When Edith Patterson moved from the District to Charles County 31 years ago, a real estate agent suggested that the Pomfret Estates neighborhood would be perfect for her family. Because that's where the black people lived.
"You can't say that anymore," Patterson said, and not just because the agent's pitch was overtly racist. Blacks in Charles County are no longer confined to a few neighborhoods.
Members of the Board of County Commissioners, from right, Wayne Cooper, W. Daniel Mayer, Robert Fuller and Al Smith, and County Administrator Eugene Lauer listen to a resident at a hearing. The fifth commission seat is open.
(Matt Houston -- AP)
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Charles's black population grew 25 percent from 2000 to 2003 -- the largest such gain for any county in Maryland -- and now accounts for 30 percent of county residents. It is a major part of Charles's transformation from rural crossroads to fast-growing outer-rim suburb.
The county's burgeoning black community, however, has yet to convert its growth into political power. Charles has never had a black county commissioner or state legislator. A new vacancy on the commission has the county's black leaders intent on clearing that barrier.
"This is the best opportunity that has come across the table in quite a while," said William Braxton, president of the Charles County chapter of the NAACP. "It's high time we had some minority representation."
Recent census figures confirm that the demographic trend that started in the 1990s continues to change the face of Charles County. African Americans, many from Prince George's County and the District, accounted for 65 percent of the county's 12,000 new residents from 2000 through 2003.
Many of the newcomers are professional families, demographers said. More than half of Charles County's black households have incomes above $50,000, and nearly 70 percent are married couples with children, according to the 2000 Census.
"I think many upwardly mobile African Americans are moving to Charles to avoid poverty issues and problems with schools," said George Grier, an independent demographer in Bethesda. "They want bigger houses, they want better neighborhoods, they want good schools, like any population of middle-class people."
The issue of black representation took on new urgency with the departure of state delegate Van T. Mitchell, a Democrat who resigned in September to become deputy secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Charles's Democratic Central Committee chose the president of the Board of County Commissioners, Murray D. Levy, who is white, to replace Mitchell. The decision angered one of the black applicants for the position.
"Charles County is run by an old-boy network of white Democrats, and what has the black community gotten? Nothing," said Gaylord Hogue, 57, a horse farmer from Waldorf. In an e-mail to officials and newspapers, he called his party a "racist Democratic machine."
After Hogue was passed over, he sent an e-mail to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), appealing unsuccessfully to have Levy's nomination blocked. "We need help from outside of the county to change the county within," he wrote. "Charles County has been keeping minorities out of government and politics for over one hundred . . . years."
Hogue applied again to the central committee, this time to replace Levy, but lost to Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) last month. If Ehrlich approves the selection, as expected, the committee will take applications for Cooper's commission seat.
Patterson, 58, a former candidate for state delegate and chairman of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee, has been mentioned as a front-runner for the position, and Cooper has spoken in her favor. She was angered by Hogue's comments, calling his racism charge "absurd and insulting." Patterson also noted that the school board has two black members and that her 12-member party central committee has three. Still, she agreed that more black leadership was crucial.
"We need to show the minority kids in this community that you're not going to bump the ceiling at the school board," she said.