Baltimore Sun’s BEST party in 2 weeks

People of color and means

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's difficult to find the home of Ken Blake - he likes it that way.

First you have to get through a guarded front gate surrounding his subdivision. Then you must wind along a road that sweeps past all the other nearly million-dollar houses, swerving by the golf course, the tennis courts and the bird-watching benches.

Blake's brick Colonial, nestled in a Prince George's County community of doctors and lawyers, entrepreneurs, athletes and other people of means - most of them, like him, African-American - sits on a knoll in a cul-de-sac.

Just now, standing in front of his brand new house in the planned neighborhood of Woodmore, Blake is musing over the good fortune of the black folks living here.

"Most of us didn't grow up with a silver spoon, but we found our way to success," says Blake, noting that, partly because of his working-class roots, he is acutely aware of the distance between those who are successful and those who struggle in black America.

The economic trajectory of Blake's life is typical of the African-American middle- and upper-class population in Prince George's County.

He is the son of government employees who did his parents one better: leaving the cramped apartments he was raised in for college; then leaving college, master's degree in hand, for success as a computer specialist.

At 42, Blake, now a manager at a multimillion-dollar information technology company, has launched his own family into an upper income bracket. And like most of the African-American elite living here, he is not about to forget where he came from.

"Now I do have a silver spoon," says Blake. "But believe me, when I get home every day I stop and I look and I make sure that spoon is still silver. I have a connection to my roots."

Having a connection, and keeping it, is talked of often in this county, a place unlike any other.

In the past three decades, Prince George's County's population has gone from 13 percent to about 60 percent black, according to the latest estimates.

Fed by middle-income black Washingtonians - many of them government workers - who poured into the county after the passage of fair housing laws in the mid-1960s, this migration has brought unprecedented wealth.

The county's median household income, which has risen to nearly $53,000 in the past decade, is roughly $8,000 higher than the national median for all families. The median income for black households nationwide hovers around $25,000.

True, there are pockets of trouble in the county - many of the communities between the Capitol Beltway and the District of Columbia are burdened by poverty.

But taken as a whole, Prince George's is the only suburban county, ever, to become more wealthy as it became majority black, according to Philip Taylor, a planner and demographer for the county.

The sweet suburban life

"Life is sweet here," says Valerie Middlebrooks, 35, who recently moved to Bowie from Tennessee with her husband, a manager at Federal Express, and their two children.

It is a life, say Middlebrooks and many others here, focusing on achievement: on building a nest egg and a good home and raising good kids - shielding them, by the sheer force of economics, from many of the woes faced by black youth growing up less fortunate.

It is a life less defined by race than in other, less affluent, majority-black communities.

"Race is important here," says the school teacher, picking up her children from dance class. "But it kind of fades into the background ... except for the concern people have here for bringing other black people up the ladder."

Travel just outside the Beltway, visit such solidly middle-class, 90 percent black communities as Perrywood and Lake Arbor - with their golf courses, tennis courts and handsome new homes on streets like Water Fowl Way.

Then drive west of Bowie, to bucolic, nouveau riche enclaves such as Woodmore - where black dot.com bosses, three-car garages and a half-acre of land around each house are commonplace - and you will find yourself immersed in suburban black wealth.

Republicans, going into the 2000 presidential election, are casting a flirtatious eye at these wealthy communities. The way they see it, much of the county is made up of the kind of financially flush people who, on the face of it, might be swayed by talk of tax cuts, fiscal restraint and moral rectitude.

No reason to switch party

But visit the middle- and upper-middle-class black-owned homes. Here, the vast majority of people are keenly interested in politics, the vast majority are staunch Democrats. And most of them, fearing changes in government programs that have fueled the black economic engine, say they have no reason to switch.

"Most of us benefited directly from affirmative action; lots of us have parents who work for the government or we work for the feds right now," says Eric Shaw, 32, whose family hails from established middle-class neighborhoods in Washington.

"We know how difficult it is - that prejudice still touches us. We know federal programs have helped and that economics is the key. We know, many of us, we're just a few paychecks from being back where we started. Nobody wants to rock the boat."

Ask people like Ken Blake if they know a black Republican and you will usually get a quizzical, puzzled look.

"I think I might know one," he replies. "You know, people who think like that don't let themselves be known."

Kevin L. Martin, a 29-year-old Navy vet who lives in Camp Springs, agrees. It's tough being black and believing, as he does, that affirmative action should be slowed, then stamped out. Or that President Clinton has hurt the black community, or that blacks are simply pandered to by liberal Democrats.

"But these are things I stand for," says Martin, an African-American conservative who now works for his family's environmental cleanup business. Martin says that, of the black people he lives and works with, there are few who share his philosophy.

Still, he is confused.

Much of the black community has conservative social leanings, believing strongly in church, in family and in the individual's ability to plot his own destiny - principles long espoused by Republicans. So, he wonders, why don't more of them back the Grand Old Party?

Reginald Daniel thinks he has an answer.

"We know [Prince George's County] is not America," says Daniel, 41, the founder and CEO of Scientific & Engineering Solutions, a high-tech firm that does much of its roughly $30 million in yearly contracts with the Department of Defense.

"Most black people are not doing as well as the people living here. That, maybe more than anything, shapes our politics."

Daniel, who grew up poor in inner-city Milwaukee, is serious about helping others, so much so he recently started a nonprofit called AIMSE: Assimilate Into Mainstream Society Economically.

AIMSE helps teach computer skills and provides financial and job planning skills to the poor.

"People don't advance simply because they don't understand how," says Daniel. "They don't understand what's available to them and what skills they need."

Daniel, a devout Christian who says he tends toward conservative moral values, plans to vote for Vice President Al Gore this November.

His reasons, heard again and again in the wide circle of black success here, are simple: Democrats are offering inclusion, a chance for the underclass to participate in programs that help them, he believes. He says Republicans, though they say they want to bring all races under their tent, are not to be trusted.

You can find Blake and Daniel together just about every Sunday, sitting in the pews of Largo Community Church, off Enterprise Road in Mitchellville.

If there is a place more symbolic of the changes that have occurred in Prince George's County over the past three decades, you will be hard-pressed to find it.

Pastor H. Jack Morris, a silver-haired white man from rural Pennsylvania, started the church in the mid-1970s. Back then he had a small congregation of people who looked, for the most part, like him.

"This was a white church in the beginning," says Morris, sitting in his sparse office and looking out the window.

He notes that the view used to be of woods and pastures - a rural setting now largely developed into some of Mitchellville's most sparkling majority-black subdivisions.

Today these neighborhoods supply much of Morris' flock. The church has about 1,000 members, few of them white.

"I never thought I'd be pastoring a black church," says Morris, a smile on his face. "But that's where God has put me."

Race and politics recede

On a recent Sunday, Morris took to the pulpit and spoke in understated tones of cleaving to every word in the Bible. The parishioners listened dutifully, swaying gently when the choir sang. There was no talk of race. There was no talk of politics. In a place so centered on the hereafter, race and politics just didn't seem to matter.

But after the service, heading off to their suburban dream homes, the parishioners filed through the front doors. Here, they discussed the hopes and worries of daily life.

Some talked of the need for the nation's black community to rally around affirmative action. A few talked of spending the federal government's surplus on inner cities. Many talked of forgiving Clinton for his "moral weaknesses" and of getting the country back to "Christian values the country was founded on."

Retired foreign service worker Al Haynes Sr. said he was concerned that the country was losing its moral footing, that kids were less disciplined than ever, that the simple things, like being able to say public prayers at high school football games, were being outlawed.

"But you have to look at the big picture," said Haynes. The big picture, the way Haynes and many others here tell it, is that economics, moving up to the middle class and embracing "mainstream values," are the best ways to help out black society. Solid economic footing leads to solid morals.

"Everything is just going so well," said retired Army Col. John Patterson, the church's choir director, when asked about his community. He and his wife, Shirley, moved to Prince George's in 1988, partly because the word-of-mouth assessment coursing through black America was that there are few better places to live.

"This is definitely the best time in history for black folks with a little means."

Prince George's - known by some in the 1950s and '60s as "Little Georgia" for the stubborn resistance to integration by its then dominant white community - is now the most powerful example of the inroads made by the black middle class in America, according to University of Maryland sociologist Bart Landry.

While noting that Prince George's is similar to semi-suburban DeKalb County in Georgia, which includes part of Atlanta, Landry says that in most of the country middle-class blacks are moving into mostly white suburbs, a trend that began in the 1980s and shows no signs of slowing.

"The black middle class behaves just like the white middle class," says Landry. "These are people who have some money, and they leave the city setting about trying to improve the ambience of their physical surroundings. ... There is an immense desire to have that suburban dream."

Comfortable surroundings

On a recent day you could see the dream on full display in the front yard of a large home in Perrywood. Two toddlers ran carefree around the front lawn of James and Cynthia Ellis, throwing a rubber ball, laughing and sometimes screaming at the top of their lungs.

The Ellis family is new to the county, having moved two months ago from Richmond, Va., so James could take a job as a computer specialist for the federal government. The couple says they moved to Prince George's because of the comfort level.

"Being around almost all black folks who share our values," says James, 38, "it feels good."

James and Cynthia, 32, say their real concern, since they are young parents, is the state of public schools.

Like many parents interviewed for this story, the Ellises express a notion held by the black middle class for generations: the quest for African-American achievement starts in school.

"You've got to have that down before you have anything else," says James, pointing to the homes of his neighbors, owned by a real estate broker, a Secret Service agent and a contractor. "We've got to emphasize being learned. The people living in this cul-de-sac show you how far that can take you."

"There are three issues I'm most interested in," says Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald and other newspapers who moved from Miami to Bowie four years ago, enticed partly by the chance to live in a community dominated by middle-class blacks. "Education, education, education."

Pitts has three school-age children in local public schools, and he is hardly pleased with the education they're getting, saying the quality of classroom instruction and discipline has been "shockingly" poor.

Pitts also speaks of tensions between blacks and whites in Prince George's. He wonders when, or whether, harmony will come, and he wonders how much politicians can help.

"I've given up looking to the presidency on issues of race," he says. "Al Gore is more black friendly [than presumed Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush], but if he gets in no way am I going to feel we have overcome.

"What I'm looking for is that the president keep us out of war and keep the economy good. Beyond that, the greatest change regarding race will happen when people change their minds."

Ken Blake's mind is set.

More black success, he believes, will mean more inclusion, more acceptance, more chances at the suburban dream. He says he wants to do more to help black folks make it, that's why he gives speeches at local schools and mentors teens.

He says he wants his government to do more, too.

Admiring his new house, he thanks God for the blessings that brought his family here -"behind the gate," as he puts it.

"You can't forget," he says. "Not about how far you've come and not about other people. I think a lot of people like myself here are staying grounded in that."

Researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°