A few weeks ago, Sue V. Mills, a Prince George's County Council member who made her political reputation as a vehement opponent of court-ordered school busing, stood before a group of Prince George's residents, her beehive hairdo towering above her, and declared to much applause: "The South will rise again."
Mills was not referring to the old Confederate South, which generations ago claimed the allegiance of many of the county's tobacco farmers, but to the notion of a new municipality for the predominantly rural sections in the county's south that have long felt ignored and powerless in the face of the more populous and developed north.
In its current incarnation, the notion of a new south rising takes the form of John Hanson City, named after a Revolutionary War era Maryland patriot, who, the city's advocates proudly point out, died in Prince George's. If approved in a referendum next year or in 1982, John Hanson City would be the state's largest after Baltimore.
"We've always gotten the short end of the stick, the crumbs," said Mills, the most recent in a long line of politicians who have pushed the idea for a separate county or city.
Many of the 170,000 or so people who live south of Rte. 4, the local version of the Mason-Dixon Line, would no doubt echo her feelings. For the past 15 years they have watched in trepidation as the Washington metropolitan area extended its boundaries to the Capital Beltway and beyond and the northern part of the county lost the rural flavor that once could be found a few miles in any direction from Washington.
As suburbanization pushed south, bringing with it traffic, topless go-go bars, apartment complexes, strip development and thousands of newcomers who were mostly black and often poor, "south county," as it is called, has seemed more and more isolated, geographically and politically.
Court-ordered busing, begun in 1972, and mounting pressure from developers who look hungrily at the area's rolling tobacco fields have only strengthened the conviction that southern Prince George's must be preserved.
For many people, John Hanson City is a symbol. While there is no indication that the proposal will fare any better than it has in the past, the continued interest is a measure of their uneasiness -- an uneasiness that was summed up by Clyde Watson, a 74-year-old tobacco farmer who has spent his life working the land his father once owned in Aquasco.
"The south and the north are as different as chalk and cheese," declared Watson, as he gazed across the fields. "We're in a different world down here."
That different world is a place where visitors are given directions that rely on natural signposts such as cedar trees, where farms are still worked by sharecroppers and the great-grandchildren of the original owners, and where groups of black landholders, who have lived in the county since Reconstruction days, vote Republican because of Lincoln.
Along the winding, barn-dotted roads of south county, the few street signs that exist are often riddled with bullet holes by frustrated hunters, political attitudes are "super-conservative," as one lifelong resident put it, and the volunteeer firehouses are still the sites of regular social gatherings such as community dances, auctions and church suppers.
At one recent auction at the Baden volunteer firehouse, the biggest attraction was the chance to bid on a baby hog (pronounced "hoag" in the south county dialect). The pig sold for $275 and came from Russell Watson's 150-acre farm in Nottingham, an area on the eastern edge of south county with more barns than houses and with gas stations that also serve as general stores.
Watson, like his father and grandfather before him, has spent his working life farming in southern Prince George's. Every morning for the past 25 years, he has awakened before dawn, gazed out his bedroom window to gauge the weather, and after pulling See COUNTY, C3, Col. 1> on his clothes, made the rounds of barns and fields on the rolling acreage that is Robbin Hill farm.
With the help of a few sharecroppers, one of whom has lived and toiled on the farm for 23 years. Watson has grown "t'baca", shrubs and pumpkins for sale, and raised swine.
"I always wanted to be a farmer," said the 45-year-old Watson, tugging on a cap that sported a "st. Thomas, Virgin Island," patch. Behind him, in the bright spring sunshine, a radio was tuned into a country music station and a voice wailed across the pig pens, "Look at us now, acting like strangers."
Watson grew up the son of a conservative Democrat, a farmer, too, who lives just a few miles south on the same farm that his father once plowed.
On that farm he learned to value hard work, self-sufficiency, family ties, and a conservative political philosophy that most of his south county neighbors share.
It is a philosophy that is grounded in a traditional rural life style that is miles away from the busy streets and liberalism of some sections in Prince George's northern area.
Watson thinks government has gotten too big and too nosey. He angrily denounces welfare chiselers and declares that unemployment insurance, like welfare, has been the downfall of the nation.
"Welfare and unemployment have ruined the pride of the people," he said. "When we were younger, people worked for a living. Today you see people absolutely out to see what they can get for free."
Like most of his neighbors, Watson feels that Rep. Marjorie Holt, a conservative Republican who nonetheless wins elections in this solidly Democratic county, has accurately reflected the political sentiments of his area.
"She's down to earth, conservative, and our type of people," he said. "She understands what this life style is all about."
But the "life style," he admits, is slowly eroding, even in this bastion of southern Maryland tobacco farms.
"Full-time farming is just too difficult," he said. "Labor is hard to come by, job security isn't as good [as other jobs in government or the private sector] and costs have risen. You have a lot of part-time farmers now and you'll see a lot more in the future."
Change is coming in other ways as well. Then years ago the county's Mason-Dixon Line separating north from south was Central Avenue. Today the line has moved at least five or six miles south to the southern loop of the beltway or the Suitland Parkway, and then across Maryland Rte. 4.
In the John Hanson City proposal, the south is now seen to extend west from the middle-class houses and apartments of Oxon Hill and the afluent homes of Tantallon, across to the Clinton-mellwood area, around Andrews Air Force Base and east to Upper Marlboro, the sleepy county seat that boasts one "major" intersection and two traffic lights."
Ten years ago, when Prince George's was governed by five country commissioners, all of whom came from the northern part, south county residents griped that they weren't getting their fair share.
The north, they complained, got all the county's resources and money. The first science and technology high school was built there, Metro went there first, the roads got paved and fixed first, garbage and leaf collections were more regular. The south they said, was left with the crumbs, or worse, the sludge sites.
Until 1974, when an unprecedented three of the county's 11 council members were elected from the south, "the southern part of the country felt like a stepchild," said Danny Dyer, whose family has lived in the Piscataway area for generations.
"People said we'd be better off as the northern part of Charles County [where many south county residents do their shopping] than as southern Prince George's," said Dyer, who is also an aide to council member William B. Amonett, one of the four south county representatives on the current council.
However, as development began creeping south past Central Avenue into Largo, Kettering and Westphalia, south county concerns focused increasingly on uncontrolled development in the south.
State Sen. Peter Bozick, a south county representative who since 1972 has tried without success to get the Maryland legislature to set up a separate county for southern Prince George's, said recently: "Growth has been coming down to the south without any control over it. There are literally tens of thousands of acres waiting to be raped by the developers."
He points to Allentown Road, which bisects his own Camp Springs neighborhood, as a good example of the south's past inability to control its own zoning and development.
"It's a garish strip with neon, car dealers and quick food stops. When I came down here [26 years ago], that was a bucolic wonderland," he said.
The development battles of recent years have spawned a host of south county civic groups who spend countless hours plotting strategy to foil developers and county planners.
They have taken on 7-Elevens, massive "New Town" proposals of shopping centers and town house subdivisions, car dealers and increased density zoning, all with a large degree of success before a council increasingly responsive to south county pressures.
One of the key figures in these development skirmishes is Dorothy Troutman, whose precise speech is peppered with zoning terminology and development philosophy. Since 1965, when she and her husband moved into south county as Iowa "Newcomers," she has been organizing to combat development, often spending two or three days a week at hearings, in conversation with council members and county planners.
Recently she helped organize Citizens for Marlboro Country to fight off efforts to suburbanize the Upper Marlboro area, which, despite its status as the county seat, does not have any public transportation coming anywhere near it.
"In south county you can go for miles and not see anything. How can you allow a hairdresser to be built on a corner in the middle of the country?" she said recently with a touch of outrage and astonishment.
One of south county's biggest zoning battles, and one of the most successful for anti-suburbanization advocates like Troutman, was fought in late 1978 over a Washington Gas Light Co. proposal to build Mattawoman New Town -- a huge commercial and residential development -- near the Charles County border.
That battle, which ended in victory for opponents of Mattawoman, also highlighted another reason, often unspoken, behind efforts to set up an independent southern Prince George's city or county: fear of newcomers from the District or the predominantly black inner beltway areas of the county.
"They [Mattawoman opponents] were afraid that the new town would be a magnet for blacks fleeing Washington," said then-council member Sam Bogley at the time of the debate. "They were not saying it publicly but privately that the character of the neighborhood would change. For some people that change would mean blacks, for some it would mean low-income whites with a lot of children in tow," added Bogley, who is now Maryland's lieutenant governor.
Although south county is predominantly white, it has had pockets of blacks for years. Some, like the Moore family on the Brandywine farmland, have been there for generations. They are clannish, considered a strong political force but unlike most of their conservative, Democratic south county neighbors, they are Republicans.
In the last 15 or so years, as Prince George's has seen a flood of low-income blacks from the District into the county's inner beltway areas, south county residents have worried that these "city folk," as one person put it would disrupt their country way of life and bring urbanization in their wake.
"We've go a slower way of living down here," said state Sen. Thomas V. Miller Jr., who grew up in Clinton and still lives there. "People are more religious, law-abiding and respectful of their neighbors. The north is like the District. We're like the south and a lot of people are trying to hold onto that life style.
"We have truly active volunteer fire departments, and still have church suppers," Miller said. "What we have is truly country living."