The Rev. Samie L. Conyers is on the move. First, a quick hello to staff members at the office of the Frederick County Human Relations Commission, which he chairs.
Then, it's downstairs to the Board of Elections to drop off three new voter registration cards, spoils of his door-to-door campaign to sign up African American voters.
Dressed nattily in a dark blue suit and blue-and-gray tie, he's soon across town and out of his SUV, hustling across Center Street in downtown Frederick toward the home of a woman he intends to register.
"Hey!" Conyers yells, seeing four or five people crossing the street. "Y'all registered to vote?"
They mumble something about being registered, so Conyers raps at Estelle Peach's door. In all her 70 years, Peach, a retired school custodian, has never voted; her hands shake as she fills out the card with his help.
Then Conyers is driving across town to find more voters. The only thing moving faster is his tongue, which keeps up a steady patter about his thoughts on voting patterns in the African American community, the stubborn achievement gap between white and black schoolchildren, the family grief he has received for supporting President Bush and the scarcity of black leadership in Frederick County and beyond.
"The black community is starving for leadership across our nation," said Conyers, 48.
Conyers said he is on the street trying to set an example, and at a particularly trying time for Frederick County's African American community. Two weeks ago, Frederick police charged Denise A. West, the former president of the Frederick County NAACP, with embezzling more than $9,000 from the civil rights organization. The charges came as the NAACP continues an internal investigation into allegations of financial improprieties that prompted West's predecessor, Charlene Edmonds, to resign under a cloud in January 2002.
As much as the alleged theft has damaged the chapter's finances, its leaders worry more about the blow to its credibility.
"I want people to know that this is not going to distract us from the mission we are working on," the chapter's president, Guy Djoken, said Friday.
Djoken, a 36-year-old native of Cameroon, moved to the United States in 1997, assumed the NAACP chapter's presidency in January and received an MBA in May. He said one priority has been to apply his business skills to setting up procedures for closer oversight of the chapter.
"We will move forward. We have a lot to do in Frederick County," Djoken said.
In court documents, police detective Thomas Tokarz said that from September to January, West took control of bank accounts for the NAACP's general fund and its voter empowerment fund and wrote checks to herself without obtaining approval from the chapter's executive committee.
Despite efforts to find her or reach her by telephone, other NAACP officials simply stopped hearing from West in October, the charging documents say. At one point, after closing out the chapter's accounts at one bank and shifting the funds to an account in her and her husband's names, she spent more than $3,000 in six days, according to the charging papers.
West, 52, of Frederick, was charged Aug. 9 with 11 theft charges. She was released on an unsecured $10,000 bond. She could not be located to comment on the charges. A call to the telephone number listed as hers in court documents was answered by a man who declined to identify himself and said West does not live there.
Edmonds, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, declined to comment.
West's arrest has tarnished the Frederick chapter of the nation's oldest civil rights organization and prompted minorities in the county to reflect on the state of its leadership.
"It kind of leaves the NAACP in shambles right now," said Dino E. Flores Jr., a lawyer recently named to the Frederick County Republican Central Committee to build ties to the Latino community. He said the news will make people leery of joining or donating money.
But Lord Nickens, who served as the chapter's president from 1972 to 1992, cautioned against making too much out of the alleged misdeeds of one or two leaders. The organization is bigger than that, and the problems it faces more serious.
"By them taking our money, it isn't as big a deal as segregation or ignorance," said Nickens, 91, a retired biotechnician at Fort Detrick. As NAACP chapter president, he once faced down a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who delivered a tirade during an NAACP meeting. "We are all one people under one flag," he calmly told the Klansman.
"This isn't the first time that a local organization lost its funds -- but not its name, not its dignity or its reputation," Nickens said.
Race has always been a touchy subject in Frederick. High on its place of landmarks, for example, is the law office of Roger Brooke Taney, who as U.S. chief justice upheld fugitive slave laws and wrote the notorious Dred Scott decision, which held that Congress could not bar the spread of slavery in U.S. territories. For years, little was said about prominent blacks or black history, a state of affairs that the NAACP and others worked to address.
But many blacks do not need to pass by Taney's bust in front of City Hall to remember the days of segregation, when they were forbidden to attend white schools, stay in white hotels or sit anywhere but the balcony in the movie theater.
The Frederick County NAACP chapter was chartered in the 1930s by two African American doctors who had opened a hospital for blacks on West All Saints Street because they were prohibited from using Frederick City Hospital.
Joy Onley, one of the first blacks to integrate Frederick High School in 1958 and the author of a history of blacks in Frederick County, said generations of slavery and Jim Crow induced a sense of powerlessness in black culture that lingers and makes many look outside themselves for direction and hope.
"Black people are a peculiar people. They don't pick up the cross themselves. They look to someone else," Onley said in an interview. "They're always looking for a leader."
The community would be stronger, she said, "if each of us would take up our own [cross] and go ahead and lead."
Thomas Hill, who owns Frosty's Hair Hut at what was the center of the black community in the days of segregation, said there are few leaders because the current voting districts make it difficult for blacks to have a voice in county politics.
"We got a black alderman -- brother [William] Hall. He's a good man for the black community. But we need more," said Hill, 59. He also said too many black leaders forget the people they are supposed to serve once they arrive at the top. "The NAACP hasn't helped as far as I'm concerned within the black community for the past 25 years," Hill said. "The black folks in this town haven't been represented since Roger Brooke Taney."
Hall is the only black elected official in the city or county, and his name usually comes up when people talk about black leadership in Frederick County. Hall, who recently switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, dislikes dealing with the news media, and several calls to him were not returned.
Conyers, who is trying to increase voter registration and turnout among African Americans in Frederick, said the lack of strong leaders exacerbates long-standing problems in the black community. More black men go to prison than college, he said. Landlords turn away too many poor people -- many of whom are black -- because they do not want to deal with rent vouchers from the government. The high cost of living in Frederick is driving black residents to Hagerstown, Md., or Pennsylvania in search of affordable housing.
"There's nobody you can go to," said William L. Bowie, 65, who owns Bowie Transportation Inc., a taxi company. "There's no one here you can get help from politically."