ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY
Defaced Sign Puts Bar Owner on Spot
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
"Attention Bikers! No Colors, No Rags, No Club Attire, No Exceptions."
Barbara Sturgell posted the sign on the door of the Happy Harbor Inn in Deale four years ago after a fight between Hells Angels and Pagans ended in a cloud of pepper spray and bullets.
The 72-year-old business owner broke down and cried yesterday as she wondered why someone had altered the sign on the door by painting out certain letters and adding others to discourage black and gay patrons.
"I have no idea who would mess with my sign. I can't believe that someone would be that vicious," said Sturgell, who has run the inn for 30 years.
The Maryland Commission on Human Relations has launched an investigation into the incident after an inquiry from several news organizations.
"It is our intent to send an investigator to the facility to make a determination on what happened," said J. Neil Bell, deputy director of the commission. ". . . If someone added letters to change the meaning, then we would try to determine that. Then we would try to find out how long was the sign there and was it established to limit access to people in protected groups."
Ted Harris, an African American who has frequented the restaurant since the 1960s, doesn't hold Sturgell blameless. He and a friend spotted the altered sign on the door during a visit May 3.
"It was all in the same ink. It was professionally done," he said. ". . . When we came back, it was painted over, but you still could see the 'E-D-S' from the word 'colored.' "
Harris did not file a complaint, but he contacted the Washington Blade, a newspaper for the gay community, and several other news outlets.
The controversy highlights attitudes about race and sexuality that are now being challenged in the fast-gentrifying community 30 miles southeast of Washington.
Deale sits between two creeks and is quickly changing from an enclave of tobacco growers and watermen to a regional getaway for yuppies. William Tucker, who is African American, was on a charter boat Monday filled with black and white men. "We come here all the time, and we don't have any problems," he said.
The county has logged more than its share of hate crimes in recent years, local civil rights leaders said. County police recorded 76 such crimes in 2005, compared with 66 in 2004. The Human Relations Commission has a Southern Maryland office in Leonardtown -- which handles southern Anne Arundel -- "and we are busy in that office," Bell said.
Some of the more highly publicized incidents have occurred in the area known as South County. In 2000, the Anne Arundel school superintendent, who was African American, received a death threat over a busing plan. In 2003, racist and neo-Nazi graffiti appeared at South River High School.
Sturgell said her inn is a frequent host to chamber of commerce meetings and charity fundraisers attended by all types of people. She said she has provided scholarships to African American college students and given money to help rebuild a black church that burned down.
She said that she knows the history of Deale and that she may have customers with prejudices. But Sturgell said she is not a racist.
"I have treated people with nothing but kindness," she said.