Elkridge says it has sought out black members

UMBC chief was asked to join

all-white group has been rebuked

July 21, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The all-white country club where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. held a recent fundraiser has been unsuccessfully seeking an African-American member for roughly a decade, according to a letter from the club president to members last week and the account of a prominent black educator who considered joining.

"On numerous occasions, going back many years, application invitations have been extended to African-American families, including several invitations that are long-standing and that are currently under consideration by these families," wrote Jay M. Wilson, president of the Elkridge Club and a vice chairman of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., in a letter. Portions of the letter were provided to The Sun.

In an interview yesterday, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, acknowledged that several Elkridge members encouraged him to seek membership there in the mid-1990s. He said he decided not to apply because his travel-heavy lifestyle would not permit him to make full use of the club's facilities.

The club's recruitment efforts do not impress the staunchest critics of Elkridge, such as the Rev. William Wingo, pastor of the Chestnut Grove African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harford County, who has organized morning protests this week outside the club on North Charles Street that straddles the Baltimore City-County line.

"If they've been around for 127 years without having a black member, in this day and age, with Baltimore being over 60 percent black ... it looks like they are relics," Wingo said.

To the dismay of members, attention has been focused on the Elkridge Club since Ehrlich held a $100,000 golf fundraiser there last month, and The Sun reported that it has never admitted a black member.

No apology

With black leaders and political rivals calling the fundraiser a mistake, Ehrlich has refused demands that he apologize. He first said the club's membership was "not my business," and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is black, said he did not care about the club's roster "because I don't play golf."

But after criticism continued to grow, Steele last weekend called his initial response "flippant" and said that the club's all-white membership is a bothersome symbol to minorities that "in 2005, grates." He said the membership practices should be altered. Ehrlich echoed those views in a television interview Tuesday.

Elkridge members and officers have steadfastly refused to comment, saying membership information is private. But Wilson, the president, sent a letter to members last week, providing information about the club's diversity goals.

"Members have long been encouraged to propose prospective new members who have strong support among the membership regardless of ethnic background," Wilson wrote.

`Deeply disturbed'

The letter said that "all of us are deeply disturbed" by recent news stories, and that "as a private organization that does not make public statements about our membership composition or admissions policies, we are unable to defend ourselves in the press."

The letter said that "facts about our admissions process" include that "the club has no policy, written or understood, that excludes anyone based upon ethnic background," and that "the club has never denied admission to any African-American applicant."

Wilson confirmed yesterday that he sent the letter, but he would not discuss which minority families had received invitations to join, or comment on why the effort has been unsuccessful despite what appears to be more than a decade of outreach.

"The letter speaks for itself," he said.

Declined to join

Hrabowski said that he knows several Elkridge members from his service on corporate and foundation boards, and considers them close friends. After playing tennis and dining at the club in the mid-1990s at the invitation of friends, he said he felt comfortable there and was flattered by the consideration. But he decided not to seek membership because he did not think he had time to spend there.

"People were talking to me for a long time. A number of friends approached it from different angles," Hrabowski said.

He said he did not consider Elkridge members to be racist, and that minority families might have good reasons - such as his - for not wanting to join. The club's racial makeup, he said, could be viewed as "a natural phenomenon that people want to be around others that they know well."

Hrabowski said that had he joined Elkridge, he would not have been concerned about tokenism: "Very successful African-Americans are accustomed to being one of a small number in a group."

Criticism on Web

But the club's composition is jarring to others. Wingo, the AME pastor who has been criticizing the club on a Web log - www.powerspeaks.blogspot.com - has printed 4-by-8-foot signs with messages such as, "If you see a good fight, get in it! Help us to integrate in 2005!"

Starting Monday, he began hiring homeless people at $6 an hour to wave the signs on street corners near the club.

"I plan to keep it up until they get some African-American members," he said yesterday. "I hope I get some volunteers. I hope the community will get behind it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.