Prince George's: a dream revised

Changes: County sees a rise in household income and education levels, as well as de facto segregation.

January 18, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Thirty years ago, Samuel H. Dean was barred from renting an apartment in central Prince George's County because he is black. Now, he not only lives in the county, he lives in Lake Arbor, a tony neighborhood near Lake Arbor Country Club.

"So, you see," he says, "Prince George's County has really changed."

Dean and others in the county know the oft-repeated but striking details of this shift: Over the course of about 25 years, Prince George's has moved from majority white to majority black, with a simultaneous rise in its residents' income and levels of education.

Census statistics show it's the only county in the nation -- ever -- to have done that. And it has a national reputation as a black middle-class mecca.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated today, would have been thrilled, right?

Maybe not.

With its attractive suburban cul-de-sacs convenient to Washington, its areas of bucolic open space interspersed with rapid development, and its strong black political leadership, Prince George's is a model of King's dreams of African-American prosperity.

But King might not have been thrilled with the high rates of de facto segregation. Population data show a sharp racial divide, with whites clustered in the county's northern parts and blacks dominating the central and southern areas. Nearly three-quarters of Prince George's census tracts are at least 70 percent white or 70 percent black.

An ongoing problem

In many ways, the county underscores a racial problem that was highlighted when King marched on Washington and is spoken of in quieter tones today.

The black middle class, which is bigger and more economically solid than ever, is well positioned to integrate the nation's residential landscape. But if Prince George's is any indication, it's not happening. Some wonder if it ever will, and if King's dream of all races living together is feasible.

Bolstering these concerns is the emerging reality that many African-Americans no longer cite integration as a priority or a goal.

"There is a lot of frustration among middle-class blacks. I think young blacks are experiencing the frustration even more because they didn't grow up in an era of segregation and they believed integration was going to change society," says Bart Landry, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park who is studying the county's middle class.

"More and more middle-class blacks are saying, `We want a good life for ourselves and our children, and we're going to pursue it single-mindedly. We're not going to wait for whites. We're not going to make it conditional on white acceptance.' "

That was not always an option in Maryland, particularly in Prince George's County.

The area once was the hub of the state's slave trade. Though Maryland had almost equal numbers of free and enslaved blacks just before the Civil War, the vast majority of Prince George's County's 60 percent black population at the time were slaves.

Segregation continued for decades, with black schools and churches cropping up alongside white institutions. Many blacks migrated to Washington. By the 1950s, about one in 10 county residents were black.

That began to reverse when the courts ordered the schools desegregated in 1973. Whites left in hordes. Today, about 37 percent of Prince George's residents are white, according to 1999 update census figures.

Last September, the school desegregation order was lifted.

Between 1970 and 1990, the county's population grew by more than 10 percent, to 729,268, largely due to the influx of blacks.

Defying stereotypes

Contrary to stereotypes and patterns in other areas, the influx of African-Americans has increased the county's household income and decreased poverty. In 1990, more than 30 percent of the county's households earned at least $50,000.

That year, nearly 65 percent of residents 16 or older -- half of whom were black -- reported that they were employed as managers, executives or administrators. Ten years earlier, that number was 41 percent.

The school board chairman, county executive and state and national political representatives are black, part of a political presence that has mostly taken root since 1990.

"We've defied the American stereotypes of African-Americans that were used to justify discrimination," says Curry, the county executive and a lifelong Prince George's resident. "There was always this fear that everything would go to hell in a handbasket if you had black people around."

Neighborhoods such as Lake Arbor buck that stereotype.

Tucked away from busy Landover Road in the midst of Upper Marlboro, its homes cost around $200,000. It has quiet streets and tidy gardens, is 97 percent black and has an average household income of about $60,000, says Dean, president of the civic association.

The development and similar ones nearby epitomize the American Dream -- and blacks around the nation hear about it.

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