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Rights advocate feels 'vindicated'

The Baltimore Sun

For Granville "Sonny" Wehland, the election of Barack Obama vindicated his efforts in the name of civil rights four decades ago.

In the 1960s, Wehland worked with the late Sen. James Clark Jr. to garner support for anti-discrimination legislation that would allow blacks to enter public places in Maryland. A lifelong Democrat and ardent Obama supporter, Wehland said he didn't understand then - just as he can't comprehend now - why anyone cared about the color of someone's skin.

"Obama wasn't the right minority for the job - he was the right candidate," the 74-year-old Howard County native said.

Wehland's conclusion that racial differences are inconsequential dates to boyhood, when he was growing up on farmland that Snowden River Parkway now traverses. He recalls the blacks who worked on his family's 60 acres, picking tomatoes and string beans.

Especially, he remembers a woman named Mary Holland, who was housekeeper for his parents and eight siblings.

"She took really good care of us," said Wehland, of Ellicott City.

However, equally as vivid are more troubling images. There was a particular Ku Klux Klansman, who wore slippers and drove a blue Cadillac and possessed a penchant for gathering Klansmen to taunt Holland and other blacks.

"Mary had high blood pressure, and I was scared to death that they were going to send her to the hospital [with their scare tactics]," he said. "It was horrible what some people had to go through."

After Wehland graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1959, he became a pioneer in highway engineering in then-rural Howard County. He ended up staying with the Bureau of Highways for 36 years, including 25 as its chief.

In the mid-1960s, when James W. Rouse came along with plans for Columbia, Wehland wrote the codes for all the roads being built for Town Center and the villages.

Rouse's vision of people of different races, nationalities and incomes living and working together was shared by the highway engineer. About the same time, Wehland's close friend, James Clark Jr., was elected to the Maryland Senate.

It wasn't long before Clark asked for Wehland's help in building local support for a groundbreaking piece of legislation.

"When Jimmy Clark wanted my help on a state public accommodations law, I went right along with him because we knew it was the right thing to do," Wehland recalled.

The measure sought to guarantee that all people be permitted to enter all public places in Maryland, including restaurants, hotels and theaters.

Clark had developed a connection with Verda F. Welcome, a Baltimorean, who in 1962 had become the first black woman to serve in the state Senate. He agreed to co-sponsor a fair-housing bill with her.

In his 1999 book, Jim Clark: Soldier, Farmer, Legislator: A Memoir, the late politician wrote that three African-American county residents had come to the capital in 1965 to speak about discrimination in the county and the pending public accommodations bill.

"It just wasn't right that they had to come to Annapolis to ask for rights that were guaranteed by the Constitution," he wrote.

After a protracted battle in the Senate, the bill was passed and later enacted.

Martha Anne Clark, the senator's daughter, said her father and Wehland were ahead of their time in taking a stand for equality.

"A rural senator just didn't do that kind of thing," she said, paraphrasing a view that many political observers expressed at the time.

After passage of the highly controversial legislation, Wehland said he and Clark were frequently awakened by hostile phone calls. It seems that the "older political machine" of those days couldn't envision the law passing, let alone working, he said.

Today, vignettes of daily life remind Wehland of the "rightness" of that landmark legislation, scenes as simple as an African-American family having ice cream at Harborplace in Baltimore.

The significant evolution that has taken place in the county over the years was brought into sharp focus for Wehland at the county's Democratic Party headquarters on election night.

"All I could think as Barack won the state was, 'We were vindicated,'" Wehland said.

Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the county NAACP chapter, acknowledged how the local mindset has progressed.

"The county has grown up since the '50s, '60s and '70s," Odoms said. "There was a time when anyone who supported equal rights was retaliated against by racists."

Odoms credited Rouse and his vision of building a community that nurtured racial harmony. But he cautioned that there is plenty of work to be done.

"We are not shackled now, but we still aren't completely free," he said. "There are still older whites in the county who would favor segregation."

Wehland, who qualifies as a member of the generation to which Odoms referred, said he reluctantly agreed with the assessment.

Despite his work on the front lines that stretches back decades, even Whelan pauses at the sequence of events that has occurred.

"We have come a long way to having respect for one another, regardless of color, and Obama's campaign brought out the best in most of us," he said.

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