Carter Broke Barriers

To Better Family's Lot

February 10, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

It was a simple, ordinary question, the kind any hungry little girl would ask.

"Mommy," Vanessa asked in a clear voice, "Can I have a hot dog?"

Sarah Carter stood paralyzed in the middle of the five-and-dime store, wondering how to tell her 5-year-old daughter that blacks could not eat at the same counter with whites.

"So I said, 'No, nice people don't eat at lunch counters,' " Carter recalled.

Without hesitating, Vanessa promptly retorted: "Well, look at all those nice people. They're eating."

"When she told me that," Carter said, "I almost fell. I didn't know what to say."

*

Etched in her memory as if it happened yesterday, the moment symbolized the awkwardness, the embarrassment, the pain of segregation. Throughout her life, Sarah Carter rarely was at a loss for words.

But the moment also was the sortof impetus that pushed Carter to break down race barriers.

"I was always aggressive," said the warm, bubbly 70-year-old, who seems to embody Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou and everybody's favorite, chocolate-chip-cookie-baking grandmother at the same time. "I wanted my kids to get the best. I was just determined they weren't going to be shortchanged."

Carter likes to tell of that long-past incident in the Brooklyn Park five-and-dime because of what followed. When her daughter announced she wanted a hot dog, the woman working behind the counter invited her to sit down among the white grown-ups.

"You see, there would alwaysbe somebody who would like us enough to help," Carter said.

She first learned to use that support as a child, growingup down the road from a white family in Cedar Hill. Since they werethe only two families living in the heavily wooded area, the six Carter children and their white neighbors naturally played together.

They used to hike to Fort Smallwood Park on warm summer days. By the time the Carter children discovered they weren't permitted, it was too late.

The lesson stuck with her. Carter later relied on sympathetic whites as a parent fighting for her children's future and as the first and so far only black county councilwoman.

She dates the birth of her activism to trying to get better health care for her oldestchild, James Spriggs Jr., now 53.

Carter was living in her parent's home with her first husband, James Spriggs, when she discovered she couldn't use the closest public health center in Brooklyn Park. So she started her own Well Baby Clinic for pregnant black women and their children.

Together with her parents, Carter also bought and rehabbed a burned-out school to provide more classrooms for black children in the neighborhood. At the time, all black children in Cedar Hillwere squeezed into a one-room school, prohibited from going to otherschools by the sharply drawn race lines.

By the time she was divorced and remarried to William Carter, race relations had eased, though de facto segregation lingered in the county. Vanessa, the Carters' first daughter and Sarah's fourth child, couldn't go to kindergarten because the few available classes were segregated and tuition had to be paid.

Carter joined 12 white women in lobbying the superintendent to start public kindergarten. They didn't win the battle until years later. But emboldened by the support of neighborhood teachers, Carter went on to enroll Vanessa at North Glen Elementary.

"All through school, she was the only black child in her class,"Carter recalled. "Then, another little girl went and more came."

While her daughters, Vanessa, now 37, and Andrea, now 32, served as pioneers in an overwhelmingly white school, Carter turned to politics for power. She worked the polls, registering blackvoters, for 12 years before she decided to run for council.

Carter was a political unknown. But she stumped energetically from door to door and won the 1974 Democratic primary by 13 votes.

"She had a rendezvous with destiny," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a well-known civil rights activist. "She was the right person at the right place and the right time."

Carter was one of three women elected for the first time to council in 1974. "It was a big year for women," recalled Councilwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, who also won her seat then.

Environmental and social welfare issues, the hot topics of the mid-to-late 1970s, dominated much of the debate during Carter's two terms. She was recognized as a compassionate, dependable councilwoman, who cared enough about her constituents to cook barbecue chicken for fund-raisers and march in environmental protests.

"She was always there," said Mary Rosso, a Glen Burnie environmental activist who served as treasurer in Carter's 1982 campaign. "She wasn't as sophisticated as some of the others on the council, but I think she was a great representative for our district. She was just so down-to-earth and natural."

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