Activists recall Columbia's once-radical vision

Civil rights veterans drawn to community's plan for diversity

May 02, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | By Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

As Sherman Howell was marching against segregation in Tennessee in the 1960s, James W. Rouse was building the kind of community Howell could only dream of.

Rouse's vision of a racially and economically diverse city called Columbia was so radical it provoked skepticism. But it attracted many civil rights activists who wanted to believe -- and to live in such a place.

"Columbia was exactly the kind of place that we were fighting for in the movement," said Howell, 54, who moved to Columbia in 1971 after growing up in Arlington, Tenn., where blacks lived in a world apart. "It symbolized a place of hope for so many of us."

Most of these civil rights veterans say Columbia remains true to its integrationist roots. But some see diminished idealism -- less commitment to maintaining affordable housing, a cornerstone of Rouse's goal of an economically diverse community. Some say Columbia hasn't had sufficient impact on the rest of Howard, noting that the county has only two elected black officials.

The views of these now middle-aged Columbians add historical context to several efforts to map the future of Columbia and Howard County.

County officials are beginning to develop a new 10-year General Plan that will go a long way toward determining how much affordable housing will exist.

County Council members Mary C. Lorsung and C. Vernon Gray, Democrats who represent some of the oldest neighborhoods in Columbia, are working on ways to stave off decay in aging communities.

A broad-based, grass-roots group called Howard County -- A United Vision has sprung up to unite residents, many of whom are ignorant of

Columbia's idealized origins, around a blueprint for the next century.

Shaping identity

What Columbia is today is in part the work of civil rights activists who moved here, like Howell and Maggie Brown and John Milton Wesley and Earl Jones. They helped shape its identity as a liberal, progressive community as they turned their energies to new causes, from opposing the Vietnam War to confronting racial problems elsewhere in Howard County.

"You would have to believe in diversity to live in a place like Columbia -- that was true then, and it's true now," said Brown, 59.

She grew up in Cranberry and Bluefield, W.Va., where she boycotted segregated restaurants and movie theaters, and arrived in Columbia in 1970, a "doubting Thomas" on the issue of integration.

"Back then, I didn't believe that we could actually live and work here side by side with people of other races," said Brown. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Yet some activists worry about the future.

Perhaps the harshest critic of contemporary Columbia is Rabbi Martin Siegel.

"Columbia has become a boring suburb for middle-class blacks and middle-class whites," said Siegel, founder of Columbia Jewish Congregation and a civil rights worker in New York who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"There is no cause that you feel you could give your life for," Siegel said. "Columbia is no longer a frontier for the movement."

Siegel has a home in Columbia but has taken his activism to Baltimore, where he runs an organization that battles substance abuse in the troubled Patterson Park area.

Continued activism

Howell and others from the movement became community activists in Columbia, in one way or another.

A computer software developer, Howell became a member of the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People soon after moving to Columbia, and now is vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. He edits a newsletter exploring race relations in Columbia and the county.

Brown is vice president of community services for the Columbia Association, the homeowners group that funds recreational programs and other services in Columbia.

Earl Jones, 65, who grew up in segregated Martinsburg, W.Va., in the 1950s, is a civic leader: vice chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board in Columbia, and a newly elected member of the Columbia Council, which oversees the homeowners association.

Wesley, 51, godson of famed Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer, worked in the 1980s as an investigator for the county Department of Human Rights. He tracked cases such as that of a black family in Savage forced out of their home by whites. Today, he is assistant director of public relations for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Rouse inspired action

What drew them to Columbia wasn't just the vision of the city but Rouse himself. Howell remained friends with Rouse until his death in 1996.

"He was just an amazing human being," Howell said. "He believed in nonviolence and passive resistance. He was inspired by Martin Luther King. Everything that Jim Rouse did was radical."

When Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, then a segregationist, decided to hold a campaign rally in the newly built Merriweather Post Pavilion during his 1968 presidential campaign, it seemed a challenge to Columbia's commitment to equality and diversity. Rouse rallied the community.

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