Big-city problems trouble Denton Racial strife, crime afflict small town on Eastern Shore

July 25, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

DENTON -- Perched on a bluff overlooking the Choptank River, this town of fewer than 3,000 residents seems quintessential rural America. Children and old folks gather for afternoon concerts on the courthouse green. Farmers sell sweet corn from their pickups. Neighbors swap gossip at the corner lunch counter.

On the surface, life appears as peaceful as a box turtle walking through a flower patch.

But there's an undercurrent of unrest, a snake in the garden that has upset the notion that little towns have only little problems.

"It ain't Mayberry," one Denton resident puts it. "Not anymore."

Like other small towns once insulated from big-city travails, Denton -- the hub of Caroline County government and commerce -- has discovered that it has troubles long familiar to its urban counterparts.

Residents in one part of town say they are kept awake by the pop-pop of guns fired into the night. Drug dealers, they complain, are as common on street corners as mailboxes. Teen-agers gripe that there's nothing for them to do in the summer. Economic disparity is blatant.

Now, in the wake of two incidents in five months that saw white police officers facing crowds of angry blacks, Denton is asking itself how it earned -- and if it deserves -- the stigma of racial bigotry.

Denton's predicament, which brought Gov. William Donald Schaefer and an entourage of state officials to town, is complex. Some say problems of crime, housing and a lack of jobs affect everyone but hit blacks hardest.

Others say vestiges of racial discrimination are part of the area's Southern heritage. And perceptions vary dramatically among people of different races and generations, who don't always see the same Denton.

When it was time seven years ago for George McManus to retire, he decided to move to Denton because it reminded him of where he grew up in northern New Jersey.

"It matched a perception I was looking for," he says. "It was a kind of romantic decision to come back to a small town."

Now Mr. McManus, who holds a seat on the Town Commission, wonders if he made the right choice.

Two societies

First came the melee at a teen dance last winter. Afterward, black parents marched in the streets and demanded that Denton wake up to its racial problems.

In June, a crowd of more than 150 blacks threw rocks and bottles at police during the arrest of a 17-year-old at Riverview Gardens, a subsidized housing complex. That night someone set fire to a small building at the complex.

"It's kind of scary now," Mr. McManus says. "I think I allowed myself to believe that as a result of the civil rights movement of the '60s, that things were getting better."

At emergency public meetings called by town leaders, blacks and whites talked openly and passionately about prejudice, jobs, housing and recreation.

Mr. McManus was saddened by the picture that emerged. "Culturally, we're two different societies," he says. "We've never assimilated."

Blacks make up about one-third of the town's population of 2,977. But of the 517 residents living in poverty, more than half are black, according to 1990 U.S. census figures, the most recent available. Median household income in 1990 was $27,885 for whites, compared with $13,869 for blacks.

Some divisions between economic classes and races are obvious.

Street signs identify one portion of a road as Fifth Avenue along the stretch where wealthy families live in large turn-of-the-century houses. On the opposite side of town, where low-income families reside, the same road is designated Fifth Street.

Longtime residents say they believe the road was named, long )) before they were born, to make a distinction between neighborhoods.

Black perspectives

"The black people in this town are really critical of everything," says Denton resident Roger Scofield. "These kids don't know prejudice. They should be able to see the other side. They should ask themselves, 'What am I doing wrong?' "

James A. Perkins, who lives outside Denton but keeps an eye on what's happened in town, holds a similar view.

"The problems are not only with the whites," he says. "Blacks themselves are great contributors." The charges that Denton police are racist he blames, in part, on "outsiders" who have moved to the town and are "planting ideas in the heads of the youngsters."

He says a number of Caroline County towns have experienced big population increases in the past decade, particularly of low-income families seeking affordable housing.

"The caliber of people we have gotten is not the most desirable," he says.

Who are Mr. Scofield and Mr. Perkins? Wealthy whites who never knew hardship or discrimination?

Hardly. Mr. Scofield, 66, was the first black on the Denton police force allowed to patrol white neighborhoods. That was in 1961. ++ He rose to police chief in 1977 and held the post 10 years until retirement.

Mr. Perkins, 66, is a retired Cooperative Extension Service employee who is president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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