It was supposed to celebrate the spirit of a Sunday afternoon polo match, but to some nearby residents, a small scene in the sweeping mural gracing one wall of Rockville's new Metro Center was an ugly reminder of Montgomery County's segregated past.

The scene, in a corner of the wall-sized painting on the center's east side, depicted a smiling black child brushing a white woman's flowing blond hair.

"It was almost like finding a picture of Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben on a rice box," said local NAACP President Roscoe Nix. "It was a stereotype of the servant-master role."

The mural was commissioned by the center's developers, Eisinger Kilbane and Associates, to brighten the complex's gray concrete exterior and add a touch of panache to a $35 million redevelopment of what was once the decidedly dreary Rockville Mall.

The 100-by-15-foot mural, entitled "Sunday Afternoon," portrays two polo teams hotly engaged in a chukker while more than a score of other figures sip drinks, look on or groom and saddle horses.

A grandstand scene includes the visages of a number of well-known Rockville officials, among them former mayor Viola Hovsepian and City Council member Stephen Abrams.

In September, residents of Lincoln Park, a predominantly black community across Rockville Pike from the center, branded the scene a "racially demeaning" portrayal of blacks.

The uproar caught the developers by surprise, and Rockville City officials hastily convened a special meeting to soothe the community's feelings.

Finally, artist Terry Rodgers, who designed the mural, found a way to sweeten the scene. He painted out the controversial hairbrush last month and repainted the little girl holding a double-dip ice cream cone.

The two figures, in the foreground of the painting's right-hand corner, now appear to be unrelated. The woman wistfully watches the match in a reclining position while the child appears behind her, gleefully preoccupied with her treat.

"We are sorry there was somebody in the community that was taking offense to it," said Renny Eisinger, a general partner in the development company. "I could understand their point of view."

Said Nix, "I don't think it was done on purpose. It just showed a lack of sensitivity. We get so caught up in dominant cultural values we don't give much thought to these things."

Eisinger said yesterday that the woman in the painting was modeled after Rodgers' girlfriend and the small child was modeled after one of the artist's next door neighbors. "They're friends, and apparently they do have interplay like that in real life," he said. "I think everybody was very satisfied with the outcome."