1968 Riots Sparked Rural County's Suburbanization

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Equal housing rights and turmoil in the inner-cities have led to black migration to the suburbs, and black residents of the nation's capital were a part of that trend. Prince George's County is one area that has transitioned from rural to suburban.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Forty years ago in the days and weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. riots spread through many American cities. Looters sacked retail stores and arsonists torched entire neighborhoods. Urban residents lost their homes and left their communities. Here in Washington, as segregation eased, many African-Americans fled the nation's capital to neighboring Prince George's County, Maryland.

As part of our occasional series, Echoes of 1968, NPR's Allison Keyes went to Prince George's to see how life in the once-rural area has changed in the four decades since King's murder. Her visit starts in a church late last month.

ALLISON KEYES: They come in their Easter finery - fancy hats for the women, lacy white dresses on proud sepia-toned little girls.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm going to magnify him, I'm going to magnify him, I'm going to magnify him and he (unintelligible)…

KEYES: For the new service alone, 4,000 people sit in the sanctuary at First Baptist Church of Glenarden - almost all of them black.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) He's worthy…

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Of the glory…

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) …of the glory…

KEYES: In the last 18 years membership has grown from about 500 to nearly 10,000. Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr. says his congregation has a healthy balance.

Mr. JOHN K. JENKINS SR. (Pastor, First Baptist Church of Glenarden): We have all the way from, you know, janitors and low-level people to professional athletes, doctors, administrators, business owners. We have a wide range of gamut, and I think that's a reflection of Prince George's County.

KEYES: At the time Dr. King was assassinated, just 15 percent of the county's residents were people of color. Forty years later, more than 65 percent are black. Pastor Jenkins and his family were among the African-Americans that chose to leave Washington, D.C. for the county in the 1960s.

Mr. JENKINS: When I grew up it was heavily segregated. I mean, you know, the black people lived in one area; the white people lived in another area.

KEYES: Jenkins says he doesn't remember much about the riots of 1968 in nearby Washington, but he was in class at Glenarden Woods Elementary School the day Dr. King was killed.

Mr. JENKINS: And I remember the teachers gathering all the students around and they were crying - just holding on to the kids.

KEYES: By the time he was in 9th grade, Jenkins was among those being bussed to an all-white high school.

Mr. JENKINS: Here are some African-American kids being shipped into an area where some of the Anglo people had never dealt with black people in that kind of a sense. And it was a - you know, I have vivid memories of some of the things that went on at that time that was just, you know, if you didn't have the right mindset you could become very embittered and very angry.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) When you stomp your foot, you're actually defeating the devil, come on.

KEYES: The neighborhood where First Baptist Church of Glenarden draws thousands for services was once all-white. The church have a Hispanic ministry and translates its services into Spanish. But Jenkins says the biggest change is the economic development.

Mr. JENKINS: It's a good thing. I mean, it's providing job opportunities and growth. Growth is good.

KEYES: Growth has transformed Prince George's into one of the most affluent African-American enclaves in the nation. Median family income in 2006 was $76,000.

Ms. EUNICE GREER (Demographer): It certainly started in the 1970s.

KEYES: Demographers Eunice Greer and her husband George have tracked the movements of people in and out of Washington, D.C. for decades, including the flow of African-Americans from the city to Prince George's County.

Ms. GREER: It certainly would've included people substantial means of - by substantial means I mean good jobs, good government jobs, steady income, moving out to buy houses outside the District and in the suburbs, just as the whites moved. You know, I suspect except for color that they were very similar to the whites who were moving out in the 50s and 60s to the suburbs.

KEYES: The Greers say some movement of federal jobs to the suburbs helped fuel the African-American migration, and they note that anti-discrimination laws, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act were beginning to have some affect as well.

Mr. GILBERT PRYOR (Resident, Prince George's County): Yeah, this used to be farmland before I moved round here…

KEYES: Fifty-seven-year-old Gilbert Pryor lives in a priv(ph) yellow-framed house nestled in a meticulously trimmed yard. He's a college music professor and he's lived in Prince George's County since his parents moved here three years before the riots. Driving through the neighborhood in his SUV, he talked about some of the changes over the past 40 years.

Mr. PRYOR: In the early 60s - I want to say around '64, '65 - there was a surge to get black folk to move to Prince George's County. I'm from a family of nine and we always had eight kids in the house at some point and we needed space because most of the houses we had were two-bedroom or three-bedroom houses. So, of course, four guys, we slept in one room and my sisters slept in another and my mom and dad had their room.

So here was our opportunity now to open up some space for large families.

KEYES: Pryor's parents bought a brand-new duplex with four bedrooms and a basement for $14,000. He says many African-Americans bought their first piece of the property here.

Mr. PRYOR: All of these homes are the original homes that were here. None of this has changed thus far. Most of them are frame homes, as you see, with the old porches. There used to be horses and chickens to our right here. All along 70th and all to my right.

KEYES: Pryor remembers that whites weren't pleased about blacks moving in.

Mr. PRYOR: And as we moved into Maryland, of course, a bunch of white folk moved out. And I could remember the days and the times of coming down as we head back here to F Street, going down the street and the with the population whites being called nigger, the N word, the fabulous N word and being spit at and having rocks thrown at me from cars. But they never stopped - they just would do that.

KEYES: The farmland that once characterized Prince George's began to disappear under housing tracts or huge projects, like the Washington Redskins stadium. Though many of them who live here are proud that the county is predominantly black, Pryor says there's still diversity and he's pleased about that.

Mr. PRYOR: You still have a sprinkling of white folk. Not as many but you do have a sprinkling of white folk who also, like us, looking for affordable housing and realized that we're the same as they are just as I realize that we're all the same. We all got the same ambitions, I would think.

KEYES: Pryor thinks the changes in Prince George's County have been a mixed bag for him. His taxes have almost doubled but the house he bought 20 years ago has more than tripled in value to $300,000. He says he's happy to live in a decent, reputable neighborhood.

Thirty-five-year-old John Mule is more than happy - he's pumped.

Mr. JOHN MULE (Resident, Prince George's County): It's been a long time coming. It's, like, you know, now it's our time.

KEYES: Mule spends his days reading blogs about all the development, and took NPR on a tour of some of the sites that excite him in the northern part of the county.

In Hyattsville, he started with the University Town Center. There used to be just three tall buildings here - now there's a theater, restaurants and an apartment building where the lofts go for up to $700,000. Mule then heads a few blocks away to a street that used to be lined with car dealerships.

Mr. MULE: They picked this area to be the new arts district, and so there's going to be row houses, like, Brooklyn style, shops underneath, artist's lofts up above in the art galleries, cafes and things like that. And you just didn't see that Prince George's County 15, 20 years ago.

KEYES: But not everything is perfect. In 2005, Prince George's County had a record 164 murders. Some blame it on gangs and an influx of people displaced from public housing in Washington. Mule has lived in both Washington and Prince George's County. He thinks it's wrong to blame increased crime on shifting populations.

Mr. MULE: I've never experienced any crime personally. So, for me to say, oh, everybody's coming from D.C., now I have to move away, I just, I'm not going to do it.

KEYES: Mule says he's seen an increasing number of Hispanics and immigrants from Africa and South Asia moving into Prince George's County. He says he's also seeing more whites moving closer to the D.C. line. To him, that just makes the county he loves a better and more diverse place to raise a family.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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