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A Question of Race

The Baltimore Sun

HAGERSTOWN-- --Princeton Young attended Hagerstown's segregated schools until he was in the seventh grade and remembers integrating the city's five-and-dime store in the early 1960s.

The city didn't have a single African-American police officer or postman when he was growing up, Young recounted, and because he is black, he was not permitted to ride the school bus. So he walked two miles to school every day with his books, his gym bag for basketball practice and the cello he played in the school orchestra. He once had a white teenager pull a rifle on him and later, when he worked at the Mack truck factory, he routinely found fliers about joining the "Aryan brotherhood."

As Young - a children's therapist and retired assistant prison warden whose grandfather was the first president of Washington County's NAACP - approaches his 60th birthday and looks back, he can say with confidence that the small city he's called home all his life has changed and changed for the better.

"I've been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things. I don't think Hagerstown is any worse than any other town," he said. "Overall, I think the situation is improved. Race relations are improved. ... I think people have realized we're not going anywhere and they have to get over it."

But just how far has Hagerstown come? After all, the city, like so many others, has a long history of slavery and segregation to overcome. In newspaper clips from the 1950s through the next several decades, black residents complain about the same issues over and again: discrimination in housing and employment, disrespect or even abuse by police, a government that failed to respond to their concerns.

In 1984, the local chapter of the NAACP filed a job discrimination complaint against the city. In 1994, an all-white Moose Lodge here lost its charter after voting to deny membership to an African-American man. Even in recent years, the area has been identified as "Klan country," thanks to a small number of people who have staged rallies and handed out Ku Klux Klan literature.

These days, most decry such blatantly racist behavior, but a recent case raised some questions about whether the city of 37,000 with its rural roots and blooming metropolitan ambitions has moved beyond the racial strife of its past or is still behind the curve when it comes to race relations.

In March, a fired Hagerstown police officer was sentenced to 51 months in prison for terrorizing the town with a series of anonymous threats that were filled with racist slurs and promises of violence. Jeffrey Shifler pleaded guilty, acknowledging that he was responsible for threatening black students at two Hagerstown high schools and impersonating a murderous Ku Klux Klan member in profane calls to Alesia Parson-McBean, the city's first black City Council member.

Shifler claimed the threats were a misguided attempt to get back at his former employers in the police department and some residents here view the situation as an anomaly - the work of an angry loser in a largely peaceful town. But others say the case is a reminder of unresolved racial tensions that still linger here.

"Mr. Shifler, I find you to be extremely arrogant," Parson-McBean said at his sentencing, adding that "his behavior reflects a climate in our city."

Her words - including some other published comments - have created a bit of a stir. The local paper's online community forum, where people can post anonymously, has been abuzz about Parson-McBean. Some have accused her of being a racist. Others say pointing the finger at her - a victim - is a sign of how bad things truly are in Hagerstown.

Such sentiments about the disappointing state of racial affairs are common in the Jonathan Street community, a tight-knit, predominantly black neighborhood that once was the only part of the city where African-Americans lived. People who live or work in the area remember all too well the brouhaha the former mayor stirred up in 2005 when he tried to name a street after Willie Mays. The baseball great had once been jeered and booed at a Hagerstown game and then-Mayor William M. Breichner came up with the renaming idea in the hopes of making amends. But after a dust-up some insisted had racial overtones, Mays Street never came to be. Breichner was voted out of office soon after.

People here also say they regularly see Confederate flags flying around town and that drivers routinely zoom through the neighborhood hollering racist insults.

The name-calling happens almost every week, said David Gaines, 53, a lifelong resident who is African-American. And though Jonathan Street is a main thoroughfare, "some people are scared to even come up the street," he said.

"There's a little change, but not a whole lot," said Leonard Cooper, who runs a Jonathan Street barbershop and has lived in Hagerstown for 48 years.

"It's little stuff," said Cooper, a garrulous 67-year-old who shaves his head and wears a sizable gold cross around his neck. "You still see little needling stuff."

For instance: Why does South Hagerstown High, the formerly all-white school, still call its teams the Rebels? It no longer displays any Confederate flags - though many remember when it did and even relatively young people tell stories of pep rallies dotted with rebel flags - but the name doggedly stands.

"When they integrated South High, they should have changed the logo. Put it in a glass case," he said. "It's a racial slur. If you're trying to make things better, show me."

Cooper has other gripes too. Though Jonathan Street is a busy thoroughfare, it was not properly plowed after snowstorms this year, he said. And he can't help but wonder if Shifler's race had anything to do with the length of his sentence.

"Say it was a black police officer," the Rev. Joe Fowlkes, the owner of the barbershop, chimed in. "They would have railroaded him."

Around the corner, the manager of Bethel Gardens, a 94-unit housing complex in the Jonathan Street neighborhood, said people in Hagerstown merely tolerate - rather than accept - each other and are too quick to classify and stereotype.

"If you're black and young, you're a thug," Cathy Dotson said. "It doesn't matter what you're trying to do with your life and it's not right."

Dotson, a white woman with a no-nonsense air, has lived in the complex she runs for 13 years and complained that the city and the police department don't pay enough attention to her community.

"There are some good officers who care, but the majority of officers don't give a rat's behind about the neighborhood," she said. The police don't act quickly enough when residents call to complain about drug dealers and other unsavory characters who descend on their corners, she said. And the neighborhood does not receive a fair share of city beautification projects. Downtown, she said, "is lit up like Christmas and we can't even get them to clean our streets on a regular basis."

Not so, says Mayor Robert E. Bruchey, pointing to a $2 million beautification project that's coming to Jonathan Street. He and police Chief Arthur Smith both denied that the police department overlooks the neighborhood.

Because the Jonathan Street neighborhood - which has one full-time police officer - is the smallest post in the city, by definition it has the largest police presence, said Smith, a retired Baltimore police officer who took the helm of the Hagerstown department at the end of 1999.

He is aware that drug dealers and addicts - most of whom he says come from outside the community - use the neighborhood for business. But the department's two drug units do as much work in the area as necessary, he said, and security cameras set up a number of years ago have gone a long way toward reducing the open-air market scene.

"It's calmer there than it's ever been," he said. "Everyone thinks the next neighborhood over is getting more protection than they are.

"I don't think there's a community anywhere that doesn't have some racial tensions. But I don't see this as a racist community," he said, pointing out that the bad-apple cop was fired from his department. Polarization, he maintained, was far more pronounced in Baltimore when he worked there, with black community members frequently complaining that white officers didn't care about them.

"I hear and see a lot less about racial tension here than I did in Baltimore," Smith said.

Hagerstown is 86 percent white and 10 percent black, according to the 2000 census.

Anecdotally, people across the city report an increase in middle-class and affluent African-Americans who have moved to Hagerstown and nearby parts of the county since then, partly because housing is relatively inexpensive. (The county's black population grew 73 percent between 1990 and 2005, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.) They also say that the number of Latinos, who made up less than 2 percent of the population in 2000, has noticeably expanded in recent years.

Many have welcomed these changes and city boosters say they see signs of progress in everything from the growing number of minority-owned businesses to two relatively new Latino food markets, the creation of a multiracial organization called Building Communities and the election of Parson-McBean in 2005.

After years of decline, the city's downtown is going through a period of revitalization, and as it does, some point out, more cosmopolitan attitudes - and people - have moved in. When Karla Auch opened a gay-themed retail shop downtown last year, she received both official and casual support. She has heard one muttered, hostile comment, but beyond that, she hasn't seen so much as a raised eyebrow, she said.

"I'm a gay man and I don't have issues in this town at all," said Steve Cook, 42, owner of the Gourmet Goat restaurant and a recent transplant from Montgomery County. He is white. "I personally don't see it - any namecalling or racial tensions or anything like that," he said.

Brian Sullivan, the executive director of downtown's Maryland Theatre, grew up one town over and after many years away - including 16 in New York City - he moved back a year ago to take over the theater. Hagerstown has become notably more diverse, he said, and much of the racial strife he remembers from "back in the day" has disappeared.

He is determined to bring a range of programming to the theater - he has plans to show Iraqi and Korean films and has booked an all-black dance troupe from Philadelphia.

"Before, the theater was a place for people in fur coats who went to listen to the symphony," said Sullivan, who is white. "We've opened it up for more diversified culture."

All across town, residents said that the younger generation is helping nudge Hagerstown into the 21st century and several specifically mentioned the role of a population that seems to be growing: young interracial couples and their children. People learn quickly when a biracial child is involved, said Kimberly Buchanan, 37, who is white and has a daughter with her African-American fiance. "My parents did," she said.

Young, the retired warden who once lugged his cello across town, also views the progress he has witnessed in his community in generational terms. "It's because of young people," he said.

"I see my nieces and my nephews - they go to integrated schools and activities. They associate and get along with and perform in all sorts of community things with kids of all different backgrounds," he said. "Do we have a way to go? Yes. But the world has a way to go."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

An article published in the Ideas section April 15 incorrectly stated that South Hagerstown High School had once been segregated. The school was integrated when it opened in 1956.The Sun regrets the error.
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