Search reveals racial divide

Black-white rift exposed in quest for Columbia leader

Official at storm's center

January 12, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Columbia is a place designed right down to its mailboxes to promote racial harmony. So it might seem odd that in the past week, two finalists competing to run the town have decided they don't want the job - at least in part because of racial politics.

Stranger still, perhaps, is who is at the center of the storm: a woman who could be considered a symbol of Columbia.

In 1967, Barbara Russell, now a councilwoman from Oakland Mills, was one of the first 100 residents to settle in the planned community that James W. Rouse created for people of all races, religions and income levels.

A white woman married to a black man, Russell felt welcome in Columbia at a time when interracial marriage had only just been legalized in Maryland. She gave birth to Columbia's first child, and in speeches around the world, Rouse mentioned the biracial boy as a symbol of his New Town.

Somehow, 34 years later, Russell and Columbia find themselves mired in ugly racial politics.

Two of the three finalists competing for the Columbia Association presidency have withdrawn since last week, both of them saying that racial issues played a role in their decisions.

One candidate accused council members of opposing him because he is black - singling out Russell in particular, because she had raised questions about his truthfulness.

Russell and others say personal politics - not racism - is behind the current upheaval. The Columbia Council was meeting last night to decide what to do next.

Whether or not there is truth to the racism charges, the allegations expose bitter rifts in a community that was supposed to be above such things.

African-American leaders say relations in Columbia have deteriorated in recent years, as the community has become home to more residents who seek to be a part of a nice, suburban community - not a grand social experiment.

Even if the community hasn't lost ground, it lost much of its novelty and moral superiority as America became more tolerant, longtime residents say. There is a sense that Columbia - once so far ahead of the rest of the country - has simply given up its lead.

"The rest of America has made progress, a lot of progress, ... but the expectation is that Columbia would be far ahead," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. "We're supposed to be a lot better than the rest of America."

Still progressing

An anthropologist who has written a book about race and class relations in Columbia contends that though Rouse's dream of interracial bonding hasn't worked out as he had planned, the community continues to progress.

During the last council elections in April, racial politics surfaced when Russell challenged Earl Jones, who is black, for a seat on the council. She won the election by seven votes.

Since then, Jones' supporters have accused Russell of splitting the black vote, because two black friends helped her hand out campaign fliers. They said voters assumed Russell was black, because her friends were.

Jones declined to comment directly on the matter. But he said it was not a great leap, even in Columbia, to assume that black voters would be more likely to vote for a black candidate, and whites for whites. "Let me put it this way. It would be extremely idealistic to assume otherwise," he said.

Jones contends that the presidential search process unraveled largely because of personal politics stemming from the ouster of the last president, Deborah O. McCarty, in May. Critics questioned her leadership and commitment to the community. McCarty resigned under pressure, after a fierce tug-of-war among council members over whether she should stay or go.

Michael D. Letcher, city manager of Sedona, Ariz., was runner-up when McCarty was hired. Some of his supporters claimed that he didn't get the job because he is black. McCarty is white.

African-American leaders repeated those allegations when Letcher emerged as one of three finalists this time around. The two other finalists - Gregory C. Fehrenbach, administrator of Piscataway, N.J., and Theodore J. Staton, city manager of East Lansing, Mich. - are white.

Staton dropped out last week, giving as one reason his concern that the hiring process would be tainted by talk of racism.

The council deadlocked 5-5 between Letcher and Fehrenbach at a closed-door meeting Monday. At the meeting, Russell said a Columbia Flier reporter told her Letcher had spoken with another council member outside the interview process. Letcher said in his interview that he had had no such contact.

On Wednesday, Letcher withdrew, accusing Russell of attacking his integrity and saying that he did not want to subject himself to Columbia's racial politics. "This isn't a reflection of the community. It's a reflection of a few power-hungry and potentially racially motivated individuals," Letcher said in an interview yesterday.

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