NAACP chapter head Freeman a preacher at heart

August 28, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

The Rev. Bowyer G. Freeman can tell it, shout it even.

From pulpit to press conferences, the head of Howard County's NAACP chapter says he can preach the truth because he answers to God, not to the political and economic forces that sometimes guide the actions of other leaders.

"I'm a preacher," said Mr. Freeman, a Hickory Ridge resident. "That thread winds through everything else I do."

The NAACP president, an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Guilford, has a reputation for his rapport with others. But he is quick to point out problems when he sees them.

Mr. Freeman, 34, said his parents made sure of that.

"My mother and father have always tried to instill in me principles of justice and equality," he said. "You have to strive for them and bring others along with you."

Lately, Mr. Freeman has been talking about those ideals as he renews the call for a citizens review board to investigate complaints of excessive use of force against county police.

Mr. Freeman says the case of Jose Inez Melendez, 24, who died in police custody on Christmas Day, illustrates the need for an independent review panel. An internal police department investigation of Mr. Melendez's death was closed about three weeks ago after a county grand jury reviewed evidence and exonerated the officers involved.

Members of the Melendez family say that officers beat him at their Elkridge mobile home and then helped paramedics strap him face down on a stretcher. In January, the state medical examiner ruled his death accidental, saying Mr. Melendez suffered "compressional and positional asphyxiation."

County NAACP leaders first called for a citizen review board after a 1990 case involving twins Carl "Jon" Bowie and Mickey Bowie, who claimed they were beaten as police broke up a party in a Jessup motel.

Four months later, Carl Bowie was found hanging from a backstop in Oakland Mills, a death ruled a suicide by the state medical examiner. All officers involved were cleared of charges, but the county reached an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit with the Bowie family on July 22. Terms were not disclosed.

Mr. Freeman says the settlement of the 4-year-old case shows the continuing need for more scrutiny of police department policy.

It's one of many issues he promised to address since he took over Howard County's 1,000-member chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in January 1991. He says the job has kept him busy as he works to meet people's expectations and investigate complaints.

His friends say addressing the issues is what he does best.

"He speaks his mind and he speaks it well," said his racquetball partner Jim Henson, administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights. "He won't hesitate to speak on controversial issues."

Is there racism in Howard County?

Mr. Freeman looks puzzled.

"Come on," he says. "Are you serious?" He rises from the sofa in his Hickory Ridge home, smiling as he briefly leaves the room.

A minute later he returns with an armload of folders, which he drops on the table with a dull thump. Then he picks up the confidential files and flips through pages of complaints, most of them involving job discrimination.

"Racism is alive and well in Howard County," he says.

Many of the 75 to 100 calls the NAACP gets monthly involve job discrimination complaints. Some are dismissed after a phone call to the complainant. And in about 60 cases each month, both sides meet, discuss the problem and come to a resolution.

Mr. Freeman says the solution to most African-Americans' complaints lie in the ballot, the book and the buck. The same political, economic and educational solutions that have been needed to uplift the black community everywhere are needed in Howard, he says.

"We have the duty to elect a candidate to office to represent the interests of the constituency or unelect those who don't represent us," he said, noting that there have been no blacks on the county's General Assembly delegation.

Mr. Freeman said the county school system needs to increase the number of African-American teachers, install a complete Afrocentric curriculum and review suspension rates for black students.

"We have some of the most educated blacks in Howard, but most of our money is generally spent outside of the county," he says, calling for an expansion of black economic development.

Mr. Freeman said he held the same views as a child, the youngest of 11 children who grew up in his grandfather's small wood-frame, two-story house in Cincinnati.

He's the first man in his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in political science and public administration from the University of Dayton and a master's degree from Howard University.

It was while attending Howard University in 1986, that he met his mentor, the Rev. John Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford and former head of the state and county NAACP.

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