Cambridge makes history

Racial strife in the past, city picks first African-American mayor

July 10, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE - This Eastern Shore city has elected its first African-American mayor, four decades after images of an angry clash here between black protesters and white police played across the nation's television screens.

Victoria Jackson-Stanley, deputy director of the Dorchester County Department of Social Services, said her victory over two-term incumbent Cleveland Rippons left her humbled at breaking racial and gender barriers.

"As a woman and an African-American, I'm overwhelmed," said Jackson-Stanley, 54. "I think it shows just how much things have changed in Cambridge since the 1960s."

Jackson-Stanley's victory in Tuesday's election was confirmed yesterday after officials counted hundreds of absentee ballots.

The city of roughly 11,000 people, known for its seafood, historic buildings and views of the Choptank River, is just slightly more than 50 percent black.

"From what I understand it, many of her voters crossed racial lines," said Carl Snowden, director of Maryland's Office of Civil Rights.

"This election is an important signal that the Eastern Shore has changed," he said. "Cambridge is at a crossroads."

It was a tumultuous time nationally when, in 1967, H. Rap Brown, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, gave a speech here that led to an outburst of protest that white authorities characterized as a riot.

The clash between black residents and white police officers was for years the main thing many outsiders knew about Cambridge.

"I was a very young teenager then, and no one who was there will forget," Jackson-Stanley said.

In recent years, town leaders have been working to revitalize the downtown, which like many small Shore towns has been struggling.

Cambridge officials have approved nearly a dozen projects aimed at revitalizing the once-vibrant manufacturing and canning center. The town has many new residents who have moved here from the Baltimore and Washington areas to restore Victorian-era homes in the city's West End.

Developers have begun restoring a mix of residential buildings, along with commercial ventures that have revamped signature department stores.

The effort suffered a setback when two turn-of-the-century brick storefronts were destroyed by fire in January, but town leaders have said they will go forward with the help of state aid.

Yesterday's final tally showed that Jackson-Stanley won the nonpartisan election 1,383 to 1,231.

A social worker for more than 30 years, the wife, mother and grandmother said she will remain in her state job and run the city as a part-time mayor, collecting $12,000 a year for a post that is designed to be part-time.

She said during the campaign that the city should hire "competent department heads" to run the day to day affairs of the city.

Rippons, a two-time mayor who clashed frequently with city employees and slow-growth advocates, said race became an issue in the mayoral campaign.

"This city is split almost evenly - of course race was a part of it," said Rippons, also 54. "Either consciously or unconsciously, race is an issue every day."

But town Councilman Gibert Cephas, who lost his bid for a second term, said race was of little interest to many voters who supported Jackson-Stanley. "Rippons has led with an iron fist for eight years, and that attitude was what voters have rejected," Cephas said.

Rippons upset many downtown preservationists when he pushed for Cambridge to annex farmland outside town to allow the development of a huge resort community near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The project was eventually scaled back significantly in the wake of protests statewide from environmentalists.

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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