Friendship grows over the race wall

Bowie: While some are building the divide in this Prince George's city, two community residents are crossing it.

April 18, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

BOWIE - On "Unity Day," the speakers denounced bigotry and extolled diversity. Despite some hateful graffiti, racial harmony can grow in this Prince George's County city, they said. An NAACP official proclaimed: "I don't believe that Bowie is a community that is divided by racial hatred."

That's when four New Black Panthers crashed the party.

In black fatigues, they filed into the senior center. White supremacists are at work in Bowie, the Panthers' literature charged, and blacks should "crush" any "straw-chewin', tobacco-chewin', racist redneck" who assaults an African-American.

It was a striking scene emblematic of the racial issues that have dogged this town for months. Its racial tensions held up in the national press, Bowie officials and many residents insist the discord has been exaggerated - but are nonetheless taking hard stock.

In the process, they're finding matters of race are not black and white - particularly within Prince George's unique demographics.

The county - a historically white, rural jurisdiction - is believed to be the only suburban county in the country to become more wealthy as it became majority black. As the county has changed, blacks have become more of a political force. And some in Bowie, one of the county's few remaining white enclaves, feel shortchanged.

The city, Maryland's fourth largest with more than 50,000 residents, is changing, too. Its African-American population has grown from less than 6 percent in 1990 to more than 30 percent - and many blacks are professionals who live in pricey new developments outside its older, more middle-class white neighborhoods.

This dynamic comes alive in Jason Fenwick and John Alcorn. The two men met through a diversity workshop that spawned last week's "Unity Day" rally and are cultivating a friendship that seems likely to thrive.

Fenwick is 33, a lawyer with a publishing company who moved to Prince George's from Miami three years ago. He's black, and lives with his wife and two young daughters in a new, largely black development where houses sell for more than $300,000.

Last summer, he found "KKK" painted on a neighboring house. He's since been in the center of Bowie's racial discussions.

Alcorn is a 35-year-old credit manager for an electronics company who lives with his young daughter. He's white, and lives near where he was raised -in the middle-class section of Bowie developed decades ago by Levitt and Sons, the big name in post-World War II suburban tract housing.

Last fall, Alcorn and other Bowie residents publicly suggested that the city consider seceding from Prince George's. Some African-Americans saw racial undertones in that proposal.

Recently, Alcorn sat on Fenwick's patio, and the two discussed Bowie's racial issues and residents' efforts to find common ground.

"I'm not willing to look at it and say, `There's no racism. Everybody in Bowie loves me,'" Fenwick said. "But I am willing to look deeper. And now I have someone to bounce it off of."

Said Alcorn: "I feel we've let our guard down."

One morning last August, Fenwick was feeding his 2-year-old daughter breakfast when a neighbor called and told him to look at the garage door of the vacant house across the street. He saw the three, red, 4-foot-tall Ks.

This in a community filled with models of black professional success. "At what point does the law-abiding, all-American citizen who happens to be African-American get to enjoy what everyone else takes for granted?" he asked.

He said police told him that a nearby development, then under construction, also was marred by graffiti. He drove over and saw the words "Nigger die."

These incidents were reported in Washington media, but they prompted only one call from a white Bowie resident expressing concern, he said. And shortly after, Bowie City Manager David J. Deutsch wrote to a newspaper to note Fenwick does not live within Bowie's city limits.

Later, Deutsch said his letter was not meant to minimize the incident. But Fenwick was livid. The graffiti evoked memories of similar incidents in recent years, including racial slurs painted at a middle school and a cross-burning at Bowie High.

"It was almost as if they were saying, `This type of thing doesn't happen in Bowie,'" Fenwick said.

Last spring, black parents gained control of Bowie High's PTA from white incumbents. A few months later, many Bowie residents were outraged by county plans to use a vacant school in the city to temporarily house students from majority-black Bladensburg - while Bowie schools remained crowded.

Then, just as this school year was to start, budget cuts hit Bowie schools. Some complained that county schools' funds were going to the wealthy black neighborhoods. A rally in support of more money for Bowie schools became a call for the city to secede.

"We're being slighted because we're the minority now," said Lynn Beiber, a white Bowie resident. "It's almost like revenge. That's what it feels like."

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