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Md. city with edgy racial past elects black mayor

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by Kristen Wyatt, Associated Press

This Chesapeake Bay city of idled crab processing plants and costly vacation homes has had a not-too-distant history of racial strife. But when Cambridge elected its first black mayor this week, residents said their worries about joblessness and the economy were foremost on their minds — not the race or gender of the winning candidate.

Decades after the demise of segregation, this sleepy city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has elected not only its first black mayor but also its first woman to the post. For Cambridge, the choice of Victoria Jackson-Stanley signaled just how much times have changed.

“I didn’t set out to make history, but here it is,” said the 54-year-old social worker, who ousted an eight-year incumbent in a nonpartisan election.

Cambridge has only 11,000 residents. But in the history books it looms large as the birthplace of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery in the 1840s on a rural plantation outside town. After fleeing the area, Tubman devoted her life to helping others escape northward.

More than a century later, Cambridge again gained national attention when a race riot left much of the black section of the city in ashes. The year was 1967.

Locals marvel over what time has brought.

“What’s that commercial? ‘You’ve come a long way, baby?’ Oh, that’s us. That’s Cambridge,” said Carolyn E. Jones, 61, a retired schoolteacher who attended all-black schools as a child. “Back then there was a lot of racial strife. And look at us today.”

Jackson-Stanley also recalls growing up in a far different Cambridge, where blacks lived in a section called Ward Two and attended segregated schools. Jackson-Stanley was among the first black students to attend the county’s previously all-white high school.

“It’s a very beautiful, diverse, multicultural place now,” she said of her hometown, where blacks make up just over half the population. “It wasn’t always like this.”

Walking outside City Hall on Thursday, Jackson-Stanley was stopped every few minutes by a passing driver or a city employee. Blacks and whites alike offered their congratulations.

“Attitudes here have changed,” said William Nichols, a machinist who became the first black Dorchester County Commission president a few years back.

Nichols, 49, grew up in Ward Two and remembers watching flames from his bedroom window in 1967, when a speech by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman H. Rap Brown ended with a segregated elementary school set on fire. The blaze spread, destroying black-owned businesses as an all-white fire department refused to douse the flames.

Cambridge was among the cities studied by the federal Kerner Commission, which is 1968 looked at racial conditions in the United States, concluding that the nation is moving toward “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

“It was scary,” Nichols says of 1960s Cambridge. But today, he said, he’s proud of his hometown.

“Things are moving forward — slowly, but at least they’re moving forward,” Nichols said.

As evidence of progress, locals said, race played little role in the campaign between Jackson-Stanley and the incumbent, Cleveland Rippons, a white man.

“It wasn’t about race,” Rippons said.

More pressing to voters, he said, were disagreements over growth and jobs as traditional employment in harvesting and picking crabs dries up amid a declining crab population and competition overseas.

“I didn’t make anything of race, and I never heard that she did, either,” said Rippons, who lost by about 150 votes.

But he says the half-white, half-black town is still sensitive to its racially charged past.

Residents agreed that economic growth and other concerns were more pressing than the gender or race as the newcomer won elected office.

Cambridge is becoming a gentrified resort town a couple hours east of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. For locals, times are tough as costly vacation homes and yachts supplant the crab processing houses that once employed most area residents. Dorchester County has an unemployment rate of about 6 percent, compared to about 3.5 percent for the state average.

Fresh from her winning door-to-door campaign, Jackson-Stanley signaled she can’t wait to take office next month.

“We have lost so many jobs,” she said, eager to tackle today’s issues.

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Written by Symphony

July 14, 2008 at 7:49 pm

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