Town's election hailed as milestone

1st black majority council chosen in Cambridge

37 years after riot, `it's a new day'

July 19, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- For civil rights leaders, last week's municipal election was a landmark in the often-troubled racial history of this Eastern Shore community of 11,000 -- a ballot box coup that for the first time brings a three-member African-American majority to the city council.

Such an outcome might have seemed unimaginable in 1967 when National Guardsmen patrolled the streets and the heart of the city's black community was set ablaze.

But many leaders, black and white, say the shift in political winds is just one element of a growing economic and cultural boom in the Choptank River town that for generations has been among the state's poorest.

"This is history in the making, but I don't believe this council is bringing any of the malice of our past," says 84-year-old Edward W. Watkins, an African-American councilman who has served on the five-member council for 35 years. "We have good people on the council, regardless of race."

African-American voters also played a key role in re-electing Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons, 50, who is white, for a second four-year term. Rippons, who has drawn frequent support from Watkins, narrowly weathered bitter campaign attacks about his confrontational personal style and his support of an unprecedented surge in residential growth.

Rippons, who won by 67 votes, garnered nearly half his total of 1,001 votes from the city's three predominantly black wards. He says many of his supporters see the city poised for more economic gains and want to move beyond a difficult past to tackle broader issues.

"There's no question that [race] is an underlying thing, but it's nowhere near the issue it was 40 years ago," Rippons says. "It's a part of our history we don't want to forget, but there's no reason to dredge it up all the time."

The city drew the national spotlight in that summer 37 years ago as activist H. Rap Brown stood on a car and exhorted a crowd in Cambridge. He was charged with inciting a riot that resulted in residents exchanging gunfire with police and a fire that engulfed a school and much of the black business district.

Last week, civil rights leaders around the state heard about the election results here in a flurry of e-mails soon after absentee ballots were counted, says former Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who helped mount a series of voting rights lawsuits around the Eastern Shore during the 1980s -- efforts that he says are now paying off.

"The Cambridge of 40 years ago was not just a footnote to anyone who knows Maryland history, but the whole city is at a turning point now," Snowden says. "I don't think this is a monolithic council group, so it'll be interesting to see how they work together. It's a new day."

For newly elected councilman Gil Cephas, a union organizer and administrator who grew up in Cambridge, Tuesday's vote is a marker for residents of both races.

"I think this city is way beyond the '60s or '70s," says Cephas. "I have a large white population in my ward, and I don't think it made much difference to people. I knocked on maybe 1,000 doors and I put my face on every piece of campaign literature. This election tells us where we are as a city right now."

Still, local activists who witnessed tough times here vow not to forget how far they have come.

"This was so overdue for those who were disenfranchised for so long," says Lemuel D. Chester, who in 1986 became the first African-American to serve on the Dorchester County Council. "There were too many tears, too much blood, too much picketing."

Chester, 55, who is the pastor of an independent ministry on Pine Street, is optimistic. The election, he thinks, will spur efforts to increase affordable housing and create jobs in what is undoubtedly the best economy in Cambridge since a steady decades-long decline of manufacturing jobs and the seafood industry.

Split almost equally by race, 49.9 percent black and 47.7 percent white, Cambridge's population is one of Maryland's poorest.

According to the U.S. Census, Dorchester County's median household income was $36,750 last year, compared with the statewide median of $59,200. The 2000 Census showed Cambridge with household incomes of $30,068 for white families, $21,407 for black families.

City officials say Cambridge has received untold benefit from the new 400-room waterfront Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay resort that has generated hundreds of new jobs in the past two years. Small-business owners are buying and renovating derelict properties in the city's aging downtown while urban homesteaders are renovating homes in the city's historic West End.

A continuing flood of plans for residential development is drawing decidedly mixed reviews. With more than 6,000 housing units proposed, built or in the development process, many worry that the pace of growth is too much, too soon.

La-Shon Brooks, the other new African-American lawmaker, says she will scrutinize development proposals, looking to increase the city's stock of jobs and affordable homes.

"I think this election shows that a younger Cambridge sees things a little differently," says the 44-year-old Brooks, a social services supervisor. "The racial history of the '60s is not a topic for today. We need to manage growth and create jobs so our own people can afford some of these houses."

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