Eastern Shore county's first black politician takes office

Pastor Craig Mathies is the first African-American to hold major elected office in 344-year-old Somerset County

December 11, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

PRINCESS ANNE — The motto of Somerset County, still visible on its official seal, is semper eadem, Latin for "always the same." In many ways, the Eastern Shore county 120 miles southeast of Baltimore has lived up to the slogan.

Long before anyone had heard of the pioneer who took office last week, the county's origins in the American plantation system created a booming farm economy — giving rise to a rural elite that has been slow to give up power. The county that would become a hub for boatmaking in the late 19th century and seafood through the middle of the 20th was the last county in Maryland in which a lynching took place and the last to integrate its schools.

Over the years, those incidents and other, subtler ones have helped give Somerset, a place known for the beauty of its coastal marshland, a reputation for resisting racial reform that has been difficult to shake.

As of last month, though, things are not the same. On Nov. 2, voters elected an African-American to countywide office for the first time in Somerset's 344-year history. The Rev. Craig Mathies Sr. of Princess Anne, a local pastor and former car dealer, garnered 307 of 560 votes cast in District I, defeating his Republican opponent to become one of the county's five commissioners. He was sworn in Tuesday.

"I don't think I knocked on 15 people's doors during the campaign," says Mathies, 55. "I figured if God meant for this to happen, it would happen. It did."

Says Kirkland Hall, president of the Somerset County chapter of the NAACP: "Finally, our children can say to themselves, 'There's hope for me. I can get a job in the government; I can even be a county commissioner.' I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders."

How could a county that has long been at least one-third African-American have taken 31/2 centuries to elect a black countywide representative? The answer lies in the peculiar — some would say insular — politics of this 611-square-mile jurisdiction in the state's southeastern corner.

The man who made the breakthrough has never met a transformation he didn't like.

Legacy

Mathies sits in a popular restaurant in Princess Anne, a town of about 2,400 that serves as the seat of Somerset County.

Well-wishers black and white drift by to say hello. He greets them with a smile and a bit of chat about deer hunting and church.

It's hard to fathom, in a way, that one night within living memory, just two miles from here, a mob of 2,000 whites dragged a black man, George Armwood, from his jail cell, stabbed and bludgeoned him to death, and hanged his body from an oak tree.

The tragedy in 1933 left a mark on the county's psyche that remains today.

"I don't deal with the forms of racism that my grandfather or even my father did," Mathies says as he orders a salad for lunch. "But people with power still don't give it up lightly."

If history is any guide, when change happens in the county he has lived in for 50 years, now home to about 25,000 people, it happens slowly, often only under duress.

Incorporated in 1666 and named after a sister to the Baroness Baltimore, Somerset County wasted no time in embracing the plantation-based economy that would make the most of a terrain ripe for tobacco farming. The system, dependent on slave labor, helped create industries that enriched a closely connected group of white landowners — and entrenched an imbalance of power between blacks and whites that some say has lasted to the present day.

"The people in power here, the ones who decide everything, are white," Mathies said before the election. "The African-American community has never had any say, and the older generation of influence and wealth wants to keep it that way."

Even after slavery was abolished in 1863, some Eastern Shore landowners kept black children in involuntary "apprenticeships" until a federal court in Baltimore shot the practice down. Nearly a century later, the U.S. government withheld funds to Somerset in an effort to bring about compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, the court case that ended segregated public education. The county's schools integrated in 1969, 15 years later than Baltimore's.

When progress did occur, it seemed written in vanishing ink. The county appointed its first African-American school superintendent, H. DeWayne Whittington, in 1988, and the all-white school board terminated his contract without explanation four years later. Whittington filed a lawsuit for racial discrimination — his suit alleged that one member of the board had told a local reporter, "The last thing we need is a [racial expletive] running the school system" — and won a $920,000 judgment in a Baltimore federal court.

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