COLONIAL HEIGHTS, VA., MARCH 28 -- When Army Capt. Robert McDonald was transferred to Fort Lee near here two years ago, he and his wife Linda, who are black, bought a house in Colonial Heights.
This suburban municipality, 20 minutes from the base, is known for its good schools, pleasant parks, quiet neigborhoods and low crime rate -- all important to the McDonalds, who have four children.
"The Realtor told me it was a predominantly white neighborhood," Linda McDonald said the other day, sitting in the living room of the family's $80,000, two-story, brick Colonial. But, she added with a laugh, "she didn't say how white it was."
The 1980 census found only 37 blacks among the city's 16,509 residents.
Because of its "whiteness," Colonial Heights -- sometimes called "Colonial Whites" by outsiders -- will be the target of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Saturday, the 19th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., SCLC's founder.
Between 500 and 1,000 participants are expected at the march, which was inspired by a highly publicized SCLC demonstration in an all-white Georgia county last January. Local officials say that the situation in compact, urbanized Colonial Heights is hardly similar to that in rural Forsyth County, north of Atlanta. The two are "apples and oranges," according to Colonial Heights' City Manager Robert E. Taylor.
But the Rev. Curtis W. Harris, president of the Virginia chapter of the SCLC, said he has been concerned with the "racist image" of Colonial Heights for some time, and that the idea for a march here crystallized as he participated in the Georgia protest.
"We concluded that it was ironic, and a question of our sincerity, to go way down to Georgia to march against fear and intimidation and not raise our voices against it in Colonial Heights," said Harris, who was recently elected to the City Council in nearby Hopewell.
But City Manager Taylor said there are no similarities between Forsyth County and the eight square miles of his city.
"We're a part of suburbia. Look around," Taylor said, nodding toward the main street, fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, shopping centers, banks and insurance and real estate offices. "Where's downtown? There is none."
Taylor said 85 percent of Colonial Heights' residents commute to jobs in or around nearby Petersburg and Fort Lee or to the Richmond area, 20 miles to the north.
"Every metropolitan area across the country has white suburbs," Taylor said. What sets Colonial Heights apart, he said, is that it is an independent city, for which statistics are readily available.
"Yes, Colonial Heights is a largely white community," said Mayor James McNeer, "but I don't see this as a racist community. This is no bastion of white supremacy. I know of no evidence of racial discrimination."
Harris conceded that Colonial Heights "is not an exact parallel" to Forsyth County in that "there is no record of blacks being chased out or lynched." But he said that "the bottom line is that just as much effort is being put forth in Colonial Heights to keep it only white as there is in Forsyth County."
"We don't want to do anything bad to Colonial Heights. We simply want it to be an open community," said Harris, a softspoken, 62-year-old janitor turned minister who has been active in SCLC since its inception.
Saturday's march is to form on the campus of Virginia State University, a 3,500-student school at the edge of town that is about as black (93 to 98 percent) as this city is white. It was at VSU that King first spoke out against the Vietnam War.
A countermarch is planned for the following Saturday by the Southern National Front, a white separatist organization headquartered in Fayetteville, N.C.
McNeer said the Southern National Front, whose views are "totally incompatible with mine," was denied a request to march on the same day as the SCLC, "but it would be difficult not to grant them a permit."
Harris said the SCLC march is "an economic protest" against a place "where we are permitted to spend money but not permitted to live."
One demand of the marchers is that a percentage of jobs at a regional mall under construction within the city limits be set aside for minorities.
McNeer said that the 100-store mall will generate more than 2,000 jobs and that "obviously those jobs aren't going to go only to Colonial Heights whites."
The mall is expected to spur construction of homes, some of which the mayor said he expects will be occupied by blacks.
Calvin Miller, a political science professor at VSU and state vice president of the SCLC, said it is not clear why some blacks "have foreclosed Colonial Heights as a place to live." But he said the virtual absence of blacks here "can only be maintained with the cooperation" of real estate brokers.
Colonial Heights realty agent Ted Swearingen said that blacks "may have heard that some, not the majority," of the city's residents do not want black neighbors and that as a result they avoid the city because "they don't want to be pioneers."
Swearingen noted that state laws do not permit brokers to discriminate. "We haven't refused to sell to those people," he said, although he "can't remember the last time" a black person asked.
"There is no doubt prejudice exists," said Swearingen, "and blacks sense some prejudice here. Historically, many whites moved to Colonial Heights as the number of blacks in Petersburg increased."
City Manager Taylor conceded that Colonial Heights, which was incorporated in 1948, experienced its greatest growth in the 1950s and 1960s, when school integration prompted some whites to flee across the Appomattox River from Petersburg.
"I'm not prejudiced; I want their money," said Gary Akin, a broker and appraiser who said that he is eager to sell to blacks but that "it's like beating your head against the wall" trying to persuade them that they are welcome here.
Akin noted that while some prejudice may exist, "White attitudes may be changing faster than minorities' willingness to believe that."
But not everyone shares that assessment.
Peggy Kuzminski, a real estate agent in Hopewell, said she was "threatened" by Colonial Heights residents "for showing black people some investment property there. They shouted obscenities, and my clients knew they were in the wrong place."
At Fort Lee, Tom Evans, a black civilian who heads the base's housing referral office, said brokers who list properties at the base must sign an antidiscrimination policy and that he cannot recall a complaint about discrimination since he began working there in 1973.
But SCLC's Harris said he hears complaints "almost daily" from Fort Lee, where blacks make up about half of the 18,000 soldiers, dependents and civilian employes.
Linda McDonald said that when her husband was transferred to the post, she found no reluctance on the part of the agent who showed her the house they bought.
Last year, the McDonalds' oldest child, Tony, became the first black to graduate from Colonial Heights High School. Their three other children constitute half of the black enrollment this year in the city's 2,800-pupil school system.
Deadra, 15, a high school sophomore, said that other than white classmates being a bit "curious" about them, she and her siblings -- Veronica, 14, and Robert, 8 -- have encountered no problems.
Their mother attributed to curiosity, and a desire to be friendly, the incident that prompted Robert, after his first week in school here, to ask: "When I get on the bus in the morning, why do all the kids yell, 'Hi, Robert, hi, Robert, hi, Robert?' "
"Because they like you, Robert," she replied.