Earth Day should include justice

ON THE BAY

Fairness: Highway projects have a history of hitting black neighborhoods in Salisbury. This time, it's a U.S. 50 bypass and homeowners are fighting back.

April 30, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ON THE FIRST EARTH Day 29 years ago this month, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, originator of the idea, proclaimed environmentalism must be about social justice as well as ensuring a healthy natural world for the more affluent.

The American environment, he said, "is also rats in the ghetto congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people."

How far have we come since then?

Jump to 1991, when environmentalists where I live were informed that wetlands were threatened by a long-sought bypass to take Ocean City traffic around the growing congestion of U.S. 50 through Salisbury.

Environmental groups and natural resources agencies reacted, and highway planners shifted the bypass from the wetlands.

Another win for the environment -- at least the environment as defined by white folks who were mostly middle class and up.

If you were black, however, and owned a home in the Jersey Heights subdivision north of Salisbury, your environment lost big-time.

The 1991 relocation -- undertaken with minimal notice to Jersey Heights residents -- put the noise, the ugliness, the pollution and the property devaluation of a major highway squarely in their community.

New highways usually make someone unhappy, but as Jersey Heights residents talked about what they could do, many recalled that highways here had always gone where blacks lived.

It began in 1937 with U.S. 13, the north-south route through Salisbury to New York and Norfolk. Along with the east-west U.S. 50 corridor, it is a major part of the town's prosperity as a regional hub.

U.S. 13 obliterated the old black communities of Cuba and Georgetown, many of whose dwellings were constructed for freed slaves after the Civil War.

They were not grand places, but they had black businesses, shops, a doctor's office, a funeral home, music hall, bank, a fish market, taxi company and social clubs.

No one protested -- not surprising when you recall the highway followed by six years a lynching. A black man accused of killing his white employer was dragged from a hospital bed and hanged, his body dragged through the streets and burned. A grand jury refused to indict anyone.

In the 1950s, what was left of Cuba and Georgetown, and much of another black community, California, were targeted for another road -- the same U.S. 50 that is now in need of bypassing.

Many thought it bad planning even then to put such a major corridor virtually through Salisbury's center. But merchants who thought it would help business prevailed.

In 1999, to make up for highway builders' poor planning, and to speed condo-owners and beach vacationers to the seashore, Jersey Heights is paying the price.

Many of its residents had roots in Cuba, Georgetown and California. It was no accident they congregated anew in Jersey Heights, according to Charles K. Whittington.

"You were steered here," says Whittington, 70, president of the Jersey Heights Neighborhood Association, organized to fight the bypass.

Whittington, who built here nearly 30 years ago, speaks from more than personal experience. He was executive director of the Wicomico County Housing Authority from 1975-1982.

It was common, he says, for private and government loan makers to tell blacks money was available for lots in Jersey Heights and not in other areas.

Whittington, during a recent tour of Jersey Heights, pointed with pride to lots backing onto a wooded pond that now sell for $32,000. It is a neighborhood of about 1,700 households, most neatly kept homes ranging from quite modest to showplaces.

"These are 99 percent owned homes, taxpayers who've worked all their lives for this. Even if the highway people bought up all affected properties we'd lose," Whittington says, "because appraisals here run 20 to 25 percent lower than the county as a whole."

Unlike in the 1930s and the 1950s, the black community has fought back. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Steven P. Hollman, a Washington attorney, they filed a federal suit in 1997 charging highway officials discriminated by keeping white interests, from chicken farmers to environmentalists, apprised of the bypass routes while failing to include blacks until too late.

Last year, a federal judge in Baltimore ruled against them on a technicality -- they waited too long to file suit.

This month, just in time for Earth Day, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of the lower court ruling (leaving residents alive in court on a few points).

Perhaps legally they won't carry the day. But there is not a doubt under heaven that, as Whittington says, "this is as wrong as two left shoes."

One of the appeals judges, Robert B. King, said as much.

He concurred with throwing out most of residents' arguments, but wrote of his "serious concern with the shabby treatment African American residents of Jersey Heights have suffered at the hands of state and federal highway planners and officials."

"They understandably believe they have been treated as if they do not exist," King concluded.

Maryland's highway officials have changed their procedures to ensure better notification of communities, and it's tempting to say to Jersey Heights, "Sorry, this will never happen again."

But I think there's a better course. Highway officials should ask what they would do if Jersey Heights were Tony Tank, or Riverside Drive, or other affluent communities on the other side of Salisbury.

What they should do will then be crystal clear.

Pub Date: 4/30/99

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