CAMBRIDGE - A ceremonial salute last week from two Civil War replica cannons and a front-page newspaper photograph showing this Eastern Shore city's mayor standing next to a Confederate flag has angered many African-Americans here, who say the incident was an unwelcome reminder of the area's long history of racial tension.
Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons posed with the model artillery pieces made by two local men who fired them as a salute to the Pride of Baltimore II when the vessel made a stop April 17 in Cambridge, the first goodwill port call of the schooner's 2001 sailing season.
Leaders in the black community say the color photograph, which appeared in several Dorchester County newspapers, is offensive. They have called a news conference tomorrow to air their complaints.
They say Rippons and Ed Kinnamon, the city's clerk-treasurer, should have known the familiar Confederate battle flag is a symbol that some find objectionable.
"We're not questioning the rights of people to have these re-enactments or to fire the cannons or even fly that flag, but an elected official and a paid city employee should not have been in a picture with something that controversial," said former Cambridge councilwoman Octavene Saunders. "Also, almost by accident, it reflects badly on the Pride of Baltimore. This was just unacceptable."
Stunned by the criticism, the first-term mayor said the complaints come from a "disgruntled group" of residents who resent his past criticism of Saunders, who lost her council seat in the city election in June.
"I was at a retirement dinner Saturday night with 300 or more members of the African-American community, and no one said a thing to me," Rippons said. "I don't know why this is being blown out of proportion. This [the Pride's arrival] was good for the City of Cambridge."
Jerome Bird, a spokesman for the Pride of Baltimore II, which docks in dozens of ports a year to promote Baltimore, said such cannon salutes are common.
"We salute every city in which we arrive, and sometimes there's somebody who can salute back," Bird said. "We had no prior knowledge of who was saluting. We're sorry for the flap, but it's really an issue for Cambridge."
Rippons said he has worked hard to solidify his relationship with African-American residents, who account for about 40 percent of the city's 10,000 people.
He said he has spent many nights walking on Pine Street, in the heart of the black community, where more than 30 years ago activist H. Rap Brown helped spark a riot.
Roberta Wongus, an administrative assistant at Sojourner-Douglass College's Cambridge office, said her first thought upon seeing the photograph was to wonder what connection it had with the Pride.
"As far as the mayor is concerned, it appears he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Wongus said. "It made it appear that he was endorsing it. The least little incident and things can flair up in Cambridge."
Black leaders say it should not come as a surprise that the Confederate battle flag would cause such a reaction, especially because the photograph was taken on the day that voters in Mississippi defeated an attempt to remove the emblem from that state's flag. The symbolism of the battle flag is too potent to ignore, they say.
"Race is always on the burner here - all you have to do is press a button and it flares up," said the Rev. Leon Hall, minister at the 300-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church.
"Maybe the mayor put himself in a position to offend people without meaning to. But I feel an elected official should be more sensitive and look at something from both sides."