Proposed name of Columbia project turns up unsavory political history

Gorman's Promise would honor man who tried to limit black suffrage

March 14, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co., which founded Columbia as a community of diversity and tolerance, has decided to name its newest neighborhood after a U.S. senator who fought to keep his political power by depriving blacks of the right to vote.

The company's development arm wants to call the 517-acre project north of Laurel Gorman's Promise after U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman, a Howard County native who was an early baseball player and the state's Democratic Party boss for 30 years.

But yesterday, David E. Forester, vice president for Howard Research and Development, said the company will investigate the revelations about Gorman's efforts to disenfranchise blacks.

The company had intended to steer away from Gorman's politics and focus on his career as a player for the Washington Nationals baseball club in the 1870s. Among the proposed street names for the project are Strike Out Circle and Knuckle Ball Drive.

But Gorman's political past, including repeated attempts to keep blacks from voting at the turn of the century, has caused concern among Howard County black leaders.

"You can't say he was a great baseball player and forget about his political views," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. He said Howard Research and Development should rethink its decision to name the project after Gorman and allow more community say in the choice.

Although his group supports Rouse's plans to develop the site, it would oppose the name, he said. "We should not be bestowing honor on those who sought to deny freedom to blacks."

A leader of the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was more circumspect. "This is information we should know," said Natalie Woodson, head of the group's education committee. She said the NAACP's executive board will have to discuss the issue, but noted that many landmarks in the area are named after whites who tried to suppress blacks.

Rouse's project on the so-called Key property, which straddles Interstate 95 between Gorman Road and Route 216, is to have 1,145 homes, 1.2 million square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet of retail space.

Howard Research and Development's former marketing director pitched the idea for Gorman's Promise because Gorman lived in the area and the project is bordered by Gorman Road, Forester said.

But in choosing to honor Gorman, the company might have attracted more controversy than it bargained for.

The inspiration for the name Gorman's Promise was born in Woodstock in 1839 to a prominent Howard County family. Gorman's father secured him a position as a page for the U.S. Senate when he was 11 years old, and for the next 16 years he held a number of minor Senate jobs.

Gorman's vocal opposition to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson cost him his job as Senate postmaster. After a stint as a tax collector, he embarked on a political career with his election to the Maryland House of Delegates. His baseball career also started at this time.

His election to the U.S. Senate in 1880 solidified his control over the state's Democratic Party machine.

One history book describes him as a "personally devout, modest and generous man."

Another historian, Robert J. Brugger, history and regional books editor for the Johns Hopkins University Press, said Gorman was sometimes aligned with shady political characters of his day, but was not a crook.

Gorman handed out political jobs to his friends and supporters and resisted efforts to reform the party. When Republicans began to gain a toehold in state politics, threatening his Senate seat, he had the governor call a special session of the General Assembly in 1901 to discuss election reform.

The "reform" he had in mind was a bill that would disenfranchise the state's 25,000 illiterate black men, according to a state history.

The bill passed, but Gorman was not satisfied. In 1904, he urged the dean of the University of Maryland Law School to draft an amendment to the state constitution that would make it even more difficult for blacks to vote. The amendment passed the General Assembly but was rejected by voters in 1905.

Howard Research and Development officials knew that Gorman was a party boss but appeared unaware of his efforts to keep blacks from the polls.

"We are taking a positive look at what he did in the baseball world," Forester said last week. "We try to stay out of politics, past and present."

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