Racial tensions stirred in Arundel; School incidents reflect an acknowledged gap in South County area


With the lush, swaying trees and gentle scent of honeysuckle bushes, there's a charm to south Anne Arundel County that residents feel sworn to protect.

But ever present, along with a reserved tolerance that allows generations-old farming families and watermen to live alongside Johnny-come-lately Washington elites, is a legacy of racial tension that many would rather ignore.

This month, that tension flared when a group of parents called on school officials to address their concerns about racial incidents at Southern High School. At a community meeting, students told stories of racial slurs, perceived offensive behavior by other students and seemingly unfair punishment of black students.

Now parents and school officials are dealing with what some dismiss as isolated incidents but what others see as attitudes reflected in the community.

"Racism is not just living here in our house [in Arundel]. It's alive and well and living in the hearts of people," said the Rev. Roberta C. Matthews, pastor of St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Shady Side and an area resident for 52 years.

"I think if people would stop sticking their head in the sand, sit down, and put their cards on the table," she said, "that would be one of the ways of dealing with it."

A second community meeting is scheduled for June 5 at Carter United Methodist Episcopal Church in Friendship to continue discussing problems long in the making.

The issues came to a head two weeks ago when black students complained that racial slurs were being directed at them, and that the principal twice allowed a white student to sing about lynching at multicultural day assemblies. They also said that black students were punished more often and more severely for infractions than were whites.

In quick response, the school system sent additional police officers and added two administrators to help defuse tensions at the Harwood school. A retired director of pupil services for the county schools also was recruited as a volunteer community liaison. At least one student involved in the racial incidents has been suspended for the remainder of the school year.

In a move some parents and students say made matters worse, the school administration called students together in largely racially segregated discussion groups to talk about these problems and how to resolve conflicts.

School officials said the sessions have helped calm tensions over the past weeks, but one mother said her son felt the issues had been "swept under the carpet."

Some in the community acknowledge prejudice, as one resident says, as being just "part of the existing community."

"This is a redneck town," said Michael Soussanin as he and a group of friends smoked cigarettes in front of a convenience store in Deale. "We like it that way."

At 15, Michael is a Southern High School dropout who works at a local video store. There aren't many blacks in Deale, Michael says -- none when his parents moved him to the area as an infant, except those a few miles away in Shady Side.

Michael and 23-year-old Mike Armiger said many of their neighbors share a sense that they prefer their community largely segregated and secluded, even if they don't say as much.

Whether it's spoken or not, that's no secret to blacks who live nearby.

"Them white folks [in Deale], they show a good front, but they don't mean it," said 76-year-old John Foote who was born and raised in Shady Side. He said he's used to the occasional racial flare-ups and the undercurrent of tension.

So, too, are students at Southern, some say.

Zoe FitzSimmonds, a 17-year-old senior who is white, said she hears white students daily use racial epithets that refer to blacks in conversation with other whites. The slurs are not directed at anyone in particular and often come from students whom she considers "racist," but she said, sometimes acquaintances of hers use those words as well.

Zoe, like many of the parents who have known for months about other racial incidents at the school as they have occurred, would rather let the school administration handle situations as they arise.

Her reaction to recent reports of tensions that nearly boiled over into a fight is to act "like it's never happened," she said.

"I don't really want to deal with it because it's not going to do anything," Zoe said, adding that besides, she's graduating.

Her mother, Debbie FitzSimmonds, said she would like to see parents work together to encourage the school to use diversity programs for students. But multicultural programs already exist there, many of them introduced by school Principal Cliff Prince, according to PTA President June Hardesty.

And many parents say their children get along fine. In the school where only 14 percent of the student population is African-American, black students led this year's Student Government Association and sophomore through senior classes. The freshman class' vice president also is black.

The schools' human relations specialist, Leslie Stanton, defended the discussion groups held for black students, saying they had been planned before school tensions became public. But the focus changed after the first meeting, and the school opened the forums to everyone.

"Initially the African-American students wanted to meet," Stanton said. "Once the African-American students met, the white students decided they wanted to express their concerns as well."

Many blacks who call Southern their alma mater don't recall the past being quite as tense as the stories their children have recently relayed.

Although desegregation in the high schools came late to Anne Arundel County -- 1966 to be exact -- graduates from a generation ago say more black students attended Southern in the 1970s.

"We didn't have the racial tension, the name calling," said Patti Harvey, 43, a second-generation South County resident whose two daughters, Pilar and Kinsey, attend Southern.

Harvey, who graduated in 1974, recalled more racial diversity when she attended the school. At least a third of the students were black, more faculty members were African-American and there was a greater sense of community, she said.

But even then, there was an art to living peacefully practiced by black and white alike that still exists in the area known as South County. It involves a Jim Crow-like routine of remaining separate while generations shared a heritage, the land, common occupations and the desire for a closed community.

Thomas E. Wallace, a 40-year resident of Lothian, describes it as a paradox.

"You could go to certain events and it's total harmony, yet you know that's not the truth," he said. "I don't know that you'll experience physical violence. It's more of a subtle environment. I can live next door to a white person. As long as I stay on my side of the fence, it's OK."

He said he wasn't too surprised to hear of the incidents at Southern.

"I don't know if it's anything more than what has been happening the last 20 or 30 years," he said. "Anytime you want to blame someone for your failures in life, you look to the next person. There is a relationship that exists that whenever they [whites] get frustrated, that's the direction they move in -- black and white."

Newcomers see it, too.

"In a lot of respects, [the locals] are used to two different worlds living side by side where there's not a lot of antagonism between them," said Paul M. Rensted, who's lived in Tracys Landing for four years.

"There are restaurants where it seems only white people go to," he said. The same goes for churches, even if they are of the same denomination. "Sometimes it seems that desire to remain kind of separate is coming from both directions."

It's a long-standing practice that continues today, said Matthews, whose all-black church shares a lawn with Centenary Methodist, an all-white church.

"They have traditionalized it: 'This is the way we have always done things,' " said Matthews, who is working along with the Rev. Stephanie Vader, pastor of Centenary to help their congregations deal with their voluntary separatism.

"A lot of folks are just intimidated," Matthews said. " 'There's not a problem,' that's what white America would say, but all of us are suffering from it."

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