Before a crowd of more than 300 people in La Plata, Democrat Edith J. Patterson took the oath of office this week as a Charles County commissioner, making her the first black to serve on the board.
The ceremony Monday morning in the Government Building's auditorium attracted throngs of Patterson's relatives, friends, former sorority sisters and strangers who turned out to witness what state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) called a "wonderful, historic day." Looking out over the predominantly black audience, Middleton told Patterson that "there's a whole lot of folks that are counting on you."
Edith J. Patterson, Charles County's first black commissioner and seventh female board member since 1885, at Tuesday's meeting.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
"You have the added job to represent the African American community here in Charles County," he said. "It's time for your appointment."
The crowd erupted in a standing ovation as Patterson finished taking the oath, which was administered by Richard A. Day III, clerk of the Charles County Circuit Court.
Patterson, 59, was chosen by the county's Democratic Central Committee to fill a vacancy created by a series of changes on the board. They started with the departure of former commissioners president Murray D. Levy (D-Charles), who became a state delegate. Then Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) was named to the president's post, and Patterson filled his district seat.
The Pomfret resident directs the College of Southern Maryland's Educational Talent Search Program, which counsels low-income and minority students. She has also served 12 years on the Board of Education, becoming its chairman in 1996, her final year. During her swearing-in, she asked the school-age children in the audience to stand.
"My office is dedicated to the young people of Charles County, and for you I hope to serve as a very positive role model," she said.
Patterson grew up the seventh of eight siblings in a home about 20 miles north of Richmond. After attending a segregated elementary school, she went on to graduate from Virginia Union University, becoming the first person in her family to get a college degree. She later added a master's degree and a doctorate in higher education administration. In her speech, she alluded to the "unimaginable obstacles" she has encountered and thanked several of Charles County's civil rights leaders for their tutelage.
Patterson's selection also makes her the only woman on the five-member board and one of just seven female commissioners since 1885.
She has said that addressing the shortage of affordable housing and alleviating rural poverty in western Charles are among her priorities.
On Monday, she said she wanted to make Charles County "a place where all citizens feel safe, . . . a place where citizens will have a chance to dwell in a warm, sanitary home and drink clean water, . . . a place where we can help the uninsured, the underinsured and underserved populations."
Many of those in attendance said Patterson represents an opportunity for change in a county where a growing black community now makes up just under one-third of the population. Rosa Blair, the vice president of the Charles County branch of the NAACP, said she hopes Patterson will push for more minority representation among teachers and administration in the school system.
"When you look at the central office and the powers that be, we are not represented," Blair said. "I know she can't move mountains, but I hope she has some impact."