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Council's decision not to challenge ruling on private clubs sparks criticism


ANNAPOLIS -- Boarded up, riddled with asbestos and reeking of smoke, the historic Wiley H. Bates High School stands as a moldering legacy of segregation and a symbol of political failure.

Black leaders yesterday called the abandoned high school, which was damaged by a smoky fire over the weekend, the most visible sign of racial insensitivity in the city. They decried the City Council's rejection of a plan to renovate the brick building as the first of several setbacks for the black community since January.

The council's latest decision, not to challenge a court ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate, sparked angry accusations of sexism and racism. Two of the three female aldermen and both black members denounced the vote.

A furious Alderman Carl O. Snowden made public the 5-4 vote, which came during a closed executive session Monday night. Saying "bigotry has won a temporary victory in our city," the Democrat heatedly pointed out that no black man had been allowed to join the city's exclusive clubs until the law was passed.

Mr. Snowden, who helped usher the ordinance into law amid controversy in 1990, said yesterday the vote "sent an awful signal" that discrimination is "condoned" in Maryland's capital. "We're dealing with the very essence of what the nation is dealing with -- how to open up a society," he said.

Other black leaders called it the most recent in a series of disturbing votes. Lewis Bracy, chairman of the city's Black Political Forum, said he believed it underscored the need for a third predominantly black district in the city.

Last week, the council overwhelmingly approved a redistricting plan that kept most of the current eight wards intact. Michael T. Brown, chairman of the Annapolis Democratic Central Committee, has vowed to sue under the federal Voting Rights Act.

The city's six white aldermen have defended their actions on each issue and strongly disagree that the council is divided by racial tensions. Several blamed political grandstanding for the outbursts.

"Some people scream racism at the drop of a pin," Alderman Wayne Turner said.

Asked what the council has done specifically to help the black community, the alderman cited the refurbishment of Boston Heights, once a drug-infested, low-income neighborhood, and several affordable housing initiatives. He also said not a single constituent called him to complain about redistricting.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, who sided with the majority in voting against the appeal, also said he did not consider the recent decisions, dating back to the Bates vote, racial.

In killing a developer's proposal to restore the building that was once Anne Arundel County's only high school for blacks, the council and mayor voted along racial lines at the end of a marathon meeting Jan. 31. But the mayor, who repeatedly declared Monday night that he's "not a bigot," insisted each of the controversial votes was "a separate decision."

Still, Matthew Thomas, a longtime black leader in Annapolis, and former mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, agreed that the last months have left a negative impression.

"I think in light of all that's been happening lately, the City Council is basically being perceived as unfair," said Mr. Thomas, who used to head the Black Political Forum. "We have long-standing problems with race here, and we need to deal with it."

Mr. Moyer, now deputy director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, said he believes "the perception of the black community is yes, there is a problem." He said the council and mayor could overcome much of the distrust by finding an alternate way of renovating Bates.

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to intervene on behalf of women excluded from the city's private clubs, said Susan Goering, legal director of the state chapter. Ms. Goering, who said she was "deeply disappointed" by the council's vote, said the ACLU will appeal in Maryland Circuit Court.

Last month, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge James C. Cawood ruled in favor of Lodge 622 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, which sued the city after failing to persuade the national organization to change its bylaws to admit women. His decision allowed the 1,500-member Elks lodge to renew its liquor license, which was about to expire.

Annapolis has a long history of segregated private clubs. Just three blocks apart on a street in Eastport are two clubs whose members never mingle. At the Peerless Ren, only black men and women gather to listen to music. Until the 1990 law, the neighboring Democratic Club did not welcome blacks or women.

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