To the visitor, this charming 18th-century city with its easy-going, southern gentility, multicolored row houses and cobblestone streets, is a kind of Georgetown on the Chesapeake.
But away from the midshipmen in crisp white uniforms, the camera-toting tourists and the preppy-looking sophisticates in blazers and pastel colors, is another Annapolis, the one-third of the city that is black.
Dispersed to public housing projects at the outer reaches of the city, far from sight and in many cases far from mind, the city's 9,000 blacks view their home town as a place with many of the same problems as other American cities with large black populations -- housing displacement caused by gentrification and economic development, high unemployment, and a limited voice in local government.
"Annapolis' image has been carefully shaped by architects of the tourist trade," said Carl Snowden, an employe of the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency and a longtime black civic activist. "It is possible to come to Annapolis and see only a few blacks if you walk in the downtown area. But if you travel Annapolis, you see that Annapolis has the same social problems as other cities."
In case the outside world needed any evidence of that view, it happened last week. In a widely publicized incident, a bronze plaque marking the site on a city dock where black slave Kunta Kinte supposedly landed was stolen soon after its dedication, and a card supposedly left by the Ku Klux Klan was placed in its stead.
The theft prompted an outpouring of anger in Annapolis and around the state. But to many blacks in the city, it is only the latest in a series of racially motivated incidents -- both in the city and in Anne Arundel County -- that have underscored the tensions they say are concealed behind Annapolis' picturesque facade.
Over the summer, some blacks accused the mayor and City Council of being racially motivated for changing the zoning in one largely black section on the city's west side, thus preventing the predominantly black Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church from expanding onto a lot it owns. They also argue that race has been a major factor in the current debate on which schools to close, and in which neighborhoods.
Race has also been a factor in a suit brought by a group of black parents who have charged that their children were locked in a closet by a discipline-minded white principal.
Outside Annapolis, a white county police officer was recently indicted in the shooting death of a black county resident while the black man was reportedly trying to open his car trunk with a screwdriver. That shooting incident has prompted calls from the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a task force to examine the use of deadly force by police in the county.
With an old and long-established black community, Annapolis is not a place where one would expect the kind of racial tension that has plagued less sophisticated urban areas. Portraits of famous black Marylanders hang in the State House. And downtown, the old fourth ward was, before redistricting in 1970, a thriving black business district of black-owned and operated restaurants, clubs, barbershops, churches and a black-owned hotel.
"That was the center of town, and it was all black," said the city's only black alderman, Samuel Gilmer, a former county NAACP president. "Now it has turned into those fancy $100,000 homes. The whole of West Street, all the way into the State House circle was owned by blacks. They all just sold out. Now you only have about five or six families still holding out."
The demise of the old, black downtown resulted from a combination of factors, from the 1960s' urban renewal to government buying up land to expand and the declaration of black neighborhoods as historic districts. At the center of most of the changes has been the changing character of Annapolis itself, as upper-class white families have bought houses and transformed neighborhoods the way they have in Washington areas such as Capitol Hill, Mount Pleasant, and to a lesser extent, Shaw.
At the same time, blacks were being pushed out of businesses and homes, the Annapolis housing authority was building public housing projects on land that was annexed from the county. Thus, housing projects such as Robinwood on Forest Drive juts out from the city like an island, far removed from the historic center city and forcing many low-income blacks to live in what activist Snowden has termed "Sowetos."
Many of the traditional economic indicators also point to problems for Annapolis' black population. Few own businesses, according to Snowden, Gilmer and others, compared with the way things were in the 1960s. Blacks now comprise about 90 percent of the tenants in city public housing, according to the Annapolis housing authority. And, as is the case in Washington, Annapolis blacks continue to rely on government as the principal employer, at a time when budget constraints have forced all departments to hire fewer employes and lay off more.
Blacks make up only about 11 percent of the police force and 10 percent of the city's fire department, despite ambitious affirmative action goals, according to city personnel director Thomas Engelke. Because of the breakup and scattering of the old, black fourth ward's residents, there is now only one black alderman on the eight-member City Council. Anne Arundel County, with a 13 percent minority population, has no black delegates to the General Assembly, and the only black senator was appointed.
Annapolis' Republican Mayor Richard L. Hillman, who attributed his narrow election victory in May to large black support, said that theft of the plaque was probably the work of pranksters, who also recently stole a city lamp and a restaurant lantern from the same dock area.
In his view, integrated neighborhoods, a large black middle-class, strong black churches, and a stable, generations-old black community have saved Annapolis from the kinds of racial polarization that have plagued other cities, Hillman said.
"Our black community is one that has changed very little over the years," he said. "The city has always been at least one-third black . . . We never really had racial problems, even in 1968 when riots were going on elsewhere."