With a majority black government and growing ties to nearby UMES, the Somerset County seat is leaving its discriminatory past behind

June 13, 2006|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

PRINCESS ANNE -- The University of Maryland Eastern Shore sits on a sprawling campus just outside the boundaries of this Colonial-era town. For years, it might as well have been in another county.

The historically black college was shunned by generations of white leaders in Princess Anne, a place with a legacy of discrimination and Jim Crow segregation. But last week, two African-Americans with ties to the college were elected to the town commission - bringing to three the number of blacks on the five-member panel and creating the first majority-black government in the town's 233-year history.

"We know how it was, but we're not so affected by the prejudice that happened here," said Steve Golston, 42, a Chicago native who was lured to the area by a basketball coaching job at UMES.

"It's obvious there's more cooperation between the town and the university," Golston said. "And we need to improve on that."

Golston and Tanitta Thomas, a 26-year-old UMES graduate who handles health care claims at a hospital in nearby Salisbury, easily won four-year terms on the town commission. They will be sworn in today.

The two political newcomers knocked on doors all over the town, which has a population that is now 60 percent black, canvassing everywhere from expensively restored Federal-era homes and Victorians to low-income apartments.

"This is a diverse town, and it ought to be represented that way," said Frank White, the commission president, who is white and encouraged Golston and Thomas to run.

Princess Anne has never been known as a college town. The downtown district is dominated by the brick county courthouse and adjacent office buildings that date to the early 1900s. Nearby, historic homes such as the Teackle Mansion, circa 1802, draw tourists for self-guided tours.

Regulars - mostly white - patronize three neighborhood restaurants. Two small hardware stores and a discount center cater to do-it-yourselfers and bargain hunters in an area where one of the largest employers is the nearby state prison. Local economic-development officials are working to land a Wal-Mart distribution warehouse where many jobs would pay $12 an hour.

For the most part, college life centers on the campus, where stately white columns and broad green lawns lie just a mile away from town, literally on the other side of the tracks. Modern buildings have blended with the old, housing innovative programs in hotel-restaurant management and aviation, as well as impressive venues such as the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center.

Even before the election, Princess Anne officials had begun efforts to strengthen ties with the university, scheduling the first council meeting on the UMES campus, then pledging to have similar sessions three or four times a year.

The town has asked university officials to sit on a panel that is studying growth in the community of about 2,600. Princess Anne officials are encouraging prospective businesses that might draw students. There have been tentative discussions about a fast-food franchise and a bookstore that might lure students into the business district.

"Certainly, there are always vestiges of racism - this was the site of the last lynching in Maryland," university President Thelma B. Thompson said of the town. "But we have opened the university to the people. I'm very pleased with the cooperation. We're developing a new history."

Despite that new spirit, old resentments sometimes are stirred. In 2004, for instance, white organizers staged a "Grand Homecoming" for former students who attended Somerset County schools before 1969, the year Washington High School was opened to black students.

Many who were involved in the civil rights movement remember local firefighters turning hoses on demonstrators at UMES in 1964.

Kirkland Hall, a longtime activist who teaches physical education and is working on a doctorate at UMES, sees positive changes in Princess Anne. He believes the next step will be electing the first African-American to the Somerset County Commission. Princess Anne is the county seat.

"Things have changed a great deal, things are better with the university, but we need to focus on issues like drugs and affordable housing in our community," Hall said.

University officials and town leaders say Princess Anne can ill afford to ignore the technical expertise, potential interns, researchers and fundraising prowess of fast-growing UMES. Somerset is Maryland's poorest county, and the median income in Princess Anne is less than half the statewide median. Two-thirds of the housing in Princess Anne is occupied by renters.

But the local economy has picked up as UMES moves ahead with an ambitious expansion plan that has boosted enrollment to 3,800, with plans for 5,000 students by 2011. A surge of development has added nearly 150 homes to Princess Anne in the past two years as the town has become a bedroom community for the city of Salisbury, about 10 miles to the north. Rising enrollment has sparked a building boom of student apartment buildings along UMES Boulevard, just off campus near a cluster of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that line U.S. 13.

"There have always been separate communities here between Princess Anne and the university," said Thomas, the incoming council member.

"My husband grew up here and he knows everybody. But the university has always been separate, unto itself," she said. "If we can get mutual support, and use the university's resources, Princess Anne can really become a great town."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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