Pocomoke is a lovely town on the Maryland Eastern Shore. The Pocomoke River, which wanders across the peninsula is a scenic beauty. The River is crossed there by a scenic draw-bridge. The name “Pokomoke” literally means “Black Water”, and the water of the river is stained an almost black tea color by the northernmost Bald Cypress swamp at it’s headwaters.
Despite the natural beauty, and “Easy Living” of the DELMARVA Eastern Shore…Trouble has found paradise.
The Eastern Shore in reality remained part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. This – despite the existence of one of the largest, prosperous free black communities in the South in the two Virginia Counties just south of Pocomoke. The principal industry is farming. The Eastern Shore is sometimes referred to as the “Food Basket of he East Coast”, and near my own property further south, it is not uncommon to see signs on the fields from the major brands, including Campbell’s and DelMonte. The Chicken business is also huge, with major facilities and plants belonging to Perdue, Tyson’s, and Montaire, to name a few. Unemployment is very low – but average incomes in many of the towns hover around $20,000. People are polite and courteous, and most any Saturday when visiting the local hardware store is met by the question “been fishing?”
While there certainly are a few racist idiots there, I don’t have an opinion about this one – as to my personal experiences, most people get along reasonably well.
Kelvin Sewell figured he had landed his dream job in 2010, when he retired as a Baltimore police officer to help run the tiny 16-member force in this little riverfront city, which calls itself “the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore.” A year later he became its first African-American police chief.
Blacks and whites have coexisted, sometimes uneasily, in Pocomoke for centuries, but Chief Sewell, with his easygoing manner, quickly fit in. He prodded officers to patrol on foot, pleasing business owners. He helped poor students fill out college applications. Crime, everyone agrees, went down on his watch.
But the chief’s abrupt dismissal in June, without explanation, by a white mayor and majority white City Council that voted along racial lines, has torn Pocomoke asunder, wrecking old friendships and exposing a deep racial rift in this community of roughly 4,100 people, split almost evenly between black and white.
The drama in Pocomoke is a tiny slice of America’s searing national conversation about race, playing out largely in big cities like Baltimore, St. Louis and most recently, Cincinnati, around police mistreatment of African-Americans. A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll found nearly six in 10 Americans, including majorities of blacks and whites, think race relations are generally bad, and nearly four in 10 think they are getting worse.
What makes Pocomoke unusual is the way that conversation is tearing apart a small town, forcing lifelong friends and neighbors to confront how differently they see the world. A black minister who went to high school with the white mayor — and worked to elect him — is pushing for his ouster. A white city councilman provoked gasps by addressing black citizens as “you people.”
“There is so much history here, with everybody being raised here — except the chief,” said Monna VanEss, 53, the former city finance director, who is white. “A lot of these people on both sides went to school together and have known each other all their lives. We’ve never been this divided.”
Mr. Sewell, 53, says his firing was “racially motivated” punishment for standing up for two black officers who experienced harassment. (Before his dismissal, his lawyer said, he had also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that he was paid less than his white predecessor.) Black residents, led by two prominent African-American ministers, have demanded the chief’s reinstatement — they say they have more than 500 signatures on a petition — and the resignation of Mayor Bruce Morrison.
Blacks are also organizing politically, accusing the city — with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland — of voting rights irregularities involving the cancellation of a municipal election, which cleared the way for a white city councilman to take office in April with no opposition in a majority black district. The situation is so tense that the Justice Department recently sent mediators to hear black residents’ concerns.
“This is political and racial,” said the Rev. James Jones, an associate pastor at the New Macedonia Baptist Church and the mayor’s former classmate. He says African-Americans were so furious about the chief’s firing he feared Pocomoke would break out into a riot. “The political structure of Pocomoke, they are not ready for a black chief. They don’t like us at the top.”
Not so, insists Mayor Morrison, who said the chief’s dismissal is a personnel matter, which he cannot discuss. He has no intention of quitting. “I’ve never been called a racist in my life,” he said during a brief interview at his desk in Pocomoke’s small, brick City Hall. “And I don’t appreciate it.”
While some whites are withholding judgment, at least one, Michael Dean, a funeral director and part-time forensic investigator with the state medical examiner’s office, has openly criticized the chief. He said he has “lost respect” for Mr. Sewell but would not say why. Others seem unable to fathom that race may have played a role.
“Nobody knows why he was let go, but there was a reason and it wasn’t racial,” said Marc Scher, who owns a bridal shop downtown. Mr. Scher says the wife of the Rev. Ronnie White, the other black minister pressing for the ouster of the mayor, does seamstress work for him, and the pastor’s grandmother was the Scher family’s housekeeper when Mr. Scher was a boy.
“They’re still my friends,” he said. “I don’t agree with them.”
Nestled between the Chesapeake and Chincoteague Bays, and surrounded by corn and soybean fields, Pocomoke City is part of Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, a world away and much poorer than fancy shore communities like St. Michaels, where prominent Washingtonians keep summer homes. Its history of racial tensions runs deep.
Resistance to slavery was strong in Maryland, but the lower Eastern Shore, just across the border from Virginia, was home to Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War. The early 20th century brought lynch mobs. The region was slow to desegregate its schools and even slower to elect blacks to government, said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Maryland, which in the 1990s brought a voting rights case that forced changes in the way Pocomoke’s surrounding county, Worcester, held elections.
“It’s not like the rest of Maryland; it’s more like the Deep South,” Ms. Jeon said. “They fought us tooth and nail to prevent changes in the election system, even though the county had an all-white government for 250 years.”
Poverty is a concern. Pocomoke’s per capita income is $19,243, about half that of Maryland as a whole, and 27.1 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The rough side of town, known locally as “the back burner,” is overwhelmingly black, with run-down cinder block homes and a reputation for drugs and crime.
“Coming to Pocomoke from Baltimore City,” Mr. Sewell said, “it feels like you go back in time.”
Mr. Sewell’s troubles began, both he and his lawyer Andrew McBride said, when a black detective, Franklin L. Savage, complained of racial harassment while assigned to a regional police task force on combating the drug trade.
After a string of racially charged incidents — including receiving a text message addressing him with a racial epithet and being driven by fellow officers down a street they called “K.K.K. road” — Detective Savage asked to go back to his regular work in Pocomoke and complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Mr. McBride of the law firm Wiley Rein.
But upon his return, Mr. McBride said, Detective Savage faced questions from city officials about his credibility, and wound up on night duty, which he construed as retaliation. Another black Pocomoke officer, Lt. Lynell Green, accompanied Detective Savage to a commission mediation session, and later complained of harassment as well. After that, Mr. McBride said, both officers were branded troublemakers, and city officials began pressuring Chief Sewell to fire them.
When he would not, said Mr. McBride — who is representing all three men with the nonprofit Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs — the chief was fired. The other two officers remain on the force.
William C. Hudson, the Pocomoke City solicitor, said that was not an accurate accounting of events, though like Mayor Morrison he would not offer specifics. “When all the facts are known,” he said, “it will be clear that the city is guilty of no improprieties and that the action taken to relieve Chief Sewell was in the best interest of the community.”
Perhaps, but ill will abounds. Diane Downing, the lone member of the City Council to oppose Chief Sewell’s removal, said the mayor pushed the council to fire him — in violation of the city charter, which does not give the mayor hiring or firing authority — and begged her to vote in favor.
“I am not stupid, and I was not born last night,” she said. “He wanted my vote because I am black.”
The firing has stirred a new spirit of African-American activism. Black residents — many wearing T-shirts bearing Mr. Sewell’s likeness — jammed the City Council chambers during a tense meeting after his dismissal. Pastor Jones and Pastor White have formed a coalition, Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, to prod blacks to get more involved in city government. Pastor Jones said they will not rest until the chief is back and the mayor is gone.
“They woke the sleeping giant,” said Gabe Purnell, an African-American activist from nearby Berlin, Md., who is advising the group.
Whites, too, are organizing. At the Salem United Methodist Church, a white congregation, more than 100 people signed a letter Thursday backing the mayor. Both blacks and whites are bracing for the next City Council meeting, Monday night. A Justice Department spokeswoman said its mediators, who have no authority to investigate, “remain available” to “facilitate any discussions” if needed.
Some wonder if Pocomoke will ever heal. Mayor Morrison insists everything will be fine: “It’s still the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore,” he said, “and I’ll stick by that.”