The village was created during World War II for families of workers at the nearby Naval Powder Factory. It was named Perry Wright Homes, honoring, the U.S. government brochure said, "a grand old colored employe . . . of the old type, unassuming, sober, industrious and very attentive to his work." Although the development was segregated, its homes, with electricity and running water, were an improvement for many of the 100 black families who moved in during the early 1940s.
That was before the civil rights revolution, before affirmative action programs and politicians' promises of not just a New Deal but also a Great Society. Today, what was once seen as a godsend of government housing is a ragged reminder of American apartheid, 25 miles south of Washington on the Maryland bank of the Potomac River.
While the laws have changed to forbid government-sanctioned segregation, the black enclave, now known as Woodland Village, remains, its 40-year-old prefabricated two-bedroom houses privately owned, its recreation building a residence and its original curbs, sidewalks and manhole covers crumbling.
Some of the early residents remain, too, mostly retired from the naval base, which still employs Woodland Villagers and is now called the Naval Ordnance Station. Others work in Washington or in Southern Maryland, largely in blue-collar jobs. Two are teachers. The legacy of segregation touches residents of varied vintage here, but their demands are not the usual stuff of civil rights crusades. They include such seemingly mundane concerns as improved water and sewer service, better streets, a playground and even a place on the county's road map.
"We're going to the State House and then to Capitol Hill and then we're gonna take to the streets, that's all," said Francis J. Simmons, the 57-year-old president of the Woodland Village Civic Association.
The residents have petitioned the Charles County commissioners and have complained of discrimination to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which last year reported that it found "substantial evidence that basic services have been denied" because of race.
They also have complained to the town of Indian Head, which all but surrounds the village and counted the village's residents when applying for federal funds for a $278,000 water pump project that does not service the community. "That's done all over," said Indian Head Mayor Roy L. Budd.
The town of 1,800, which had nine blacks in 1970 and has an estimated 50 or so today, also refused to sign an agreement with HUD to help the enclave of 300 people. "It didn't apply, it was far-fetched," said Joseph Ely, the town attorney, who grew up here where his father opened a store in 1919.
Ely said his town is not prejudiced against blacks. "I know many of them well. Many worked for us in the store, even took care of me as a baby."
Ely said the village could use some improvements but asserted it is a county matter.
Eleanor Carrico, president of the Charles County commissioners, said the county isn't responsible, either. The village, she said, is due no less but also no more than other towns are today, regardless of past injustices. "This is not the only community that doesn't have a playground," she said.
The residents came here "to make powder that keeps 'em firing," the federal recruitment pamphlet proclaimed. The booklet included testimonials from three blacks -- an athlete, an educator and a native of the area -- regarding the opportunities that were, if not equal, at least better than elsewhere, "all things considered."
Along with good pay, rapid advancement and interesting jobs, the wartime workers were promised good housing. Originally, 500 small homes rose on the high ground overlooking the Potomac. But Potomac Heights, as it was called, was for whites only.
Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and 100 of the houses were designated for "colored employees" and moved from the present site of General Smallwood Middle School into a low-lying area literally across the train tracks near the north bank of Mattawoman Creek.
"We moved over from Marbury on the Mattawoman's south side where we didn't have any running water or electricity," said Gladys Simmons. "Everything was so new to me. We were so glad to be in here." And George Thompson, 55, a retired Navy employe who moved into the community in 1942, said, "The first thing I tried out was the bathtub."
The land had belonged to Joseph Augustus Brown, a black farmer with 10 children, some of whom moved into the new, segregated housing. "At that time, we didn't know too much about it, except that was their section and this was our section," said Viola Ellerbe, 74, one of Brown's daughters and Thompson's mother-in-law. "So we settled down here and made the best of it."
After the war, the government sold the houses in Potomac Heights to a homeowners' cooperative association. Perry Wright Homes were sold to a private investment company and renamed Woodland Village, after Joseph Woodland, the black resident manager. Bertha Circle was named for his wife.
In the late '50s, the company sold the houses to their occupants but kept the water works until a year ago, when the owner gave it to the village association. Neither the county nor the town would take it. The system consists of a 12,000-gallon water tank, not enough in case of fire, six inoperative fire hydrants, and a small pump house. There are no employes. Every day, Simmons dutifully checks the chlorine level.
The town treats the village sewage but has refused to service the system there. Thompson and Simmons have had to snake out the clogged pipes themselves. They also have built their own steel and concrete manhole covers for $6 apiece to replace the originals, which would cost $48 each.
The lack of a playground is another source of frustration to the residents. The county says it will build one only in parks or on school sites. Many newer subdivisions have one or both, but Woodland Village has neither.
Potomac Heights has it all -- playgrounds, community buildings, a school, library, fire house, even a sort of green belt or mall along the main road through the development. Some of it has been there all along, while other amenities -- a swimming pool, for instance -- have been added and paid for by the homeowners through additional assessments.
Today, while the children of Woodland Village and Potomac Heights go to the same schools and their families attend some of the same churches, the Heights' 485 households still are all-white, according to George Coleman, who manages the Mutual Homeowners' Association. Newcomers must be approved by a committee.
"We have no discrimination against anyone, but they don't apply," Coleman said, suggesting also that blacks "can do better with their money elsewhere." Heights households, moreover, pay their own way, to the tune of $350,000 for their own sewage treatment plant, and Coleman has little sympathy for the Woodland Villagers' appeals for county aid.
The Woodland Villagers see annexation by Indian Head as another avenue to salvation, but last year's HUD report said Indian Head officials "have been loath to consider" such a step. Mayor Budd says he is undecided but adds, "we'd have to sit down and see exactly what are the costs and who's going to pay for it." Ely, the town lawyer, has said villagers must follow proper procedures, a requirement they are now working to fulfill.
"I never had any problem with prejudices," said Mayor Budd, who moved a dozen years ago from Oxon Hill to Indian Head, where he owns and operates an automotive repair shop. "We obey all the civil rights laws in the land."
Beyond the laws are the apparent affronts that offend the villagers. When they were left off a map prepared by the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, Simmons wrote "with great sorrow" to protest, and the chamber responded that the omission was inadvertent. Adding insult to injury, the chamber received a $12,000 first-time grant from the county for operating expenses, angering the villagers who complain they cannot receive similar treatment for their deficiencies.
All this has not dimmed the determination of the Woodland Village activists. Earlier this month, they trooped to La Plata to press the county commissioners to do more for them.
The other week, they decided to do more for themselves. In a tiny Baptist church converted from one of the original government-built homes, they voted to nearly triple their monthly water rates to $12.50. The money, they hoped, would help upgrade the 40-year old system.
"Somehow," said Simmons, "we got to break this hold choking us. It's got to change. We got to be in the mainstream . . . ."