Shooting marks evolving Frostburg Focus shifts to race clash as university expands

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FROSTBURG -- Gunfire is a sound you hear in the woods around here when deer season opens, not on the streets of this college town.

But in the early hours of last Sunday, as the many parties of Homecoming Weekend reached their boozy conclusions, someone ended a fight with six shots from a 9 mm handgun.

Only one person was struck, and his injuries were not serious, but the repercussions are still ricocheting among the changing leaves that color the surrounding mountains, bringing out longtime tensions between the town of 8,000, not counting students, and its main industry -- Frostburg State University -- this time with the added complexity of race.

"I've lived here 30 years, and I've never heard of a shooting like this," said Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus, who also chairs the political science department at Frostburg State.

"This might be the first street shooting in the history of Frostburg," he said.

But in the view of many students, Bambacus and police over-reacted, arresting or giving alcohol citations to 147 people to give a bad name to a great Homecoming Weekend.

And some detected a whiff of racism in the presence of a police dog at parties that were deemed out-of-hand, in the fact that many black students were stopped after police broadcast a description of the shooter as a black male with a 2-inch Afro, and in Bambacus' reference to "gang-like behavior" by fraternities.

"I certainly didn't mean it in a racist way, but I don't know how else to describe it when you have one group of fraternity members beating up another group because they happen to be members of a different fraternity," Bambacus said of his gang comment.

"When I came to Frostburg, I told people it was like 'The Cosby Show,' or Mayberry," said Antonio Hayes, a 20-year-old Polytechnic Institute graduate from West Baltimore. "Everybody knows each other.

"I liked it for a while. But lately there's just been a whole lot of stuff going on. I don't know anymore."

Police tactics questioned

Hayes is one of almost 500 African-Americans on campus who are almost all the blacks in Frostburg. He said he didn't like the way police broke up a party on the Thursday before Homecoming Weekend.

"It disturbed me that there was a police dog barking at people as they filed out of the party," Hayes said. "It made me wonder if they would use the dog if it was a party of white students."

Hayes was one of several students who spoke at Tuesday's City Council meeting. They were bothered by initial reports that said the fight that led to the shooting was between black and white fraternities.

"I don't think race had anything to do with it," said Matt Graham, a junior from Pennsylvania whose ear and cheek displayed a line of stitches from a beer bottle that was broken over his head. He said the fight began when he was trying to get some people to leave his fraternity's party at an off-campus house.

Someone in the fight called in reinforcements who were black, Graham said. Somebody pulled out the gun and fired off several shots, apparently not aiming at anyone, scattering the crowd that was milling among the houses a block from campus at 3 a.m.

"When we heard the gunshots, we headed inside and just looked at each other and said, 'What is going on?' " Graham said.

Party problems

Frostburg State has had its share of party-related problems. Two years ago, a student died of alcohol poisoning, leading to charges against eight other students. Two years before that, Bambacus led a campaign against vandalism and trash that accompanied weekend celebrations.

But race was never an issue. Despite its rural location among a virtually all-white population, Frostburg State has had a steadily increasing enrollment of African-Americans, who are now nearly 10 percent of the 4,800 students at the Frostburg campus.

"The word gets back," said school president Catherine R. Gira. ++ "Clearly the African-Americans find a certain comfort level and they let people know."

Part of that comfort comes from a strong school-funded Black Student Alliance.

"I am really glad I came here," said Devon Duggins, a 20-year-old junior from Washington who heads the BSA. "It was my first experience with being the only black in a class, things like that. It made me deal with my race in a way I never would have if I had gone to a black school."

Subtle reminders

Duggins and Hayes said they feel little overt racism in Frostburg but are constantly aware of their minority status, of eyes watching them, of car doors normally left open locked in their presence.

"I don't think there is overt racism here," Bambacus said. "But I am sure it makes it more difficult for the black students that there is no real indigenous black population in Frostburg."

Bambacus and many others said the widest schism is cultural, between the urban background of almost all black and many white students, and the rural reality of Frostburg.

No one wants Frostburg State, founded 100 years ago by local miners as a teachers' college, to go anywhere, not the senior citizens who are helped by student interns or the Main Street merchants who sell them pizza. The town would virtually disappear without the school.

But what concerns the mayor is that the students are turning Frostburg into a different kind of town because most live in houses that once held families.

Changing the town

"This is small-town America," said Bambacus, a native of Washington, D.C., who first came to Frostburg to attend college and stayed, representing the area in the state Senate for eight years in the 1980s. He's been mayor the last five.

Bambacus has a map of central Frostburg in his office. Every house that holds students is colored red. Of the 3,043 housing units, 1,677 are red. "I look at that every day," he said.

Gira said that without the students, many houses in Frostburg would be abandoned, but Bambacus disagrees, saying the town is growing and families near the college move to outlying areas.

"It happens," said Richard Kamher, 72, a lifelong resident, as he drank a cup of coffee at the Princess Diner on Main Street. "One of these landlords buys a house on one side of you and puts 15 students in it. Then they buy one on the other side and do the same thing. So now no one else is going to buy your house but these landlords. They make a lot of money."

Bambacus said he is never consulted on the growth of the school. "Frostburg State keeps getting bigger; they don't have dormitories for the students, so they move off campus," he said. "They are changing the character of the town and not for the better."

Gira had one possible solution for the political problems. "You know in some college towns, the students register to vote and take over the local government," she said, quickly adding, "Of course, I wouldn't want that to happen here."

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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