Hate Crimes Expose the Complex History of Annapolis' Race Relations


A recent series of hate crimes in Annapolis has exposed a side of this historic city that rarely makes the glossy guidebooks or the guided tour: its complicated and sometimes troubled legacy of race relations.

"Ever since I've been here there's been an outbreak every once in a while," said the Rev. Leroy Bowman, 85, a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Annapolis for the past 51 years. "It's never been dug out by the roots so it comes back perennially."

Throughout the years, the calm that normally prevails here between blacks and whites has been interrupted by momentary flare-ups, tensions and confrontations. In the aftermath, the peace returns, the episodes fade into memory and the stories turn into footnotes. Until the next problem erupts.

The most recent incidents occurred in quick succession over the past several weeks. Earlier this month, vandals spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs on the walls of the city's oldest Jewish congregation, the Kneseth Israel Synagogue. A few days before that, a black woman found her Edgewater hair salon similarly defaced. Last month, vandals placed a makeshift spear in the hands of a statue of Aris T. Allen, the late black politician.

Police are investigating whether the string of incidents is related to a Ku Klux Klan rally in front of the State House last October. The weekend after the rally, predominantly black neighborhoods were littered with racist fliers.

Residents say this is not the real Annapolis. Local officials note with pride that Annapolis was the first jurisdiction in Maryland to elect black politicians after the Civil War, and add that since then blacks have served on the City Council almost without interruption.

The city passed civil rights laws five years before the federal government imposed the measures nationally. While Washington and Baltimore were burning after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Annapolis stayed peaceful. And as the nation's cities were splintered in the 1960s, Annapolis streets were home to both black and white families.

But at the same time, some Annapolis dwellers say the city has been haunted by hate crimes and racial disturbances for decades. And while no American town is immune from racism, the city's critics say the difference is that in Annapolis, few people seem to want to deal with it as a recurring problem.

"I don't think Annapolis is unique in having these incidents," said Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist and local alderman. "I think what's most unique about it is its denial that these things exist."

Many residents expressed outrage at the recent crimes, and hundreds protested when the KKK came to town. But Mr. Snowden said city leaders have never worked out a strategy to fight these episodes as they erupt and make the city a less PTC inviting target for hate crimes.

Meanwhile, racially charged episodes in Annapolis have grabbed national attention.

* In June 1993, six black Secret Service agents claimed they were discriminated against at a local Denny's. The case was settled six months ago with the awarding of a $46 million class action lawsuit.

* In 1977, then-Mayor John Apostle would not install a plaque at City Dock honoring Kunta Kinte, saying the slave made famous in Alex Haley's "Roots" was not an Annapolis native. The plaque finally was installed in 1981, only to be stolen a day later, allegedly by the Klan.

* In 1975, the U.S. Department of Justice was called in to investigate the case of 8-year-old Tony Bryant, a black boy who was denied a spot on a Little League football team run by the Elks Club. The Elks were forced to allow the boy on the white team and award him a $10,000 settlement.

And then there are the lower-profile incidents which still sting: the internal fights at the Annapolis Police and Fire Departments through the 1980s over the hiring and promotion of blacks, the routing of black students to mostly white public schools and the intermittent warring over minority membership policies at local yacht clubs.

Some Annapolis dwellers still argue that times were easier when everything was separate.

"The races got along great together back then," said Robert H. Campbell, who was mayor of Annapolis briefly in 1953 and now lives in the historic district. "We didn't go to the same schools together, we didn't go to the same restaurants together, we didn't go to the same toilets together, we didn't go to the same church together, but we all lived together and worked together and there were no problems."

Mr. Bowman, the Annapolis pastor, disagrees. In the 1960s, he helped integrate establishments like the Terminal Restaurant at the city's old bus station by sitting at the whites-only counter. He remembers watching some of his neighbors grapple with their segregationist beliefs.

"For years I had a white family as my next-door neighbor and their teen-age boy used to help me pull the weeds out of my garden," he recounts. "Later on, the boy looked at me and he said, 'I've got to move.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said because there was some black family moving in next door and that's not right. But even as he told me, we were down on our knees together, pulling the weeds out of my garden."

And yet he and many other Annapolis residents feel that racial harmony is more possible in Annapolis than in most other cities. When many cities were splintering apart in the 1950s and 1960s, there were real moments of closeness between blacks and whites in Annapolis.

"Maybe it was because of the Naval Academy -- all our fathers worked there -- but we were close," said Carroll Hynson Jr., 58, whose family was one of the first to integrate the all-white Murray Hill neighborhood when he was a boy. "We played together before we could even eat together."

By the 1960s, several restaurants were voluntarily opening their seating areas to black customers, although the city was not without its share of pickets and sit-ins.

Roger W. "Pip" Moyer, who was mayor of Annapolis in 1968, remembers the day Dr. King was shot, when the city stayed calm. "There was so much trust between the black leadership and the white leadership," he said. "There were the best race relations here of any city."

For decades, local historians say, there has been both a closeness and a distance between blacks and whites in Annapolis. Even as black and white children played together and visited each other's houses, the larger community was undergoing several violent, and public, episodes.

In 1906, Henry Davis, a black man, was accused of assaulting a married, white woman and was jailed. One night in December, nearly 50 men broke into his cell and dragged him across town, finally stopping to hang him on a chestnut tree. The rope broke, but the men pumped six bullets into his body to finish the job.

"The body lay with its lifeblood soaking into the ground, the sport of unthinking men, women and children," wrote the next day's Evening Capital. The story's headline refers to Mr. Davis as the "Negro Ravisher."

Even in this environment, Annapolis blacks enjoyed unusual freedom as long they abided by the town's racial customs. Annapolis native Jack Flood said even after the Henry Davis episode, he never felt threatened by the town's various cliques. Mr. Flood described the city to a local historian in a 1990 interview conducted shortly before his death.

"There were groups of the Charles Streeters, the Rescue Hose Companyers, The Out-of-Towners, the Grasshoppers," Mr. Flood said. "There wasn't any bad people...We grew up in a really good time, I mean."

There was only one time when Mr. Flood remembered being afraid to go out: when John Snowden was hanged for murdering a pregnant white woman in 1919.

Martial law had been declared in Annapolis on the eve of the hanging, and Mr. Flood remembered as a little boy still being scared the next day.

"I can remember my grandmother saying, 'Now don't you go out. Don't go out on the street,'" Mr. Flood said. "The day he was hanged . . . it was just like something was hanging over Annapolis."

Ellen Gamerman is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

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