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Moving In and Moving Up,
Blacks Transform a County

By Marcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 1999; Page A1




The Washington Post Century

    family
Carl Taylor and Carol McGee Taylor and their extended family.
(Gerald Martineau — The Post)
Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.

Carol McGee Taylor and her husband, Carl, drove out of the city for one more look at the white house with black shutters on Etna Drive in Largo. As they circled the neighborhood at 5 a.m., they considered their behavior perfectly logical: They had never seen the suburban house in the dark.

Six hours later, the couple arrived at the closing for 407 Etna Dr. Taylor barely read the 25 documents she was signing. Fearful that something still could go wrong, she repeatedly glanced out at the beautiful May day. Sun, she thought, is a positive sign.

Even her relatives, waiting back in the District with the moving van, got only a day's notice about that impending purchase in 1982. Taylor had worried they would try to talk her out of it. A third-generation Washingtonian, she believed the suburbs offered her family a chance at something the city could not provide--a new way of life.

One step left.

Carl Taylor looked concerned as his wife wrote one check, then another, each with tiny mistakes, as she nervously tried to pay for the carpet upgrade. Only the fifth check was error-free. Finally, Taylor, a first-time homeowner, clutched her new keys.

On Etna Drive, the Taylors reinspected every room of the $106,000, 2,300-square-foot Ryland house. "It had a family room," Taylor said. "It had a fireplace, this big yard and a huge master bedroom and a walk-in closet. The children had separate bedrooms. . . . Everything that I had imagined in a house, we were getting out here in this wonderful place called Prince George's County."

As they waited for the furniture to arrive, Taylor stunned her husband: "We're only going to stay here for about five years. Then, we're going to move to a place off Enterprise Road. That's the ultimate neighborhood."

The Taylors, in their mid-twenties, were typical of the thousands of black families in a great migration to Prince George's. Between 1970 and 1980, the new arrivals nearly tripled the county's black population.

What began as individual pursuits of a customized American dream--safe streets, bigger and affordable houses and colorblind opportunities--gradually turned into a social movement. Collectively, the new suburbanites would alter the population distribution in the Washington region and transform the once rural, predominantly white Maryland county into one of the richest majority-black suburbs in the nation.

It took more than three decades for an influential group of middle-class black people to arrive in a county where African Americans historically had been slaves and a segregated and powerless minority. Yet from the start, the migration raised expectations that Prince George's could become a national model for racial progress.

The shift began in the 1970s, a time of fresh optimism and confidence for blacks as they secured higher-paying jobs in a climate of declining racial hostility. "On the heels of a successful civil rights movement that had won legal access to whatever their money could buy . . . it seemed to most that their ship had finally come in," wrote Bart Landry, a University of Maryland professor, in his book "The New Black Middle Class."

Black District residents searching outside the city for affordable homes found them in nearby Prince George's neighborhoods.

Barbara and Earl James, federal workers with a combined income of $50,000, rented in the District until they located a home for $22,000 in Capitol Heights. Although the couple integrated the neighborhood, that was not Barbara James's chief goal. "I wanted a suburban home," she said. "It was quiet. I had thought of trees and grass and plenty of room for the children to play in the yard."

More than in any other place in the metropolitan area, one survey found, blacks moving into the county were most like the whites already there--working-class people with the same general income and education levels. The similarities, experts predicted, could mean the county would achieve true integration.

But the 1970s also brought racial tensions. Some white residents saw the black migration as an expansion of the city's poor neighborhoods. Massive resistance to school desegregation turned into a battle over court-ordered busing. Black residents as late as 1977 were demanding a stronger county government response to racially motivated incidents, including cross burnings.

Kim L. Yancy, who is black, was a grade-school student living in Landover and began to think whites were disappearing. After a weekend away, she returned to discover that the white family across the street had moved. One day, two white families left within hours. Her brother's white playmate stopped by to blurt out a secret: "We're moving. Today."

"I didn't even see a For Sale sign," Yancy recalled. "White families would move out, and in a week or two, a black family would move in. Finally, I asked my mother why. . . . She said, 'Some people feel that when blacks start moving into the neighborhood, it takes the value of your property down.' I kept thinking: When are we going to move?"

The 1980 Census revealed the magnitude of the shifts. Black suburbanization had become a national trend, led by the Washington metropolitan area, where 225,000 blacks became suburbanites. Sixty-nine percent of them moved to Prince George's.

In a decade, the county's black population jumped from 14 percent to 37 percent, making it the suburban county with the largest percentage of black residents in the nation. And while more than 156,000 blacks were moving in, more than 170,000 whites were moving out.

George and Eunice Grier, prominent Washington area demographers, attributed much of the change to a critical mass of District residents searching for housing at the same time that houses and land were less expensive in Prince George's than in the city and nearby Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

"Older white families, who were not that affluent, were being replaced by black families who were younger and had more potential for upward mobility," George Grier said. "It built a whole new future for the county."

The Money Moves In

At every opportunity in the early '80s--birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving--Carol McGee Taylor's District relatives assembled at her home in Largo. With each visit, fewer people complained about the traveling distance from the city. Eventually, a place once too rural, too isolated for city dwellers became the perfect place for their expanding dreams.

By 1985, Taylor's grandmother, parents, sisters, brothers and 11 cousins had moved to Prince George's--most of them encouraged by Taylor, who had become a full-time real estate agent. In fact, many of the family members were typical of Taylor's clients: young couples using veterans benefits to purchase first homes. Many worked for the government while seeking college degrees in business administration, medicine or law. And once they closed on a house, few of the young couples had any financial reserves.

But by the late 1980s, another set of black buyers arrived.

Kapin L. Ferguson Sr., one of the first black homeowners in Kettering in 1972, immediately noticed a change. Barbershop patrons talked about politics, sports and financial issues--not crime. At the Giant, people tossed items into shopping carts without checking prices and barely glanced at the total bill before writing the cashier a check. Luxury cars--Mercedes in particular--were everywhere.

The second wave of arrivals bypassed inside-the-Beltway communities in favor of the central county. The Mitchellville area, a magnet for developers building upscale subdivisions, became popular, and everyone talked about a hot spot called Lake Arbor, a golf-course community where homes started at $200,000. The typical buyer's list of basics included nine-foot ceilings, a library, a family room with a fireplace and a finished basement with space for a home office or the nanny.

"In Lake Arbor, along Golf Course Avenue, the people moving in were black, and you didn't have to be a demographer to figure out that they had money," Ferguson said.

The new middle-class homeowners as well as black residents who had arrived more than a decade earlier became less attached to the city. They focused more on county issues, from achievement scores in public school to zoning.

"There was a building interest by blacks that was focused on getting control and influencing what happened in the county," Ferguson said. "I could see that folks were figuring out how to elect people to the County Council, the school board."

In 1986, Alex Williams, a Howard University professor, became the first black state's attorney in the county's 300-year history. The next year, a coalition of black groups, including elected officials, Republicans, Democrats and the NAACP, held a two-day retreat to set the county's black political agenda.

Black residents were fertilizing new political ground.

Mobility and Clout

The Taylors and other young buyers had traded up in the early 1980s. Taylor said she sold her Largo home for $175,000 and moved eight miles away to a $311,000 house in Canterbury Estates in Mitchellville, just off Enterprise Road, Taylor's "ultimate neighborhood."

"When our parents purchased homes, they lived and died in that home," she said. "That was no longer the way. With people going to college, getting good jobs, the money was different. You could live any place you wanted."

With affluence came political power. In 1994, the county elected Wayne K. Curry, the Washington area's first black county executive.

Such economic and political clout seemed to affirm the county's national reputation as a progressive community for blacks. But the reputation also overshadowed problems.

Curry took over at a time of low student performance in the public schools and high crime in some inside-the-Beltway communities. And more middle-class residents complained that the lack of upscale retail outlets and restaurants proved that racial discrimination persisted.

For all the county's money, residents complained, it attracted businesses like Payless Shoes and dollar stores instead of Macy's and Nordstrom.

The 1990 Census showed that Prince George's was majority black at 51 percent. Today, the county has about 777,000 residents and a black population, by some estimates, as high as 62 percent. The county has more black residents than the District.

A Suburb of Choice

Down Largo Road, up Kettering Drive past a tranquil residential neighborhood and into the Kettering Crossings shopping center sits the real estate office of Carol McGee Taylor, now a business owner comfortably rooted in the county. More than 44 members of her family live in Prince George's, and the youngest are the fifth generation to call the county home. Today, Taylor specializes in homes starting at $400,000.

As she takes a telephone call from one of her newest clients, Taylor is relaxed, authoritative. The caller, Edward "Tre" Stanton Johnson III, first visited the county in 1981 when he was a 10-year-old New Yorker and easily impressed by the homes of the county's well-to-do black residents.

Today, Johnson plays for the Washington Redskins, a 28-year-old millionaire who could live just about anywhere. He recently shopped throughout the Washington area for a home site before deciding to spend at least $1 million to build his dream home in Prince George's because "I'm comfortable here. The county has all the things I want."




 
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© 1999 The Washington Post Company


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