Overall, minorities made modest gains.
In 1990, the black population of 19,372 represented 3.8 percent of the population. In 1996, the census estimated that 25,338 blacks were 4.5 percent of the population.
The Hispanic population grew from just under 1 percent of the population to 1.2 percent.
Minorities made noticeable gains in every county except Morgan County, W.Va.
Local NAACP representatives said the increase is not surprising, considering the trend of people moving out of the cities and into rural areas where the cost of living is lower.
"Hagerstown is the town of choice. This is like the best of both worlds," said Sherry Ferguson, president of the Washington County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ferguson, 27, who grew up in Hagerstown, said she would still like to see more diversity in the community.
"When I go out, I still don't see a lot of people of my own culture," she said. "When there's a community that's more diverse, you're more aware of your actions and how they affect people of other ethnic backgrounds."
James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia NAACP, said the increase in minority population should be a wake-up call for area schools and governments to keep up with the diversity.
"I'm certain the day is over when you can handle minorities as if they don't exist," he said.
The school systems need to take a serious look at diversity, multiculturalism and even bilingual education, he said.
Government and private-sector employers will have to make sure the work force reflects the area's racial makeup, he said.
Schools in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle have adapted well to an increase in Hispanic migrant workers, said Angela Garcia, employment counselor at Telamon Corp. in Martinsburg, W.Va., an agency that aims to improve the lives of migrant workers.
The majority of migrant workers in the panhandle used to come from Haiti and Jamaica. Now, about 75 percent are Hispanic and an increasing number are living in the area year-round, she said.
Tolbert said he expects the area to continue to become more diverse.
"It just goes to show this area is attractive. There will be more minorities moving in," he said.
But a state planner cautioned that the census figures are only estimates.
The census bureau uses statewide race populations to estimate the population for counties, said Mark Goldstein with the Maryland Office of Planning.
Goldstein was particularly skeptical of the dramatic minority increases in Frederick County, Md.,
The definitive county-by-county race population won't be known until after the 2000 Census, he said.