After 40 Years, Pioneer Phelps Still Keeping The Peace

Black Historya Celebration

February 04, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The man on the phone sounded alarmed about what he had just seen: a black man apparently posing as a deputy sheriff, walking around Annapolis in uniform, even carrying a revolver.

The man called Anne Arundel County Sheriff Joseph Alton because he thought Alton should knowabout this immediately. Alton did know, because Alton had deputized the tall, black man, put him in the dark blue uniform, given him the gun and sent him out on the streets of Annapolis that day in 1951.

Thus, the city had its first glimpse of George Phelps Jr. in the role of enforcer and keeper of the peace, a role Phelps would later turn into a successful business and be called upon to play time and again in the city.

He is now 65, president and owner of the $3-million-a-year Phelps Protection Systems Inc. of Annapolis.

About 265 people work for Phelps, maintaining security at federal nuclear testing stations, military research laboratories, schools, corporations, banks, shopping centers and housing developments in five states.

When you talk to Phelps, it is easy enough to forget that he is a businessman dealing with corporations like IBM or negotiating with federal agencies like the Department of Energy. The cadence of his speech smacks less of the board room than of the pulpit, as he expounds on criminal justice, city violence and the work ethic, asserting again and again that "the truth will set you free."

He'll raise his voice andstretch his long arms wide to make a point about how citizens need to get involved to improve their communities and to help the police, then drop to a whisper to convey his despair at the violence that plagues impoverished black city neighborhoods.

Phelps Protection Systems Inc. has come a long way since 1974, when Phelps opened the business in his house on Drew Street with 10 employees. But Phelps himself affects no distance from the South Street, Annapolis neighborhood or the Methodist church in which he was raised.

His firm -- with about two-thirds minority employees -- recruits prospective workers from the city's neighborhoods and fraternal organizations.

The sad thing, he said, is that it has become difficult to find minority recruitswho can fulfill one of his key requirements: no criminal record.

"Today, 10 people came through that door" to apply for work, said Phelps. "Of all those people, all those people had something" to cause their application to be sent back after a check by the Maryland State Police. "It's pitiful for me to say, but the truth sets us free."

Phelps carried his quest for minority job opportunities beyond his own company in 1978, when he founded an Annapolis chapter of Opportunities Industrialization Center, a national non-profit organization thattrains people for entry-level jobs.

Phelps has been famous for recruiting minority employees ever since he mustered and trained a force of about 200 special deputy sheriffs -- all of them black -- starting in 1952.

The force of privately paid officers maintained order for years during concerts at Carr's Beach Club, the segregated beach in Eastport where blacks by the thousands from Baltimore and Washington would converge in summers for performances by such stars as James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

From the ranks of those special deputies rose a number of men who moved on to become full-time officers in theAnnapolis and Anne Arundel County police departments. Phelps -- who served in the military police during World War II -- turned to the sheriff's department for work when he was spurned by the city, county and state police.

Alton, who knew Phelps and his family, made him the county's first black deputy sheriff in 1951, at a time when the county employed blacks for nothing but "broom-and-shovel" work.

"George was the first person in the county to be a symbol of something other than" menial labor, said Alton, who later became Anne Arundel's first county executive. Phelps, he said, "had the respect very quicklyof the police department. It was amazing the ability the fellow had as a police officer."

It was a skill the city's political leaders would come to rely upon in times of trouble.

In April 1968, as violence erupted in Baltimore and Washington following the assassinationof Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then-Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer turned to Phelps.

"Whenever I needed help in law enforcement, race relations, I called on George," said Moyer. "More than anyone," he said, Phelps was "responsible for keeping riots from breaking out" in the city.

His advantage was information. Through his contacts in the blackcommunity, he got wind of plans by people from Washington and Baltimore to set fires all over the city. After meetings of state, county and city law enforcement officials at his home, Phelps said police andsheriff's deputies confiscated boxes of Molotov cocktails.

It wasno magic, said Phelps; it was knowledge. He said he believes police have lost control of their communities because they have lost touch with them.

His views on law enforcement have been sought by government and private organizations for years. Among his 27 organization affiliations are a board membership for Metro Crime Alert in Baltimore,the Governor's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice and the state Department of Parole and Probation, where heserves on the executive clemency board.

But then, Phelps always seemed to have a gift for getting people to listen to him, said Cecil C. Burton, who coached Phelps in football at Wiley H. Bates High School.

"He's an automatic leader," said Burton. "I had a tendency to call on him to do things."

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