1960s activist to lawmaker to tragedy


May 22, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

PRINCESS ANNE -- When John A. Wilson left the Eastern Shore nearly 30 years ago to join the civil rights struggle in the South, some people in this small Somerset County town were glad to see him go.

"Johnny," as he is still known in Princess Anne where he grew up, had a reputation as a firebrand. His methods of confronting racial segregation were blamed in 1964 for what local newspaper accounts called the "Negro riot."

But last year, when he and his wife, Bonnie, bought a house on fashionable Beechwood Street -- one block from the scene of the 1964 clash -- Mr. Wilson was given a homecoming party by old friends and new, both black and white.

The chairman of the District of Columbia Council bought the century-old house for weekend retreats and for his eventual retirement. Lately, he and his wife had been there regularly, inspecting renovations and planting flowers. They had made plans to be in Somerset County this weekend.

Instead, Mr. Wilson will be buried today in Washington. A veteran of nearly 20 years on the City Council, he died Wednesday at 49 after apparently hanging himself in the basement of his Washington home.

More than 100 miles away, his death has stunned this county seat of 1,700 on the banks of the narrow Manokin River. Many here said they had been unaware that Mr. Wilson suffered from depression.

Many residents remember vividly the early 1960s when Mr. Wilson was a 20-year-old student activist determined to force the town to end its longtime racial inequities.

"Johnny was a great young man," said Ethel Cottman, a retired Somerset County public school teacher who counts Mr. Wilson among her favorite students. "He did what he had to do in Princess Anne, marching to say what had to be said. I can't accept that he's gone."

"Johnny Wilson was one of the most radical students of that movement," said Dr. William P. Hytche , the president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore who taught math to Mr. Wilson when he was a student at the school, then called Maryland State College.

"Johnny could have been a wealthy man," he said. "But that was not his goal. He wasn't interested in frills. He wanted to make life better for other people."

"John Wilson's death is as much a loss to Princess Anne as it is to Washington," said Tony Bruce, a prominent attorney. "We were looking forward to his coming back."

Even as a youth, Mr. Wilson displayed the aggressive personality for which he became known as a Washington politician.

"In his way, he was a good kid," said William T. Dennis, a close friend of Mr. Wilson since childhood. "But he was always the guy who had the baseball and if he didn't like the way things were going, he might take the ball home and stop the game. He would argue calls. That was his nature. He liked to win."

Mr. Wilson was born in Baltimore and came to Princess Anne at an early age where he was reared by his devoted grandparents, Walter and Laura Maddox, in their modest house on Church Street. Mr. Maddox ran a small catering business and at one time sold shoes.

They gave their grandson things other black youngsters' families could not afford, said Mr. Dennis.

"He always had the good clothes, the toys," said Mr. Dennis. "Johnny was well liked by everyone, but a little spoiled, too."

Mr. Wilson was popular as a teen-ager and enjoyed baseball, football and pingpong. But he could be "a devil" and tried to get attention, Mr. Dennis said.

"He liked to curse, even as a kid," said his friend. "That would make some people take notice of him."

Mr. Dennis said he and Johnny would seek excitement by "borrowing" grandfather Maddox's 1953 Chevrolet and driving it through the rural countryside.

"He would scare the hell out of you driving," said Mr. Dennis. "He didn't know how to go slow."

Until Somerset County bowed to federal integration laws in the mid-1960s, black and white youths attended separate schools.

By then, Mr. Wilson had finished public school and enrolled in Maryland State College, a traditionally all-black school on the edge of town.

He was elected freshman class president in 1961 and quickly took the reins of the student civil rights organization and helped mobilize protest demonstrations.

To show their displeasure with the segregationist policies of many businesses, black students in 1964 prepared to march up a small hill leading to Main Street. They were met by police and the local volunteer fire company, which turned water hoses on the protesters.

"It was ugly," said Mr. Dennis. "It was like something we had seen on television that happened in Alabama."

Later that year, students and anti-segregationists from Baltimore tried to stage a sit-down in the center of town. State police used dogs to disperse the crowd.

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