Trying to end hate in Arundel

Targeted by graffiti, couple joins officials, civil rights leaders

September 23, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

First, someone spray-painted racist graffiti on what was to have been Frank and Tina Marie Head's new home. Then, the Heads say, some drivers passing through the mostly white Anne Arundel County neighborhood stared, pointed and laughed at the African-American couple as police took a crime report.

"I loved that house, but I didn't want to come home to see a cross burning in my front yard," said Tina Marie Head, explaining the couple's decision to back out on the purchase of the house in the London Towne area of Edgewater. "That's not something I want to put my kids through."

A month later, the Heads still have no intention of moving to the neighborhood. But the Prince George's County residents are determined to live in Anne Arundel - and they've joined the county's growing movement to stamp out hate crimes.

As county officials and civil rights groups prepare to meet with federal officials to find ways to prevent such crimes, the Heads are trying to organize an event they call National Hate Hate Crime Day. They envision a gathering where people of different ethnic backgrounds can learn about each other.

"One reason for racism is that people don't know about each other," said Tina Marie Head. "We want to talk about different cultures and languages and religions and make people more aware."

They are working out the details of the event, and are considering whether having a comedian serve as master of ceremonies might help keep the mood light.

The Heads said they want to make sure no one else has to go through what they experienced.

They were scheduled to settle on a house in London Towne late last month. But before the closing, the letters "KKK" were found spray-painted on the door of the house's two-car garage. County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said the would-be seller of the house, a white woman, told investigators that some of her neighbors had pressured her to not sell to a black family.

The vandalism was the fifth suspected hate crime in as many weeks in and around the state capital. It occurred a week after Anne Arundel County prosecutors announced a stepped-up effort to handle such crimes.

The night after they discovered the graffiti, Tina Marie Head said, she retreated to her bedroom, where she cried and screamed into her pillow so her children would not witness her rage.

"We didn't know that people would do something like that to us just because we wanted to move into [London Towne]," she said.

They were also upset at the way those in the neighborhood reacted to the vandalism. "None of them came across the street to say, `We're sorry,'" said Frank Head, who added that residents peeked out of doors and windows as police took a crime report but failed to offer any words of condolence.

Head, 35, a retail sales manager, said a group of young men in a truck called out a racial slur and followed his 18-year-old daughter, Bijou, as she walked with two friends to a nearby store.

"It's the community's loss," said Shanahan, who met with the Heads recently. "It's their loss that they didn't get to know these people. They would be really good neighbors to anyone. They are good, solid American people."

County Executive Janet S. Owens has offered her sympathy, said Tina Marie Head. Owens, who grew up in South County, told Tina Marie Head in a phone conversation shortly after the incident that she hoped the couple wouldn't dismiss South County as an area tainted by racism.

Royce Ball, president of the London Towne Property Owners Association, called the Heads' situation "unfortunate." He said many people with whom he'd talked in London Towne, which used to be called Woodland Beach, are embarrassed about what happened. No one he's spoken with condones what happened to the Heads, Ball said. "There is no room for this kind of action," he said. "I would like to indicate my embarrassment and my apologies to those people on behalf of the community."

Before the vandalism on the London Towne house, expletives, threats and racial slurs were spray-painted on the house and car of a black minister in Crofton, and a church in Lothian was looted and desecrated with racial epithets.

After the incidents, officials with the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pressed for a meeting with Owens. When the NAACP officials, along with representatives of the United Black Clergy, met last week with the county executive, the Heads were there.

County officials and the NAACP announced plans to meet with a representative of the U.S. Department of Justice next month to discuss ways to prevent hate crimes. A task force has been appointed to educate residents about race-related crimes and the Human Relations Commission has been asked to keep better track of hate crimes.

And the Heads are making plans to hold an event next month to celebrate tolerance.

They hope to hold it in South County, because that's where the recent crimes were reported. They want to bring in religious, cultural and civic groups to provide literature and to mingle with participants.

Meanwhile, the Heads, who live in a townhouse in Laurel, are still looking for a home in Anne Arundel County.

They have asked their real estate agent not to give their names to prospective sellers. They fear that the sellers might have read about them in newspaper stories.

They tour neighborhoods before they visit houses for sale to gauge how racially diverse the community is. In the end, their experience has made them more cautious.

"I'm awake," said Frank Head. "I'm definitely awake now."

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