Changes raise racial tension in Charles Co.

The Baltimore Sun

BRYANS ROAD -- South Hampton is a pristine development with an all-American vibe: The townhouses and single-family homes have tidy green lawns and blossoming trees out front; there are a tennis court and a playground, and the black and white families who live here look after each other.

So it was a shock when residents awoke one day last August to find that cars, homes and a mailbox had been defiled with racist graffiti. Vandals had spray-painted whole sides of cars, shattered car windows and written "KKK" on houses.

It wasn't an isolated incident for Charles County. In September, similar messages were painted in orange on Zion Baptist Church in Welcome. More hateful graffiti showed up around the county in the following months, eventually leading to FBI involvement, 15 arrests and some community soul-searching.

As an investigation continues - no suspects in the South Hampton or church case have been identified - residents are wondering how to interpret the rash of incidents. All but one of those arrested are juveniles - young, bored "knuckleheads" is how local people usually describe the culprits.

At the same time, many view the incidents seriously and see the pattern as an outgrowth of the once-rural county's changing identity. Some say they believe the crimes are related to rapid growth here and to the large influx of African-Americans in recent years.

"A lot more black people are moving into the area ... and undercover racist feelings are beginning to show," said Hershall Tolbert, 49, a black South Hampton resident. "It's different when you are working with people in the workplace who are not like you than when they move into your sanctuary. When they begin to move into neighborhoods, that's when true feelings begin to show."

Tolbert said he does not feel racial tension in his neighborhood, a middle- and upper-middle-class enclave. Yet, in the larger community, he senses that "it's there." He and others have suggested that resentment over the affluence of the county's new black residents could be a factor.

The hate crimes touch a nerve here partly because of a 2004 arson in the upscale Hunters Brooke subdivision that destroyed or damaged 27 new houses and caused $10 million in property losses. One of the young, white men convicted in that case said he took part in the torching partly because he knew that many African-Americans were buying houses in the development.

For those who remember the arson, the racist vandalism and spray painting have aroused a feeling of "not again." Since August, police have documented 17 hate crimes in the county, said Maj. Joseph C. Montminy Jr., assistant sheriff.

Among the crimes: Swastikas were painted on a house under construction in Hughesville, racist graffiti appeared on homes and a car in Waldorf, "KKK" was spray-painted on soda machines and on the roadway in La Plata and on the well house at the Port Tobacco Courthouse, and "white power" and similar slogans appeared at a county park, Montminy said.

The 15 teenagers arrested were charged with property destruction or similar offenses, said Montminy. The suspects have also been charged with hate crimes, though police say none of the suspects are associated with racist groups or gangs. Their cases are pending.

The young people whom police caught were mostly out for neighborhood notoriety, Montminy said.

"They weren't targeting anyone for hate reasons," he said. "But even if it's teenagers being teenagers, I don't think it's not serious. ... It's an affront to everyone."

In one case, a group was trapped by a watchful citizen, Montminy said. The witness saw teenagers destroying mailboxes and writing racially inflammatory words, followed their car when they fled and called police. Officers found books about the Third Reich in the back seat of the youths' car.

In another case, the four arrested included one white, one black, one Latino and one Asian teenager, Montminy said.

Such diversity is possible - even among delinquents - as the county's demographics continue to shift. African-Americans account for about 35 percent of the population in Charles County, according to census estimates for 2005, compared with 18 percent in 1990. Many of the blacks migrating south from Prince George's County and other parts of the state belong to middle-class or affluent families drawn by the comparatively reasonable housing costs.

The signs of transition and population growth are abundant in this county of roughly 137,000 residents. Tractor-equipment shops and fading farms stand next to miles of strip malls. New housing complexes line the major thoroughfares.

Dante Brown, a 35-year-old African-American mortgage broker with six children, moved from Prince George's for the schools and to escape the noise and crime of his old neighborhood. "I wanted my children to grow up where they could be safe and stretch their wings a little bit," he said.

Brown, whose neighbors' homes were hit with graffiti, said he was surprised when he received a call about the crime because "down here, it's pretty much country living. It's not the sticks, but it's not the city."

Some say the county's old-timers are wary of newcomers in general. "When I moved in 35 years ago, they didn't like me," said Jon Johnson, a pharmacist from Port Tobacco.

"We were different," he said. "We weren't quote, unquote FFM" - "first families of Maryland."

"There was resentment," said Johnson, who is white, "but it had nothing to do with race."

While neighbors and workers have been buzzing about the hate crimes for months, many are reluctant to oversimplify while searching for explanations - or to draw broad conclusions about the county based on the string of incidents.

"There are people in every community who have views that are archaic and dysfunctional," said Reuben Collins, who grew up here and became the county's second African-American commissioner when he was elected last year. "At the same time, we also see on a regular basis examples that we live in a very progressive community in the Washington metropolitan area."

The silver lining, boosters say, is that the crimes have brought the community together - most notably at a public "unity" forum on racism and demographics that took place in January. More than 250 people showed up on a Saturday to participate.

"I had to admit my thoughts were that the crowd would overwhelmingly be African-American, but it was a cross section of the community," Collins said. "It was very impressive."

The same organizers are forming a countywide commission on "diversity and inter-group relations."

Brown, who helped one neighbor scrub the graffiti off her townhouse, said he rarely thinks about the crime that shook up his street. He still feels safe. He said he doesn't believe Charles County is a racist place.

"You can't blame a whole race of people for what one or two individuals did," he said. "You have good people and bad people - I don't care what color they are."

But he is more cautious in the neighborhood, watching unfamiliar cars or people that much more closely.

"You just look out a little more for your neighbors. That's what a neighbor is," he said. "That's why we moved here in the first place - to be a part of a community."

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