Past as prologue

May 02, 2007

As a growing minority population spreads throughout the state, Maryland is trying to reconcile its racial past as it also confronts the present. In March, the General Assembly passed a resolution apologizing for the state's legacy of slave ownership. Yet in the past several months, Charles County has had to deal with racist graffiti and other hate crimes.

Such incidents reinforce the need for racial understanding, a worthy goal that the Maryland Humanities Council hopes to achieve through a series of dialogues and other methods meant to bridge the racial divide in the state.

If done carefully and thoughtfully, the Humanities Council's plan could help advance race relations.

Maryland is trying to come to terms with a history that includes more than 200 years of slavery as well as legendary anti-slavery heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. And as the General Assembly's resolution recognized, the evil of slavery has been matched and compounded by the "discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

That legacy has sparked different kinds of racial protests and eruptions in Maryland over the years, such as the 1967 riots in Cambridge, which saw much of the black business district burned, and the 1968 riots in Baltimore, where six people were killed following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Given such history, it's fitting that the Maryland Humanities Council announced last week an ambitious $500,000 grant program to mark the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's death by promoting a statewide series of forums, panels, plays and other events meant to increase racial understanding through dialogue.

The need for that is underscored by the recent incidents in Charles County, where new tensions have emerged as a more diverse population, including more-affluent blacks, is moving into areas that have been racially and economically isolated. In 2004, more than two dozen upscale new homes, many of which had attracted black buyers, were damaged by arson. Since last August, there have been at least 15 arrests in connection with racist graffiti and other hate crimes.

At least Charles County is trying to move forward. The racial troubles have helped spark cross-racial dialogue in some communities, a welcome precursor of what the Humanities Council sensibly aims to promote throughout the state.

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