In the Baltimore County Fire Department, where almost all the faces are white, a noose left hanging in a black firefighter's gear rack has suddenly stirred racial tensions in the firehouses.
As police investigate, some black fire officials are pondering a troubling question: Is the noose a very real symbol of the resistance among some white firefighters to the department's diversity efforts?
The timing is bitterly ironic, a noose turning up twice this month just as the department recruits more minorities and holds seminars stressing the need to diversify a force that's nearly 93 percent white.
Still, it's not simply a black-and-white issue.
Firefighters of all races decried the image of a noose hanging in the firehouse gear of James Gerard Shelton.
"Jimmy's our family, and we're appalled by it," said Capt. Jhett Lewis, who is white and works with Shelton in Towson Station 1. "This firehouse is like every other firehouse -- we're family. We're here for him."
But the incidents come against a backdrop of other racial tensions in the county.
In late September, a jury was deadlocked in the trial of a white police officer accused of beating a black suspect and yelling racial slurs in the Essex Precinct during a booking. Friday, the county NAACP called for the school superintendent's resignation, charging that he is not addressing gaps in achievement between minority and white students.
And there are signs that tension persists at the Fire Department, nearly two decades after the Justice Department sued the county to bring more minorities into all of county government.
A training seminar last week provided a glimpse into the racial divide.
During the seminar, Fair Practices Administrator John C. Parham asked the 18 white male employees to step to the blackboard and write what they had "heard" about a variety of topics.
One topic was "Black Males." Another, "White Males."
Under "Black Males," here's what the employees wrote:
Only got the job because they're black. Won't work. Involved in most crimes in urban areas!
Also, We can't have fun in the firehouse because someone will write you up. Undereducated and given special consideration. Not given a chance. Natural athletes. Have their own TV shows and Miss America.
Under the "White Males" heading came a decidedly different set of responses:
They say we have it made; everything is given to us. Bias against blacks. It's their fault. Run everything. Got it made. Blamed for everything. Born with a silver spoon. Opinionated.
After the exercise, Parham, who is black, told the group what he thought their words meant.
"I gave you guys an out -- I asked you to write what you heard," he said. "I would venture to say what you heard, some of you believe. I would also venture to say some of what you heard is a prevailing belief in the Fire Department."
Later, Parham was more blunt. "I will say this candidly: Some of those persons sitting in that room do believe what they've written."
Nooses began turning up around Shelton early this month.
On Dec. 3, he found a noose hanging from the second rung of his gear rack at Station 1. Three days later, Shelton reported that a noose fell from his coat.
According to the police report, Shelton had had no problems -- racial or otherwise -- in his eight years at the Towson station. But a county NAACP official said last week that Shelton told her that his tires were punctured at least five times shortly after he joined the station but that there were no other incidents until this month.
To police, firefighters and friends, Shelton expressed shock and sorrow that such a thing could happen. From the police report: "Victim Shelton feels this is racially motivated because he is an Afro-American."
Afterward, Shelton sheltered himself, taking time off amid the police investigation.
"He seems dejected, depressed. He's staying to himself," said a relative at Shelton's home, declining to give his name.
"No one understands what a lynching or a noose means to a black person," said Isaac W. Burke, who in 1978 became just the third black firefighter to join the department. "It goes very deep. They have visions of some black person hanging from a tree."
Glenn Blackwell, who this year became just the second black to reach the rank of lieutenant in the department's 114-year history, also understands Shelton's reluctance to return to the firehouse.
"In the Fire Department, you work very closely with the people in your station," Blackwell said. "These are the people who are going to back you up when you go into a building."
After Shelton reported the noose incidents to superiors, the Fire Department turned the matter over to police.
"The fact that an employee was offended and fears for his life is evidence enough for us to act strongly," said Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard, a spokesman for Fire Chief Paul Reincke.
Police investigators, trying to determine if a hate crime occurred, plan to interview every person who had access to Shelton's gear rack. More than 70 people will be interviewed.
"We're ruling nothing out," said police spokesman Bill Toohey. "We're not approaching it as a prank, we're approaching it as a serious incident. But it could end up as a prank."
Among the department's few top black fire officials, the timing of the incidents is troublesome.
"It's awfully coincidental that at the same time they're processing applications, this happens at the station. And an effort had been made to increase the diversity," Blackwell said.
Burke shares that view: "It's a strong possibility that the noose incident could have come out of some resentment by some of the whites that work in the Baltimore County Fire Department."
Burke's job today is to help recruit more minorities. He said the image of a noose at the firehouse won't deter him.
"If this noose incident was meant to scare someone or to run someone away from the fire service, all it did is make me grab hold a lot tighter," he said. "Because I think we're winning the battle. All that says is the things we're trying to do must be working."
Blackwell, Burke and other black firefighters are quick not to paint with a broad brush. They note that whites and blacks alike expressed outrage over the noose.
Still, officials admit the department's diversity campaign has lagged. "The bottom line is, our department does not reflect the community we serve," said Hubbard, the chief's spokesman.
Of the 1,062-member force, just 79 are black or Hispanic, a minority rate of just over 7 percent. That's in a rapidly diversifying county whose minority population has grown from less than 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 20 percent.
By comparison, minorities make up 12 percent of the county Police Department.
Hubbard, who is white, also noted the timing of the noose. "That's the most shocking thing to all of us," he said. "It shouldn't happen. How can it, when we have bent over backward to increase employee awareness? The biggest challenge we've had is changing the culture of a very tradition-bound organization.
"Sometimes news travels slow, but there's no excuse in this case."
Racial tensions are not new to Baltimore County.
In 1978, the Justice Department sued the county to force more minorities onto the payroll. At the time, the county work force included just 3 percent minorities.
In 1980, the suit was settled, with the county promising to recruit and retain more minorities.
The county has made progress: Its minority work force is about 13 percent, according to the most recent Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) figures.
But even with that increase, the county remains largely a white world at the top. For instance, nearly 98 of every 100 county employees who earn $55,000 or more a year are white, according to the 1995 EEO report.
At the top level of county government, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger expressed outrage over the noose incidents.
"It is unbelievable that in 1996, as we approach the 21st century, an African-American who risks his life to serve and protect the citizens of this county is confronted with such an offensive act of hostility," he said. "This administration will not tolerate such acts."
Still, the county has been slow to move minorities into top positions. Just one of 15 county department heads is black. And at the police and fire departments, Ruppersberger appointed white chiefs without conducting a national search for candidates.
To some, it's not surprising that a noose would surface against the backdrop of the county's history.
"I would agree with those who conclude that the two incidents with the noose in the Fire Department are indicators, not just of the continued existence of racism, but also to the depth of it," said Robert Dashiell, a black member of the county school board.
"It's almost like a Rip Van Winkle story: I think the county is just awakening from a deep sleep. For years, the county has ignored the growing presence of the African-American community."
Pub Date: 12/15/96