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Frederick's Black Community Struggles for a Voice

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page C01

The Rev. Samie L. Conyers is on the move. First, a quick hello to staff members at the office of the Frederick County Human Relations Commission, which he chairs.

Then, it's downstairs to the Board of Elections to drop off three new voter registration cards, spoils of his door-to-door campaign to sign up African American voters.

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Dressed nattily in a dark blue suit and blue-and-gray tie, he's soon across town and out of his SUV, hustling across Center Street in downtown Frederick toward the home of a woman he intends to register.

"Hey!" Conyers yells, seeing four or five people crossing the street. "Y'all registered to vote?"

They mumble something about being registered, so Conyers raps at Estelle Peach's door. In all her 70 years, Peach, a retired school custodian, has never voted; her hands shake as she fills out the card with his help.

Then Conyers is driving across town to find more voters. The only thing moving faster is his tongue, which keeps up a steady patter about his thoughts on voting patterns in the African American community, the stubborn achievement gap between white and black schoolchildren, the family grief he has received for supporting President Bush and the scarcity of black leadership in Frederick County and beyond.

"The black community is starving for leadership across our nation," said Conyers, 48.

Conyers said he is on the street trying to set an example, and at a particularly trying time for Frederick County's African American community. Two weeks ago, Frederick police charged Denise A. West, the former president of the Frederick County NAACP, with embezzling more than $9,000 from the civil rights organization. The charges came as the NAACP continues an internal investigation into allegations of financial improprieties that prompted West's predecessor, Charlene Edmonds, to resign under a cloud in January 2002.

As much as the alleged theft has damaged the chapter's finances, its leaders worry more about the blow to its credibility.

"I want people to know that this is not going to distract us from the mission we are working on," the chapter's president, Guy Djoken, said Friday.

Djoken, a 36-year-old native of Cameroon, moved to the United States in 1997, assumed the NAACP chapter's presidency in January and received an MBA in May. He said one priority has been to apply his business skills to setting up procedures for closer oversight of the chapter.

"We will move forward. We have a lot to do in Frederick County," Djoken said.

In court documents, police detective Thomas Tokarz said that from September to January, West took control of bank accounts for the NAACP's general fund and its voter empowerment fund and wrote checks to herself without obtaining approval from the chapter's executive committee.

Despite efforts to find her or reach her by telephone, other NAACP officials simply stopped hearing from West in October, the charging documents say. At one point, after closing out the chapter's accounts at one bank and shifting the funds to an account in her and her husband's names, she spent more than $3,000 in six days, according to the charging papers.

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