The oil lamp in Mary Joyner's shack throws broad comic shadows on the faded walls. Joyner and her young son Myron play cards in the dim brown light, entertaining themselves with mild insults. A neighbor, Robert Showell, sits hunched forward, elbows on knees, smoking a cigarette.
This is the way the evenings pass now for the Joyners and the few remaining families in Hammond's Camp, a Worcester County, Md., settlement spotlighted by black community leaders and in a Washington Post story in July as an illustration of the county's extensive problems with substandard housing among blacks. As a result of recent county action following the publicity, the 12 residents still left in the dozen shoe-box houses are, in effect, squatters. They have received eviction notices. Their houses, which already lacked running water and indoor toilets, are now also without electricity.
The residents say they have no place to go and that no one has offered to help them relocate. Worcester County Administrator John Yankus and County Commissioner James Barrett initially said last week that everyone had moved out of Hammond's Camp, and they expressed surprise when a reporter told them that people were still living there. Moreover, Yankus and Barrett differ on what the county has done to assist the families.
Hammond's Camp, which had existed without change for four decades, was declared a public health nuisance in late July by the commissioners after the board ordered an inspection of the site by the county health department. The inspection, resulting in a long list of health code violations, was conducted in response to media reports and numerous complaints about conditions there, Barrett said.
Because the county has no code for housing standards and was unable to condemn the property, officials gave owner Clarence Hammond 90 days to upgrade the camp or close it. After giving the residents a month's notice, Hammond in mid-September shut off the electricity, which was included in the $25-a-week rent. Joyner said Hammond told residents he planned to bulldoze the buildings and "plant palm trees."
Worcester County, home to the seaside resort of Ocean City, is one of the nine Eastern Shore counties that civil rights lawyers have targeted for an intensive campaign against racial inequality in jobs, representation and housing.
For blacks in this largely rural county, housing is a major problem. A recent study, commissioned by a federal advisory group called the Worcester County-Ocean City Housing Resources Board, showed that a quarter of black households in the unincorporated areas do not have indoor plumbing, compared to about 1 percent of the white households.
Furthermore, the study estimated that as many as 5,443 persons, most of them poor and black, could be displaced as the result of a minimum code. Where they would move is unclear, because the county has limited rental property and county officials have traditionally refused to apply for federal funds to build low-income public housing. In response to the study, the county formed its own task force to assess housing conditions; that review is continuing.
"We've got some plans I can't go into right now," said commissioner Barrett, owner of a car dealership in the nearby town of Berlin. "We're going to approach it a little different, not go to the state or federal government for money. We're going to be a model for the rest of the country in a couple of years. We don't really have a huge problem, but of course, all around the nation, it's the same, this kind of problem. You could go into Baltimore and Washington and find the same conditions, maybe a block or two from the White House."
As for Hammond's Camp, "We're not trying to put these people out in the cold," Barrett told a reporter last week. "The conditions they were living under are the worst I've ever seen." Asked why the county did not intervene in Hammond's Camp earlier, he said: "Well, I've only been a commissioner for three years, and these things take a long time. We have the NAACP putting pressure on us, and then you write some stories that embarrass us . . . . You've also got the problem of people living free in a dilapidated place."
While Barrett said that county officials, including social workers, had assisted in helping the residents find new homes, Yankus said the relocation is not a county problem and that there is no county agency to help the residents.
"They were not forced out by the county," Yankus said last week. "They were evicted by a private owner. You can't expect the government to do everything."
Clarence Hammond, owner of a white-frame general store in sight of the camp at Rtes. 610 and 113, refused to comment on what will happen to the remaining residents there.
"I don't know," he said, "I don't know a thing." A sign on the property says, "For sale. Store and land. Retiring."
Joyner and others at Hammond's Camp said they have not talked to Hammond since August when he told them they would have to leave. They have not paid rent since September.
"All Clarence said was, 'I wish there was more I could do,' " said Showell, 64, a retired construction worker with a lung ailment.
Most of the residents remaining there are retired or work in the poultry or oyster industries. Mary Joyner, 31, brings home about $110 a week from her job "pulling chicken guts" at a nearby poultry processing plant, she said. Her 10-year-old son, Myron, a tall, lean-limbed boy who is proud of his good report cards and blue ribbons in track, is the only child remaining in the camp.
About 15 people have moved, taking up residence either with relatives or in one of the other old houses, also lacking indoor plumbing, that are sprinkled throughout the countryside. Joyner, Showell and the other squatters at Hammond's Camp said they have been looking for new homes but have not been able to find anything.
"I looked at a place in Berlin," said Showell, "but the lady decided she wouldn't be able to fix it up for somebody to live in. She said it cost too much to fix up the roof and put a bathroom in it. We got word about another place and we jumped in the car and ran right up there and the lady said, 'Sorry, I already rented it.' "
The lack of electricity brings further complications to the residents' lives. Already, they have had to use plastic jugs to carry drinking water from a nearby store; the red-tinged water from the camp's outdoor spigot is too "rusty" for anything but cleaning and bathing. Now, continuing to cook with gas, they must also buy food that does not require refrigeration. Heat is provided by old wood-burning stoves.
Peter Gray, a 57-year-old oyster shucker whose nickname is "Peter Rabbit," said the nights are long without his small black-and-white television set.
"I light my lamp, sit here a little bit, and then usually hit the bed," said Gray, who lives alone. "I go to bed with the chickens and I get up with the chickens."
Showell's brother John and his wife May, who also remain at the camp, watch a battery-operated television.
When Myron Joyner has homework, "he does it before dark," said Robert Showell, who tends the boy until his mother returns from work. "It was kind of cloudy today, so I told him to go out and sit in the car and do it, so he'd have more light. He was straining his eyes."
In some ways, the remaining residents say, the rough conditions are not so bad when weighed against the expense and the possible hardships involved in moving. Mary Joyner, for example, hopes her son will not have to change schools.
Wilson Griswell, 60, who cleans chicken houses and has lived alone in Hammond's Camp for 10 years, fears he will lose his ride to work if he moves.
"This is all right, this is all right," said Griswell. "I got to be where the man can come and pick me up. I got to work."