When the Rev. Emmett C. Burns started the Rising Sun Baptist Church in southwest Baltimore County seven years ago, he held services in an elementary school classroom. It was big enough for his parishioners -- seven of them. But now Burns counts 500 members among his flock and services are held in a new $1 million tabernacle on St. Lukes Lane, the first black Baptist church along the Liberty Road corridor.
The growth of Burns' church is part of the changing face of Baltimore County as revealed this week by the 1990 census. With the greatest increase in black population for a Baltimore suburb, mixed with a slight drop in white population, the county increasingly has become home to middle-class blacks who have migrated from Baltimore since the 1970s.
The county's black population has increased 60 percent since 1980, going from 53,000 to just over 85,000.
Burns says the numbers alone don't reflect the magnitude of the story, of a burgeoning black population changing Baltimore County and challenging its institutions, such as churches, schools and government.
"Blacks are moving out of the city into the county seeking better opportunities in terms of protection from crime and better schools," Burns says. "Seven years ago, there were no black churches along Liberty Road. Now there are three and two are still in schools."
Politically, the numbers could have a major bearing on the drawing of district boundaries and may influence the level of minority representation in county government one day. The county has no black elected officials now, and only one black serves on the school board, a panel of appointees.
"We have got to maximize our political, economic and social strength," Burns says.
As a member of the Coalition of African American Organizations, which claims more than 30 county groups as members, Burns says, "We should be able to get the governor to carve out a councilmanic district, or legislative district, that will elect a black council member or black legislative member."
Burns says the coalition is pushing on other fronts, such as urging County Executive Roger B. Hayden to appoint a black director of one of the county government's departments -- there are now none -- and demanding that county schools better address the needs of black youth.
The schools have been part of what has drawn many blacks to the county. While the county's black population is just 12 percent, black enrollment in county schools is more than 18 percent.
To be sure, the county has had historic black communities dating back hundreds of years. But the 1980s saw black families move to the county in a wave, not just in pockets.
For more than a decade, blacks have concentrated in schools in a southwest sweep from Woodlawn north to Randallstown and Owings Mills as well as along the city line in areas such as Hillendale, Towson and eastern Baltimore County.
Last fall, Woodlawn High reported a 76 percent minority enrollment, Milford Mill High reported 87 percent minority population and Randallstown High reported 52 percent.
Beverly Cooper-Brown and her husband, Devon Brown, decided to move to the Westview area of Baltimore County in 1978, citing rampant city crime and the negative prospect of sending their children to city schools.
Thirteen years later, Cooper-Brown, who is black and a school psychologist, says the move has been a mixed blessing.
While her family has escaped city crime, she says, the children, 15 and 12, have faced social isolation in a community that is still predominantly white.
"There are sacrifices," she says. "One of the sacrifices is the social life for the kids, and that is pricey."
The isolation is complicated by the fact that the children both attend private school in the city, a factor on which the Browns did not figure when they moved to the county.
Cooper-Brown cites "discipline problems" at Woodlawn High as the major reason for the private school decision, but added that the academic program at the school is very good.
Burns, on the other hand, praises Woodlawn and its principal, Louis J. Sergi, but concedes that the county school system needs to improve its record of educating black students.
Noting that county black pupils score an average of 200 points below their white counterparts on standardized tests, Burns says the school system needs to change its approach to educating black students.
"Many black children are coming from homes that are hurting and struggling. They need more attention. We always have and we always will," he says.
But getting such demands met could prove difficult. Voting patterns among blacks in the county indicate considerable apathy and allegiances may be in question.
Many black county residents still have "ties and tentacles that go back to the city," Burns says.
Adrienne Jones, director of the Office of Minority Affairs for the county, says her office's outreach efforts attempt to "get folks involved in the [county] system." Jones said that high on her list is to press the county to hire and promote more blacks. Currently, 10 percent of county employees are black -- short of the 12 percent black population.