Shortly before noon on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Pauline Rogers, 47, left home to run an errand. When she returned to her red brick town house in the modest Howard Hills development in Howard County an hour later, she found her front door splattered with eggs.
Her son Michael, 10, who had been inside the house, told her the eggs had been thrown by two girls, 8 and 9 years old, who lived a few doors away.
Rogers, who moved into the town house in January, said the egg throwing was just the latest incident in the harassment that she and her son, who are black, have had to endure in their predominantly white neighborhood. And, with the support of her minister, the Rev. John Wright, who is the Howard County president of the NAACP, she decided literally to make a federal case out of what has happened.
The allegations of this Mississippi-born mother of two have shaken this picturesque mill town, triggered a Justice Department investigation into possible discrimination and raised troubling questions about the point at which problems with neighbors stop and racial bias begins.
Howard Hills, which consists of 134 town houses, opened two years ago. It is one of the newest developments in Savage, where the main street is lined with frame houses dating from the days when the town's textile mill was transforming cotton into cloth and shipping it by rail over an iron truss bridge.
Today, Savage has about 1,000 households, nearly all of them white, according to community leaders of this unincorporated town. Many residents are commuters who work in Washington and Baltimore. Others are trying to bring new industry to the area by renovating the old mill and converting it into space for craft and antique shops and restaurants.
The town also is making an effort to overcome the publicity that erupted two years ago, when there was an outbreak of more than a dozen racial incidents, including the spray-painting of a "KKK" on the front door of one home and the attempted burning of a wooden cross.
A Network of Neighbors program, sponsored by the Howard County Human Rights Commission, has been formed to provide support to anyone who believes he or she is the target of racial discrimination. Network volunteers visit the victim and offer assurances that the incident doesn't speak for the rest of the community.
Activities such as this may explain why the number of complaints of hate-violence incidents in Howard County fell from 23 in 1983 to 12 in 1984. But the number for the first 11 months of 1985 shot up to 26, slightly more than the 1983 level.
Of this year's 26 complaints, seven involved allegations of anti- Semitic incidents and 19 involved racial problems. Six of the 19 racial reports occurred in Savage; three of the six were filed by Rogers.
On Aug. 22, Rogers reported to police and human rights officials that several neighborhood children had subjected her son to racial slurs. On Sept. 29, she said, she had been called names and harassed by neighbors because of her race, and on Oct. 6 she reported that an unknown person had unlocked her front door at 3:45 a.m. in an effort to frighten her, but had not entered the house.
Howard County police said they have investigated Rogers' reports and concluded that they represent more of a juvenile problem than a racial problem.
"We're having a great deal of difficulty calling it racial," said Lt. Paul N. Hejek, "because if you examine the complaints, many of them focus on her son."
A Justice Department official met last week with Rev. Wright at Wright's church, the First Baptist Church of Guilford, to discuss Rogers' complaints. The official, Henry Mitchum, could not be reached for comment.
Rogers' charges, which led to accounts in the local press of alleged racial discrimination in Savage, "have stirred the consciousness of the community and brought agency leaders together to work on this," according to Rudolph C. Chapple, chairman of the Howard County Human Rights Commission, which seeks to mediate hate-violence complaints.
Among those who have met to discuss the Rogers' problems, Chapple said, are the Savage Community Association, police, officials from the NAACP and the human rights commission, and representatives of Howard County Executive J. Hugh Nichols.
The result, Chapple said, is that "individuals in Savage have indicated they are willing to do what they can . . . willing to work and try to resolve the problem."
And Chapple believes the problem is that Rogers and her son are, in fact, the victims of racial discrimination.
"There is enough here to suggest that it is a racial incident, and that includes the egg throwing," Chapple said. "We have a racial incident . . .when there is altercation between two members of the opposite race and one is using racial slurs, such as 'You don't belong, nigger,' and 'Go back to Mississippi.' "
While trying to be supportive of Rogers during her difficulties, Savage's community leaders worry that their town wrongly will be branded as racially biased.
"We don't want racism," said Shane Pendergrass, president of the Savage Community Association, an organization of about 75 dues-paying residents, "but we don't want a whole town labeled as racist when it isn't."
Pendergrass, who has visited with Rogers as part of the Network of Neighbors program, said that she is not certain what has been responsible for Rogers' problems.
"I'm not sure if it is racial harassment or if it isn't," Pendergrass said. "There is a problem, but I can't say that it is racial."
Rogers moved to Savage to live with her 27-year-old daughter after retiring on disability from the U.S. Postal Service in Queens, N.Y.
The daughter never experienced any racial discrimination in Savage, Rogers said, "because she was away at work during the day; she only slept here." The daughter later moved to Washington.
"I was really excited at first, because the place was so nice," Rogers said. But after a few weeks, the harassment began, she said. One family was particularly aggressive, she said. Others in the neighborhood, particularly the children, then joined in the harassment, she added.
Rogers said the family that made the most trouble for her moved away the week before the egg-throwing incident, but that the cumulative effect of what has happened to her has made her afraid to remain in Howard Hills. In addition to the other problems, Rogers has been under financial pressure.
The week before the egg throwing, a court ordered her evicted from her town house. Court records show that her rent payments have been late seven of the last 10 months. But with help from her church, Rogers was able to pay the $600 rent due for November and continue to live in the house.
Yet Rogers still plans to move, because she doesn't want to stay in Howard Hills.
"I have been called 'nigger,' " she said. "My son has been abused. Tissues with feces have been put all over my front door. There has been spit all over my door. Charcoal has been dumped on my patio. Garbage has been spread on my steps."
Howard County police Chief Paul H. Rappaport said that Rogers' case is one in which "people are having trouble getting along with people, irregardless of racial makeup."
According to Rogers' neighbors, there was no racial discrimination behind the egg throwing or the problems that her son encountered with other children in the neighborhood.
"There is no racial discrimination here," said Beverly (Mikki) Bennett, who lives in the Howard Hills development and is a relative of one of the girls who threw the eggs. "The discrimination is in Mrs. Rogers' mind."
Bennett said other black families live in Howard Hills and have not had the problems that Rogers has reported. Police also said that they are unaware of racial problems with other black families living in Howard Hills. Bennett said that Michael Rogers' difficulties with other children were no different from any other child's, white or black.
"It's just kids fighting," she said, adding that, basically, this is what led to the egg-throwing incident.
Howard County police said they thought the case was closed that Friday evening when the girls' mothers went to Rogers' home, apologized and sent the girls to clean the mess they had made.
"Mrs. Rogers accepted their apology and we assumed that was the end of the matter," said Hejek. But four days later, Rogers appeared at police headquarters with Wright and said she wanted to press charges against the two children.
Wright said he recommended that she file charges because he believed the egg throwing was racially motivated and shouldn't be allowed to go unnoticed.
Savage's racial problem, Wright said, is not as severe as it was 20 years ago or even two years ago. But it is still a problem, he said, and the only way to eliminate it is to expose it to the public.
"Once you bring [racial problems] out, people say, 'Oh, my God,' " he said, "and then try to do something about them."