The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Maryland suburb known for a slaveholding past confronts its racist present

Jordan Keemer, 18, of Pasadena, Md., stands in front of Chesapeake High School with his parents, Nichole Keemer, 38, and Terry Keemer Jr., 40. All of them experienced racism as students at the school. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Two years before George Floyd’s killing forced a reckoning with American racism, Jordan Keemer was in his high school government class in Pasadena, Md., acting as the judge in an exercise that resembled a mock trial.

The teen doesn’t remember the topic, or his verdict.

But stained in his mind are the stinging words he says his teacher uttered quietly as he sat, a 16-year-old Black student surrounded by mostly White classmates: “I don’t trust you n----- people.”

The incident became a watershed moment in Anne Arundel County, a glaring example of the intractable history of hate in a sprawling suburb of strip malls and subdivisions. Keemer’s teacher retired after the teenager and his parents came forward. At community meetings, residents shared other experiences of racism — some recent, some decades ago.

When County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) was elected months later, part of a 2018 blue wave fueled by opposition to President Trump, he homed in on data showing that Pasadena reported the highest number of hate or bias incidents in Anne Arundel County, which itself has recorded the most incidents in the state.

That made Pasadena, population 24,287, unofficially the most hate-filled town in all of Maryland.

Pittman launched studies about the impact of racism on Black and Brown communities in his county, located midway between Baltimore and D.C., and championed a new law broadening the state’s hate-crime statute. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody accelerated his efforts, as did research showing the disparate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on minorities in Anne Arundel and elsewhere.

Now Pittman — whose ancestors were enslavers in Anne Arundel, and who grew up on a farm where sharecroppers worked the land — is pushing for police body cameras and planning an office dedicated to racial justice and health equity. This summer, he attended Black Lives Matter protests, including one at Tick Neck Park in Pasadena organized by Shelyia Brown, 20, who encouraged her peers to talk about their experiences with racism growing up.

Terry Keemer Jr., Jordan’s father, was there along with his wife, Nichole, and a White friend who attended Chesapeake High School with him decades earlier.

Nicholaus R. Kipke, a Republican lawmaker from Anne Arundel who is minority leader in the House of Delegates, also attended. He, too, graduated from Chesapeake. But his reality was far different.

And there was Pamela Jackson with her 26-year-old son, Marcus Dentley. Their family were the first Black people to move to their Pasadena neighborhood 15 years ago.

“I have two sons, and I always have a concern when they leave the house,” Jackson said, explaining why she stayed at the protest despite a drenching summer rainstorm. “It’s important that Blacks are heard, and it’s even more important for us to be heard in certain neighborhoods.”

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'Part of the culture'

For decades, local historians say, Pasadena was known as a “sundown town,” a place where Black residents risked harassment or worse if they were in certain locations after nightfall. “If you lived in the county, you knew where you weren’t supposed to go,” said Janice Hayes Williams, a community activist and historian who grew up in nearby Annapolis.

Five of the 42 Black people known to have been lynched in Maryland were killed in Anne Arundel County, according to the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. The last known lynching in the county was in 1906.

But it is the recent rash of incidents — 78 reported in Anne Arundel in 2018, according to state police data, 22 in Pasadena’s Zip code — that worries many longtime residents.

Last year, according to Pittman, an effigy was hung from a tree on property owned by a Black former council member; a swastika was scrawled on a car in Annapolis; and the likeness of a lynching was spray-painted on a tennis court near where the county is expanding public access to a beach resort once restricted to Whites.

Earlier this year, a middle school student suspended a noose from a classroom ceiling.

Carl Snowden, a former Annapolis alderman who led the charge to ban discrimination in private clubs in 1990, said racism is “part of the culture” in Anne Arundel, a county known for the historical state capital of Annapolis, crabfests and the Naval Academy.

But Annapolis was also a major hub of the slave trade, used by Alex Haley in his famed “Roots” novel and television miniseries as the place where the character Kunta Kinte landed on a slave ship. And Anne Arundel is where segregationist George Wallace captured wins during his runs for president; where Black beaches survived late into the 20th century because Black people were barred from other county beaches on the Chesapeake Bay; and where a statue of Roger Brooke Taney, author of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and said Black people could not be U.S. citizens, stood from 1887 until its removal three years ago.

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Some Black parents in Pasadena still talk to their children about which neighborhoods to avoid, similar to the conversations many have with their children about police and traffic stops. Dentley said his father didn’t go into details during the discussion. He just said certain places were “dangerous.”

One of his classmates, he recalled, would deliberately skirt one of those areas on his way to school. “It wasn’t about the distance, but it was the inconvenience of having to do something like that,” Dentley said in an interview after the rally.

Pittman, a former community organizer, describes Anne Arundel as a microcosm of the nation as a whole. “We are urban, rural, suburban and what some might call a Rust Belt in northern county, where we have the White working class that have lost income in this economy,” he said. “We are America . . . a country built on a system of racial terror. . . . We say ‘liberty and justice for all,’ [but] we know we’re not there.”

Some of the county’s recent gestures were mostly symbolic, like tweaking its motto from “The Best Place” to “The Best Place for All.” But the government also declared racism a public health issue and formed an Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice. Not everyone has been on board.

“They say I’m being divisive, that talking about race and racism is divisive,” said Pittman, who has been attacked on social media for his stance.

He remains hopeful that the number of hate incidents reported in the county eventually will fall. But he says he is not surprised that preliminary data shows things getting worse.

“I expect to see more hate and more anger,” he said, citing the pandemic, the economic downturn and the political climate. “We have a president who is on television constantly trying to divide people on issues of race.”

Painful memories

Brown, who grew up in Pasadena, said she was shocked by the angry reaction on social media from some White residents when she organized the town’s first Black Lives Matter rally in June. One post threatened to burn down Tick Neck Park “before the protesters had a chance to set it on fire.” Another claimed to be developing a plan to show up with guns. Several others called her the n-word.

But Brown was undeterred. And so were the nearly 100 Black, White, young and old individuals who stood on the open field for the second protest July 11, hoisting Black Lives Matter signs and wearing #OnePasadena buttons on their shirts.

The rally, dubbed #HearThe­Youth, was an opportunity for minority teenagers to share their experiences growing up in Pasadena, which is 81 percent White.

One biracial teen recalled being accused of both not “being Black enough” and not “being White enough.”

Another teen spoke about being ridiculed for her skin color.

In an interview before the protest, Brown recalled a White student at Northeast High School who threatened to hang a Black girl when she touched his pen.

“It’s got to stop,” Brown said. “My hope is that not only Black people but Hispanic kids, Asian kids, anyone who is different in color is treated with respect, not treated like their parents don’t pay taxes to live where they are.”

The rally was the second Terry Keemer Jr. had attended since Floyd’s killing. Next to him stood Craig Zuwallack, his childhood friend, wearing a T-shirt that read: “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter.”

Keemer, 40, said he was there for his son but also for himself. He was once told by a teacher at Chesapeake that he didn’t need to take an algebra class, because he would probably only become a janitor.

Zuwallack says he was called a “n----- lover” and a “wigger” (a White n-word) because he had Black friends growing up. He recalls being in seventh or eighth grade, walking with some of those friends, when someone in a pickup truck threw a bottle out of their window and yelled, “Get the f--- off the street you n-----s.”

Racist views are generational, similar to family traditions, Zuwallack said in an interview. His grandfather believed that Black and White people shouldn’t mix, and would often tell Zuwallack that he “would never be as good at basketball because Black people have an extra muscle in their leg.”

Zuwallack paused as he recounted the story. “And this comes from a very intelligent man.”

His parents, he added, broke away from all that.

Keemer said he remembered when Jordan, who is biracial, called him and his wife from the school bus to tell them about his teacher using a racial slur. It wasn’t the first time someone had called Jordan the n-word. When he was 14, Jordan said, a driver yelled the word while he and his friends walked down the street.

Terry Keemer said that’s part of the reason his eyes welled at the first rally he attended. He looked out and saw a sea of people, mostly White, who had come to say, “Black lives matter.” It gave Keemer hope for the future.

“The youth are leading the way, and I don’t want them to stand alone,” he said, wearing a T-shirt with the words “My Skin Color Is Not a Crime.”

An unnoticed reality

Kipke, the GOP leader in the House of Delegates, remembers the comment made by Jordan Keemer’s teacher, too. After the family reported it, Kipke sat at community meetings listening to Black residents talk about being called racial slurs and bullied. The veteran lawmaker, who is White, didn’t understand how such a thing could have happened at the high school he attended about 20 years earlier.

“There isn’t racism,” he kept saying to himself. At least not that he was aware of. “A lot of people like me are like: ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t see it when I was in school.’ ”

Seeking to understand, Kipke said, he called a Black former classmate and asked if he felt like he was treated differently in school because of his race.

Of course, the person said. Teachers ignored him. One student called him the n-word whenever he walked by him. Kipke called another Black former classmate. He heard similar stories.

Kipke was stunned.

“It made me sad,” he said. “You hear the stories, and it’s sad.”

Kipke said he doesn’t think Pasadena is much different from other towns across Maryland. Rather, he suspects that the spotlight on Keemer’s situation raised awareness and led to increased reporting. The majority of hate incidents reported in the town in 2018 involved incidents at Chesapeake High.

Still, regardless of the number, Kipke said the mistreatment of Black people because of their skin color is “wrong, immoral.”

He vowed to continue engaging with Black residents on solutions and said he is closely watching the work being done by a group of lawmakers who will recommend policing policy changes in Maryland. He is especially interested in no-knock warrants since the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville this spring.

Kipke said his concern about racism and potential bias in policing does not negate his support for officers. “Police officers being painted as corrupt, I reject that,” he said. “And painting America as a horrible place, I reject that.”

When a community activist at the July rally asked him if he’d wear a Black Lives Matter pin, Kipke declined, opting for a #OnePasadena button instead.

“Uppercase Black Lives Matter, that organization is political in nature, that is an organization aimed at social justice, a political philosophy that I don’t agree with,” Kipke said. “Lowercase Black lives matter, I’m supportive of every person in my community . . . and I’m going to stand up for them.”

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