Times have changed all around 83-year-old Charlie Amoss, whose ramshackle tavern is open for business from dawn to dark, every day except Tuesdays. New houses dot the rolling countryside, nearby Rte. I-70 cuts a wide swath across the land, and the new town of Columbia 11 miles southeast, with its liberal ideas and growing, interracial population, has come to dominate his native Howard County.
But Charlie Amoss' world remains in many respects rooted in the past. It is a past, most strikingly, when much of Maryland was not only rural but southern in its ways; a place where the races played carefully circumscribed roles. At Charlie's tiny tavern, whites entered through the front door and blacks through the side, and were separated from each other by a thin wooden partition.
The divider remains and, by custom, according to the proprietor, so does the racial separation, an anachronism he and his patrons seem to accept as the normal way of doing business in West Friendship's only tavern.
Since the laws have changed, he says, he does not discriminate. "They pay the same damn price," said Amoss, who is also known as "Mr. Charlie." Whites, he asserted, sometimes go to the other side, "if it gets crowded." But "very seldom" does it work the other way. Pointing to the partition, he noted, "All the old colored comes in that side. You never have one in here. It's by habit, by habit, that's all. In a year, I don't have many colored strangers. They're all born and raised here."
The other year, the Howard County NAACP sent a team to test the racial barrier. The blacks and whites were served together in the "white" section, and the county Human Rights Commission elected to drop the matter. "There have never been any complaints filed," said Jean Toomer, executive secretary to the commission and administrator of the county's office of human rights. "It is a very minor anachronism, in my opinion. I'm more concerned with complaints that affect more people, like jobs, housing and schools."
On a recent day, a couple of blacks entered Charlie's place, both from the side door and one with a white coworker. "I don't fool around here much," said one black man, a longtime customer who dashed in and out to buy a six-pack and cigarettes. He said he was in a hurry to get to work.
The rest of the patrons, numbering two dozen or so, all of them white and many of them elderly, ambled in the front door. The wall that divided the tavern customers was erected in 1930, the same year Amoss married his wife, Edna, who died in 1976. The partition's original purpose was to separate what was then a grocery store from a sandwich counter, both run by the Amoss clan that has lived here for as long as anyone can remember.
Charlie Amoss is the last of the breed. He was born and reared here in western Howard County, where his people were dairy farmers and his father operated the toll gate on what once was the privately owned Baltimore-to-Frederick road. As a youngster, he drove the horse-drawn dairy wagon to meet the 7 a.m. milk train in Sykesville. He remembers the days before electricity and a time when, if you had indoor plumbing, "Ye God, you were somebody."
Now, he has 20 acres, two geese, two roosters, a couple of cats and a dog named Rebel. In summer, he lives in an old house down the road. From October into spring, he lives in the tavern, which is heated by a wood stove and lacks a flush toilet.
Although he reads two daily newspapers and hasn't "missed a vote" since his first in 1920, Charlie Amoss lives an insular life. He has never been to Columbia, which he says has "ruined the county."
Local blacks, he notes, "flock to Columbia now." They also patronize a black-owned bar in nearby Cooksville. "That way they don't bother me too much," he says, adding, "Minors don't bother me much. They know I don't put up with 'em."
His seven-year-old car has logged only 11,000 miles. He has repeatedly refused to visit a sister in Florida, and he hasn't been to Baltimore in 10 years. That trip was to buy a suit, his latest. He last ventured into the District of Columbia in 1941 or 1942, to settle an estate, leaving his car at a filling station on Georgia Avenue near Silver Spring and taking a taxi to and from Anacostia.
The last picture show for Charlie Amoss was, to the best of his recollection, in Baltimore about 50 years ago, around the same time he went into the bar business after Prohibition ended.
It was April 7, 1933, the day beer came back, when Amoss started serving brew, at 10 cents a bottle, compared to 75 cents these days, in his roadside tavern. "We didn't get whiskey back till December in '33," he recalled. Come next spring, when his current license expires, it will be half a century. "I think I'm gonna quit then," he says. "Just shut it down. Ain't gonna try to sell it. Fifty years, that's long enough for anybody to be in business."
The "black" side of the bar has a table, a bench and the refrigerator where the beer is stored. The "white" side has five chairs that Amoss acquired at an auction, a step-stool he occupies when customers come around, and several gritty tinfoil ash trays that once held TV dinners. Two ancient ceiling fans cool the place. Two single light bulbs illuminate opposite sides of the partition. The tavern slopes slightly, and new yellow siding out front hardly hides its age.
Although racial attitudes are deeply ingrained at Charlie's place, and the wall divider stuns a visitor unused to such traditions, the tavern is much more than a relic of Jim Crow days. For many of the oldtimers, it is an institution. "All the older fellas come in, shoot the ----, pass the time away and you ain't got a damn juke box deafening you," is how a regular, Gene Boone, 68, puts it.
Earl and Gladys Gray were on the way home from paying taxes in Ellicott City when they stopped by for a beer. "This is about the onliest place," said Gray, a retired construction worker subsisting on Social Security. "I can't afford no other place. Damn if it ain't rough times . . . "
Later on, the working men started to gather in the small room--as many as eight at once. "Goddamn if this county ain't going to hell for work," said Mike Bledsoe, 32, who hauls wood. "Yep," agreed Nimrod Walker, a man in his 50s who digs house foundations, "you have to go down the road."
Walker and Marie, his wife, look after Amoss. Marie Walker says Amoss is like a father to her. On his way to work every morning, Nimrod Walker brings Amoss coffee. "If I don't, he gets mad at me for two days," Walker said. "We're all family here," explained his wife. "This is the only bar I go to, this and the VFW and American Legion."
Amoss, Marie Walker said, has received a letter of commendation from county police, whom he has never had to call for help. "He gets 100 percent from the health department, too," she said, although an accumulation of dirt is as much a part of the decor as the owner is. "I don't understand, but really he does. Nobody bothers him. The cops come in and love him just like we do."