Hagerstown man grew up with racism

July 26, 1997


Staff Writer

Lawrence Freeman says that more than five decades of living in Hagerstown has made him an angry, bitter man.

But Freeman, a 52-year-old black community leader, says it's also made him more aware of who he is, more accepting of other people and more persistent in sending a message of perseverance, peace and respect to the city's black youth.

He wants to see rising black businessmen, politicians, bankers, teachers and community leaders reverse the trend and pave the way to a more unified, just United States - one he said he has missed out on growing up in Hagerstown.

"Because of the color of my skin, I always had to fit in. I felt as though constantly, no matter what, I had to prove myself more than my white counterparts," he said.


A Hagerstown native, he was born in Washington County Hospital on Aug. 14, 1944, and was oblivious to racism during his early years in an all-black community. Integration of schools in 1957 brought the harsh reality of discrimination home to him, he said.

He recalled the "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs flagging downtown facilities and walking in South Hagerstown High School's halls amid stares, vulgar names and even white students' spit.

"I wasn't wanted," he said. "In some people's eyes, I was less than human."

During the turbulent '60s, he participated in two marches, was arrested during a rally, witnessed two riots and protested in a sit-in that ended when a white employee of a popular downtown drug store poured milk over his head.

Some of his worst memories, however, are of sprinting to safety across city "boundaries" that delineated how far north, south, east and west blacks could travel. If blacks crossed these limits, he said they were beaten, robbed and chased back home.

"If white America could use the brains God gave them and let go of this power trip and open up and say, `You guys are free to go where you want, do what you want, have all the things that we have,' half the things going on now wouldn't be going on," he said.

Though Freeman, a father of five, is no longer restricted by race-based laws, he said discrimination in the work force, social environment and education still prevents him and his progeny from being truly free - despite his ironic name.

He manages about six job discrimination complaints a month as a senior investigator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington County - a position he calls the people's only listening post.

Hagerstown's scarcity of both equal education and employment opportunities today causes young black kids to turn to crime-ridden streets to make a living, he said.

"Young people need an incentive. Now they only see the easy money in drugs. They have no hope. They see their parents and grandparents kicked back and not given a chance. It's the only way they know," said Freeman, who still condemned the act.

Like teaching a baby how to talk, changing Hagerstown's racial divides requires constant education and insightful leaders who can instill basic lessons like respect and understanding, he said.

He claims he is not the only disregarded black man. A host of Hagerstown-born blacks who accomplished great feats and stamped their names in the blueprint of black history are not even acknowledged by the city today, he said.

"We're recognized only once a year in February," he said. "It's like all us blacks only come out in February, and we disappear the other 11 months.

He said this lack of change and progress in Hagerstown's race relations has helped split the black community, crumble its value system and discourage black youth today.

As for the future, "I see no future. Based on the city's past and present, it doesn't look like it's going anywhere. Until the leadership and minds of Hagerstown changes, the future is still going to be the present," Freeman said.

"If you are a black young man, middle-aged man or elderly man, you will see racism," he said. "The sad part of it is that people turn their nose away from it, ignore it, say nothing is the problem. Or if something is the problem, they don't do anything about it.

"They deny it," he added, "but we as blacks know it."

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