Land dispute in Southern Maryland divides town


POMONKEY - The paint is peeling. Broken window glass and roofing shingles litter the ground outside the locked stucco building.

A lonely letter "Y" on the side of the auditorium is all that remains of the name Pomonkey, borne for a half-century by Charles County's first high school for black students.

Originally built in the early 1920s as a "Colored Manual Training School," Pomonkey High School later prepared students such as Inez Schoolfield for college and a career in teaching - albeit in a racially segregated school system.

Now, 31 years after the county's schools were integrated, Schoolfield and other black residents in western Charles are locked in a legal tug-of-war with county officials over the fate of the old school and of the nearly 17 acres on which it sits.

Lodge 65 of the Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Ladies of Samaria has sued Charles County in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, claiming to be the rightful owner of the property. The group, formed by members of the Metropolitan United Methodist Church, contends that the county reneged on a legally binding pledge to return the land once the school closed in 1974.

"In the deed, it says [the land is] to go back to the original owners if it wasn't used anymore for educational purposes," says Schoolfield, president of the Pomonkey alumni association. "I don't see any reason why they should not return it."

But the county maintains it has "squatter's rights" to the land because no one demanded its return soon enough after the school's closure. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals sided with the county in 1997, upholding dismissal of an earlier lawsuit brought by the lodge in Charles County Circuit Court.

"They slept on their rights far too long," says Leslie R. Stellman, a Baltimore lawyer representing the Board of Education.

It is a dispute that revives bitter memories of how racial discrimination persisted in Southern Maryland long after the Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" education of blacks to be unconstitutional.

"What you have here is a relic of the Jim Crow era that in some ways continues to manifest itself today," says the lodge's lawyer, Ian C. Fitzpatrick of Baltimore.

The land adjacent to the Methodist church was donated to the county in 1922 by Joshua Lodge No. 65, a predecessor group of the Samaritans, so that black children in the community could get an education beyond the eighth grade. The group also put up $19,000 toward construction of the school, according to the lawsuit, while the county initially contributed $1,000.

"Back in those days, black people, poor people, were taken advantage of," said Sanford H. Wilson, a lodge member who is a retired Charles County school administrator.

School board minutes from 1921 suggest that the transfer of the land was engineered by the county, the lodge's lawyer contends. The board directed its lawyer to draw up the lodge's articles of incorporation and the deed conferring ownership to the county.

Charles County integrated its schools in 1969, 15 years after the Supreme Court outlawed racially segregated public education nationwide. Pomonkey's students were reassigned to two white high schools, and the county closed the old school five years later, according to the suit.

Alumni and lodge members say they have been trying without success to reclaim the property for more than a decade. The Joshua lodge "went belly up" in the late 1920s, but was reincarnated in 1988, says Robert Bailey, Samaritan lodge president and a retired federal patent office employee. The new group filed its unsuccessful state lawsuit in 1993.

Stellman, the county's lawyer, says that under state law, the lodge had to assert its claim to the property by 1981 at the latest, or else ownership shifted to whomever is in control of the land. The federal suit is an attempt to retry arguments already rejected by state courts, he says.

"It's an abuse of the court system," Stellman says. "You lose, it's over."

But the lodge has raised new arguments in the federal lawsuit, accusing the county of violating lodge members' civil rights by hanging onto the property.

It also notes that the board minutes showing how the county dictated terms of the deal were not available during the state lawsuit.

The school board is imposing "a badge of slavery" on lodge members, the suit contends, because the county is refusing to honor the deed provision requiring the land to be returned.

The school board has asked the federal court to dismiss the new claims, questioning the legal standing of the new lodge and pointing out a three-year statute of limitations on civil-rights violations. The lawyers have a date next month to argue whether the lodge's lawsuit should proceed.

Legal sparring aside, Pomonkey alumni and lodge members say they are puzzled by the school board's refusal to return the property, especially since it has given back other land donated to build schools once the need has passed.

Stellman says he does not know what, if any, plans the county has for the property, nor is he familiar with other school land deals. Telephone calls to the county school administration to discuss the case were not returned.

Several years ago the county offered to settle the first lawsuit by giving the lodge about a third of the tract. Lodge members say they rejected the deal in large part because the board tried to dictate how the lodge could use the land. Stellman says he would be willing to discuss any settlement offers the lodge wants to make.

Now, about the only use of the old high school campus is as a soccer pitch - frequented, lodge members say, predominantly by teams of white children from outside the predominantly black Bryans Road neighborhood.

The classroom wing of the high school burned down about a decade ago. The auditorium was used for a while as a planetarium and as a meeting hall, but not for several years at least. An elementary school built on the property also has been boarded up.

Lodge members say they have no plans for the property, should they get it back, but they hope to open it to community use, especially for neighborhood children.

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