A Question of Race

The days of open segregation are long gone, but a number of incidents in recent years make some people wonder about how far Hagerstown has to go

April 15, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun Reporter

HAGERSTOWN — HAGERSTOWN-- --Princeton Young attended Hagerstown's segregated schools until he was in the seventh grade and remembers integrating the city's five-and-dime store in the early 1960s.

The city didn't have a single African-American police officer or postman when he was growing up, Young recounted, and because he is black, he was not permitted to ride the school bus. So he walked two miles to school every day with his books, his gym bag for basketball practice and the cello he played in the school orchestra. He once had a white teenager pull a rifle on him and later, when he worked at the Mack truck factory, he routinely found fliers about joining the "Aryan brotherhood."

As Young - a children's therapist and retired assistant prison warden whose grandfather was the first president of Washington County's NAACP - approaches his 60th birthday and looks back, he can say with confidence that the small city he's called home all his life has changed and changed for the better.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published in the Ideas section April 15 incorrectly stated that South Hagerstown High School had once been segregated. The school was integrated when it opened in 1956.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I've been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things. I don't think Hagerstown is any worse than any other town," he said. "Overall, I think the situation is improved. Race relations are improved. ... I think people have realized we're not going anywhere and they have to get over it."

But just how far has Hagerstown come? After all, the city, like so many others, has a long history of slavery and segregation to overcome. In newspaper clips from the 1950s through the next several decades, black residents complain about the same issues over and again: discrimination in housing and employment, disrespect or even abuse by police, a government that failed to respond to their concerns.

In 1984, the local chapter of the NAACP filed a job discrimination complaint against the city. In 1994, an all-white Moose Lodge here lost its charter after voting to deny membership to an African-American man. Even in recent years, the area has been identified as "Klan country," thanks to a small number of people who have staged rallies and handed out Ku Klux Klan literature.

These days, most decry such blatantly racist behavior, but a recent case raised some questions about whether the city of 37,000 with its rural roots and blooming metropolitan ambitions has moved beyond the racial strife of its past or is still behind the curve when it comes to race relations.

In March, a fired Hagerstown police officer was sentenced to 51 months in prison for terrorizing the town with a series of anonymous threats that were filled with racist slurs and promises of violence. Jeffrey Shifler pleaded guilty, acknowledging that he was responsible for threatening black students at two Hagerstown high schools and impersonating a murderous Ku Klux Klan member in profane calls to Alesia Parson-McBean, the city's first black City Council member.

Shifler claimed the threats were a misguided attempt to get back at his former employers in the police department and some residents here view the situation as an anomaly - the work of an angry loser in a largely peaceful town. But others say the case is a reminder of unresolved racial tensions that still linger here.

"Mr. Shifler, I find you to be extremely arrogant," Parson-McBean said at his sentencing, adding that "his behavior reflects a climate in our city."

Her words - including some other published comments - have created a bit of a stir. The local paper's online community forum, where people can post anonymously, has been abuzz about Parson-McBean. Some have accused her of being a racist. Others say pointing the finger at her - a victim - is a sign of how bad things truly are in Hagerstown.

Such sentiments about the disappointing state of racial affairs are common in the Jonathan Street community, a tight-knit, predominantly black neighborhood that once was the only part of the city where African-Americans lived. People who live or work in the area remember all too well the brouhaha the former mayor stirred up in 2005 when he tried to name a street after Willie Mays. The baseball great had once been jeered and booed at a Hagerstown game and then-Mayor William M. Breichner came up with the renaming idea in the hopes of making amends. But after a dust-up some insisted had racial overtones, Mays Street never came to be. Breichner was voted out of office soon after.

People here also say they regularly see Confederate flags flying around town and that drivers routinely zoom through the neighborhood hollering racist insults.

The name-calling happens almost every week, said David Gaines, 53, a lifelong resident who is African-American. And though Jonathan Street is a main thoroughfare, "some people are scared to even come up the street," he said.

"There's a little change, but not a whole lot," said Leonard Cooper, who runs a Jonathan Street barbershop and has lived in Hagerstown for 48 years.

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