be interpreted by some as racism," Mr. Schmoke said. "Particularly now, with all that's going on in this country, we don't need an argument like this to become a major divisive event in our city. We just don't need it."
At issue was the city's 20th annual Preakness Parade, to be held May 15, and the role to be played by the city's roughly 18 marching drum and majorette corps -- most of which consist of black youngsters.
The controversy dates to at least February, when Ms. Lagauskas, a special events producer hired to stage the parade, told the marching groups they would not be invited to participate this year.
The problem, she explained yesterday, was a perceived need to make the three-hour parade shorter, in part so it could be televised in full locally.
The organizers felt that the drum and majorette corps, with their elaborate routines, "had a style of marching that was not conducive to maintaining the pace of a parade that you want to get from one point to another in a certain period of time. So we decided that we would eliminate this category from the parade, just as we eliminated all of the Shriners," Ms. Lagauskas said.
The drum and majorette groups were told they instead could participate in special competition at Rash Field at some other time during Preakness Week.
Ms. Lagauskas said yesterday that she still believes such a competition would have been the best solution, one which would have allowed every member of every marching group a chance to compete. But the idea was shot down quickly when she suggested it in February.
"We told her we weren't interested in some type of competitive thing because some of the kids would have to lose," said Jeff W. Pitts, a salesman from West Baltimore and founder of the Baltimore Westsiders, with 200 members, one of the city's largest groups.
"We've been here in the city for 28 years. We were there at the beginning of the Preakness Parade. To have someone say to you that you just don't have the qualifications to march now -- well, it was a slap in the face," Mr. Pitts said.
His wife, Dorothy, added: "It just felt like they didn't want the black groups in the parade. Because most of the drum and majorette corps are black groups."
A series of meetings ensued in which Ms. Lagauskas thought a compromise had been reached in which a few members from each of the groups would form a single ensemble to march in the parade. But that idea, too, was rejected.
There were more meetings in March that drew the involvement of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Mayor Schmoke. By early last month, the marching groups thought everything had been settled.
Mrs. Robertson of the New Edition group had by then organized a dozen of the black groups into an organization called the Unified Marching Bands of Baltimore. She reluctantly proposed that the new organization select just five groups to march in the parade.
The five groups then agreed to exclude their youngest marchers -- telling them they would have a chance to march when they were older -- in an effort to meet the parade's new time constraints.
"It was a very, very hard and stressful thing to do, because all of the children want to march. But we agreed to pick the five best groups we had," Mrs. Robertson said.
For the past month, the selected groups have been carefully timing their rehearsals in an attempt to make sure they could cover their route in the time allowed by parade organizers. Mrs. Robertson and Mr. Pitts both honed their groups to about 90. They thought everything was set.
Then came a letter last week.
Parade organizers wrote the groups saying that to meet the event's time deadlines, each would have to limit its contingent to just 36 to 48 marchers. They could not march fast enough if more marchers were included, the letter said.
It was the last straw.
"That letter is unacceptable to us. None of us are going to abide by their rules," Mrs. Robertson said, the anger evident in her voice.
"We will march in the Preakness Parade, but we will march in it our way," she said. "I got my group down to 90, and I'm not cutting it any more -- not for anybody."
Mr. Pitts agreed. "I'm taking at least 90 kids down there, and if they don't want us, they'll have to turn us away at the door," he said.
Asked about the most recent letter and the events that preceded it, Mayor Schmoke said he understood how the marching groups felt, and he faulted Preakness Celebration officials as having been "patronizing" and "insensitive" to the marchers.
"The Preakness Parade is going upscale. It's moving from just a community celebration to a big-time, telecast, professional operation. And that's absolutely great," Mr. Schmoke said, adding, "But my view is that you shouldn't forget the people who were there when it was just a community celebration."