Prince George's County's identity and aspirations shifting

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back in the 1970s, Woodley Timberlake was part of the mass migration of black Washingtonians to Prince George's County, an exodus fueled by the quest for the American dream -- a home with a back yard, quality schools and a safe neighborhood.

Timberlake, now 65 and a retired federal worker, felt proud as blacks captured political and economic power in the once-majority-white county. But two years ago, when his daughter and her husband planned to return to the area with their baby girl, Timberlake urged them to move to a safe community with good public schools -- not Prince George's. His daughter chose Fairfax County.

A generation ago, civic leaders and scholars cast Prince George's as a rising mecca for middle-class African Americans, a place where they could pursue an affluent suburban lifestyle that had long been the province of whites.

As voters prepare to choose a new county executive this fall, Prince George's remains a majority-black county, but its identity is more diverse, with growing numbers of Central American, African and other foreign-born groups lured by the relatively inexpensive suburban housing that drew earlier waves of blacks and working-class whites. For the first time, a Latino is the county's police chief, two represent the county in the State House and a third is seeking to become the council's next chairman.

Prince George's is also recovering from a recession that has driven foreclosures to the highest levels in Maryland. Although county leaders are hopeful about rising math and reading test scores and last year's dramatic decrease in crime, Prince George's public schools remain among the worst-performing in Maryland, and the number of homicides, robberies and car thefts rank near the top in the state.

There is also evidence that segments of the county's middle class are being drawn elsewhere. A 2007 Brookings Institution study found that those moving into Prince George's had lower incomes than those leaving. From 1993 to 2004, the median adjusted incomes of all households migrating to Prince George's ranged from $23,900 to $27,100, the report said. Those leaving had incomes between $28,000 and $30,400, and those relocating to Charles County had an average income of $40,019.

County officials said they face a double punch: A three-decades-old property tax limit keeps them from raising needed revenue, and term limits disrupt the continuity of leadership. Still, they point to their recent successes, including the construction of the complex of housing, shops and hotels at National Harbor.

Grainger Browning Jr., senior pastor at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, sees the county's evolution reflected in his 8,000-member congregation. In the 1980s and '90s, the great majority of his members were part of two-parent households and lived within 10 miles of the church. These days, he said, "we're far more diversified. We have a lot more single-parent households, persons who require far more services from the church, whether it's [a result of] foreclosures or unemployment."

The number of congregants who commute to church from outside Prince George's, he said, has grown from 5 percent to 20 percent. For older generations of African Americans steeped in the civil rights movement, Browning said, racial pride was often a significant factor in attracting them to Prince George's. Younger members tend to put economics ahead of racial identity and might be more prone to leave if the opportunity is right.

"I don't have the sense that the county is the focal point it once was," he said.

Jack B. Johnson, the county executive, has a decidedly more upbeat view, saying the school system has shown significant improvement, crime has dropped to its lowest rate in 35 years and Standard & Poor's raised the county's bond rating to AAA.

"We elevated our county," Johnson said. Although Prince George's remains "the number one county in the United States for African Americans," he added, its developing diversity is "the new America."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company