When Linda Firman walks around Howard County with her husband, Jeffrey Firman, she doesn’t feel judged or uncomfortable.
As part of an interracial couple, she knows that elsewhere the reality can be different.
“We have been cautious about where we go because we know the possibilities. We know how we could be looked upon or possibly treated,” says the 62-year-old Ellicott City resident.
Firman is black; her husband is white. And because of the race issues they’ve seen play out in other areas, they tend to stay in the county, where they feel safe.
“I think we’ve been well accepted, and we accept each other,” she says.
Howard County has become a safe space of sorts for interracial relationships. Though the number of mixed-race couples is unknown, 8.9 percent of children living in the county identify as two or more races, according to U.S. Census data, compared to 6.3 percent nationally. And the largest age group reporting two or more races in Howard County are those 15 or younger, showing that the growth will continue in the future.
Many credit Columbia founder James Rouse with establishing a vision of integration and acceptance for the area.
"Mr. Rouse was very forward-thinking, establishing a brand new community whose social concepts were well ahead of their time given that Columbia was founded in the mid-1960s," says Milton W. Matthews, president and CEO of Columbia Association. Matthews is black. His wife, Barbara, is white. "He called on developers to be color-blind when it came to the individuals who wanted to live in Columbia. For Mr. Rouse, it was crucial that individuals of any race, including those in interracial relationships, would feel welcome in Columbia."
Firman says she quickly learned about Rouse’s vision shortly after moving to the city in 1997 as a recent divorcee.
“They [residents] give you that tutorial of Rouse and all the things they have to offer,” she says.
Howard County has a larger number of multirace residents than the national average — 4 percent locally, compared to 3.1 percent nationally — and that number could actually be much higher because people are less likely to identify as more than one race, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at Washington, D.C.-based The Brookings Institute.
“For children, sometimes it’s how their parents chose to identify them,” he says. “Sometimes they make a decision that that child might not make. The parents might identify a single race that they may think may be more advantageous. There is a lot of room for research.”
To compound things, the Census does not classify Hispanics as a race, which could also result in lower numbers than in reality.
“We’re still kind of coming to terms with these classifications,” says Frey, who wrote the 2018 book "Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America."
“We are becoming a more racially diverse place. People will be more comfortable talking about having a multiracial background,” Frey says.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in Maryland and other states. The 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. And it took the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to outlaw housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin or sex.
Barbara Russell, 78, was cognizant of the obstacles when she and her then-husband, Charles, were looking for a place to live in the late 1960s. The two, who worked for the Social Security Administration and had been living in Baltimore, had to go to Washington, D.C., to get married, so they were prepared for the worst as they began house hunting.
“I was pregnant at the time, and housing was very segregated,” she recalls. “We discovered Columbia by accident. It was the very beginning. There was nothing here — a few apartment buildings in Wilde Lake.”
She remembers it as the middle of the countryside and noted a lack of discrimination. “That’s about all we knew about it,” she says.
The Russells, who have since divorced, are credited with giving birth to Columbia’s first child, Charlie. A second son, David, came three years later.
“Jim Rouse loved the idea that Columbia’s first baby was a bi-racial baby,” Russell says fondly. “The local Giant provided us with a birthday cake. The local bank opened a bank account for Charlie. The people that we met were fantastic.”
There were small incidents, like the time a neighbor thought Charles was a moving man.
“They wound up becoming friends,” she says.
There was also the time she and Charles were confused for another interracial couple at the grocery store.
But, Russell says: “It was a harmless type of thing. It was funny. It wasn’t threatening. It was people getting used to living in an interracial community.”
The retired county administrative analyst believes that the welcoming nature of Columbia made Howard County a mecca for interracial couples.
“In the early years we attracted a large number of interracial couples because of the laws,” says Russell, referring to racial discrimination in housing elsewhere. “Our children had pretty good lives. … They did experience what we wanted them to — multi-ethnic experiences.”
When Ellicott City resident Avantika Gahlot began to date following her divorce, she didn’t think twice about dating a non-Indian man, who she met on the online dating site Bumble.
“To see interracial couples and kids is not an anomaly,” says the 44-year-old mother of two, who has been dating her boyfriend, a white man, for a year. “Howard County is a melting pot.”
The IT project manager says county residents are “more educated” and “more global. That breaks down barriers. It allows people to look beyond the limits.”
The Firmans, who married in 2005, say the openness they’ve experienced has been passed along to their adult children and grandchildren. They each have three kids from previous relationships, and they have eight grandkids between them.
“Two of my three sons have been involved in interracial dating. One currently is,” says Jeffrey Firman. “My oldest grandson is involved in an interracial relationship.”
Interracial relationships run in the family, he says, and growing up in Howard County played a part in that. “That seems to be the norm. They grew up thinking that there’s nothing wrong with interracial relationships or dating. It’s about who they were attracted to.”