In the name of advancement

February 25, 2002|By ANDREW SCHOTZ


That's how George Rutherford describes the Jefferson County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Rutherford is president of the chapter.

The chapter reacted with indignation:

- When two white men pointed a gun at a black man near Charles Town, W.Va.

- When a white employee at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center outside Martinsburg, W.Va., described harassment and racial epithets he faced because of his relationships with black co-workers.

- When local black residents have alleged discrimination in schools, government or businesses.

The chapter lobbies legislators, hosts speeches, files lawsuits and holds protests and rallies.

Rutherford said racism in Jefferson County has waned since he became chapter president in 1973, but it won't go away.

The Berkeley County NAACP chapter also has been consistently active for years. Chapter President Taylor Perry said the group investigates allegations of discrimination and raises money and food for the needy.


Washington County's NAACP chapter is re-emerging after some idle years.

James Irvin, associate pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Hagerstown, took over as president last October.

"We're just getting back off the ground," he said.

Irvin suggested that such inactivity is not unique to Washington County.

"It's always difficult to get things up and running, especially with the apathy of Americans today," he said. "For some reason, civil rights have kind of faded into the background since the gains of the 1960s."

Black population small

The 2000 U.S. Census shows that black people make up about 8 percent of the population in Washington County and about 6 percent in Frederick County, which also has an active NAACP chapter.

In the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, Jefferson County's population is about 6 percent black and Berkeley County's is almost 5 percent.

Morgan County, which has a black population of under 1 percent, does not have an NAACP chapter, said Jim Tolbert of Charles Town, the NAACP president for the state of West Virginia.

The black population also is relatively small in south-central Pennsylvania - about 2 percent in Franklin County and under 1 percent in Fulton County, according to Census figures.

The NAACP headquarters in Baltimore said it has no record of chapters in either of those Pennsylvania counties. John Shelton, the president of the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches, also did not know.

Lee Taylor, who has been president of the Franklin County chapter in the past, could not be reached for comment.

Irvin said the Washington County chapter's executive board's new agenda includes pushing for more minority teachers and administrators in public schools and studying whether black students and white students are punished comparably.

He also mentioned concerns about discriminatory hiring - without offering specific examples - and a desire to have more minority police officers.

Asked about the state of race relations in Washington County, Irvin said: "On a scale of 1 to 10, it might be at a 5 - but that has so many variables. ... It should be at 7."

In 1973, when Rutherford became president in Jefferson County, "Racism was real bad," he said. "Discrimination was all over."

Right away, Rutherford said, the chapter took on the school district over its treatment of black students in the tracking system and the city of Charles Town for its hiring practices.

The chapter also helped minority apple pickers collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in a wages lawsuit, he said.

Rutherford said the county calmed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the group fielded no more than five or six complaints a month. Now, discrimination is rising again and the number of complaints - based on race, gender and age - is up to about 25 or 30 a month, he said.

VA Center discord

The latest big issue is alleged racism at the VA Center. A white VA employee was awarded $192,400 after he said co-workers harassed him and hurled slurs at him for associating with a mostly black carpentry crew.

VA Medical Center Director George Moore has denied there is widespread racism. He has said the hubbub was started by disgruntled employees.

Perry said the Berkeley County chapter, which also has criticized the VA Center situation, has looked into many accusations of prejudice over the years. He mentioned a racial harassment suit involving a Berkeley County company, an alleged land fraud and an incident in which a white high school student used a hangman's noose to threaten a black student.

One of the tensest periods was the mid-1980s, when the Ku Klux Klan recruited in Martinsburg. Perry said the NAACP met with the Klan at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library, hoping to figure out, "Why are we still having problems?"

"There was a little shouting, a little hollering," he recalled.

Race relations have improved vastly since then, he said: Blacks can compete for jobs and live wherever they want.

The axiom about the racial divide in church - "What is the most segregated time in America? 11 a.m. on Sunday" - no longer holds true in Berkeley County, Perry said.

"There are many instances in Washington County where Caucasians and minorities work great together," Irvin said. "I'd like to see more of it."

More black representation in local government might help, he said.

Irvin worked on the civil rights movement more than three decades ago. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, the Congress on Racial Equality in the 1970s and the NAACP in the 1980s.

Working with homeless people for 15 years in New York City "gave me great insight into the humanity of people, how people react in different circumstances," he said.

"America must give equality to all of its citizens," he concluded. "If we cannot, then we cannot tell the world what is morally right and morally wrong."

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