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Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette Logo Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette


Examining racial progress in Berlin

(Feb. 12, 2015) Gregory Purnell and Gee Williams both grew up in Berlin, crossing paths occasionally, and watching the slow march of progress in a segregated, southern town from opposite sides of the street.
Both served in the United States Army and both left town for in-state colleges and then returned.
Williams, 66, is now the mayor of the reigning “Coolest Small Town in America.” Purnell, 65, retired as the arborist for the Town of Ocean City.
One graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in the class of ’66, the other, from Worcester High School in the class of ’67.
Recently, after a pair of incidents at Stephen Decatur High School and a racially offensive post on social media, outside sources began to imply that race had become an issue in Berlin.
Then, two weeks ago during a public meeting on Flower Street, Joyce Ayers, Purnell’s aunt, stood up and praised Williams for all he had done for the black community in Berlin.
It was a powerful moment not missed by Williams, who nearly fell backwards with gratitude, and a reminder that Berlin, though not perfect, should at least qualify as well adjusted, given all that has happened.
“If there were going to be racial tensions at Stephen Decatur it would have been ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68,” Purnell said. “That would have been when it would have been race and so forth. Now it’s culture. Culture involves race, but it’s not racism as it was.
“We were second-class then, and so you would have never even had that amount of confrontation,” Purnell continued. “All the racist things would have been cross burnings.”
Kids today, Purnell said, don’t know what real racism looks like.
“Their racism is insignificant almost,” he said. “Look at the mixing, look at everything that has happened that is commonplace, here, in this one town. We’ve got two black city council people. We’ve got black folks that own businesses in town. We have a black police chief. That’s growth.
“We have not moved passed racism; it’s not perfect, but it’s not an image that should even be discussed in the same sentence with Berlin,” Purnell continued.
The atmosphere today is far from what it was in the 1960s, which Williams called the “most racially tense for the town.”
“That was true for the entire country,” he said.
Purnell described the Berlin of his youth as “textbook white and colored folks.”
“I use those terms because they were white folks and we were colored folks, and colored folks had a place and white folks had a place and you dealt with it,” he said. “You used to sit up on the top of the movie, and now we go up there and have a nice dinner.”
Purnell recalled a “naive” moment from his youth when he was fascinated by the “colored” sign over the restrooms.
“The first time that I went in it was with the intent to see what color they were,” he said.
“We grew up in a very segregated town where segregation was normal, but there was not an underlying hatred,” Williams said. “There was prejudice, but there was not hate.”
Berlin in the 1950s and ’60s, according to Williams, was “more like Berlin, Miss. than the Berlin, Md. of today.”
That deeply ingrained southern slant dated back to the Civil War era when, according to Williams, not one vote in Worcester County was cast for Abraham Lincoln during either of his two terms.
“We were a very southern community with a very deep, southern culture,” he said. “You have to remember this town owes its existence to the plantation. The oldest families in this town are the African-Americans who can trace their roots back to that plantation. They are the most senior members of our community.”
Purnell said he saw Williams around town while he attended Flower Street Elementary School and Worcester High School.
“He’ll go down in Berlin history, not just as the mayor, but as a catalyst for the culture and the Berlin experience,” Purnell said.
When he was 11 years old, Williams landed his first job, working at his father’s tavern as a cook and server for virtually the only bar in Berlin that served African-Americans.
“I got to know dozens and dozens of black members of the community of Berlin, and I served them,” Williams said, “They were my customers. I waited on them, and we had a wonderful time.”
Granted, the restaurant was actually in the small kitchen attached to the larger, whites only restaurant, but it was the start of something.
“It was the traditional ‘go-to-the-backdoor’ type establishment, but it was accommodating,” Purnell said. “I remember we used to go there for the 35-cent cheeseburgers because he used Velveeta cheese – nobody else used that.”
Soon, other businesses in Berlin, including Rayne’s Reef, began opening their doors to the black community as well, followed closely by transportation facilities, and finally schools in 1965.
“I was in the last class when it was illegal for African-American children to be in our class. Can you imagine that?” Williams said.
In the summer of 1965, the pervading conventional wisdom, according to Williams, was that integration would lead to massive increases in violence in the schools. As sort of a test run, the Worcester County Board of Education arranged for a basketball scrimmage between the two high schools.
“It was a Saturday morning,” Williams said. “The Stephen Decatur team dressed in the boy’s locker room and the Worcester team dressed in the girl’s locker. It couldn’t have been any other way.”
The inside of the gymnasium, Williams said, was overflowing with police.
“There must have been five for every player,” he said. “We went out and, back then high fives hadn’t been invented, so we shook hands and said, ‘how are you doing?’ Some folks new each other by name, others just by face.
“The whole board of education was there, the sheriff, town police, Maryland State Police, everybody,” Williams continued. “They were in shock. We weren’t.”
At half-time school officials, still stunned by the casual ease of the event, pulled the players aside and asked how they all knew each other.
“We said, ‘You don’t understand, we’ve been playing together on Flower Street for years,’” Williams said. “The black kids weren’t allowed to come over here and play, but they had fields over there at the school, so we’d just get on our bicycles and go over there and play. We just didn’t tell anybody.”
By the end of the second half, the police had either dispersed or moved to the bleachers to enjoy the game.
“The board of education said, ‘I guess we’ve been worrying about the wrong thing,’ Williams said. “They knew we didn’t contrive this. How could we?”
A slow period of change continued in Berlin, with the local Lion’s club integrating a few years later.
“They had a special meeting and they told a few of the old fuddy duds that that day was over,” Williams said. “They had served in wars together, served in Korea, and they said ‘if these folks were good enough to fight for our freedom, then their kids can play on our Lion’s Club ground.’”
Then, in the early 1970s, Decatur’s fully integrated basketball team won the state championship.
“There were four Purnell’s on that team,” Purnell quipped.  
“Once that line was crossed, it became commonplace in no time,” Williams said.
Little by little, people and events in Berlin began to “break down the walls.”
“Gee and I, both being in that same age group and both being able to see the different polar sides of the town, we saw generations dying out and the newer generations coming in to be where there was less tolerance for racism,” he said. “You’re too closely knitted here. You work every day with these people, you go to school every day with these people.”
Men like Joseph Purnell, who lost a bid for the Berlin council, paved the way for John Dale Smack to break the council color barrier in the 1970s.
Today, Elroy Brittingham and Dean Burrell are the two longest-serving members of the Berlin council.
“Once city hall is touched, everything starts to change,” Purnell said.
In the 1980s, the mayor and council passed an ordinance returning Maryland Avenue to its original name, Branch Street, effectively erasing one of the town’s major dividing lines.  
“That, in my mind, was the beginning of Berlin changing its stripes,” Purnell said. “When the law stood and said they had to change it back, that was the beginning of tensions changing, because you started to see people as a little more equal.”
Less and less, the artificial lines in town became blurred. Soon, sidewalks began to creep down Flower Street for the first time.
“The first thought is always, ‘well it’s about time,’ but the second thought is they’re so thankful,” Purnell said. “It says that we count, because we’ve always walked. We’ve always had less transportation, so we’ve always walked these roads.
“Those types of things have always made the black community feel that they were a part of this town,” Purnell continued.
More recently the town responded to a fatal accident involving a white police officer and a pair of black teenagers by, rather than fighting or pointing fingers, joining to improve safety conditions.
“They represented Berlin,” Williams said. “Not just East Berlin, not just downtown Berlin, it was a great sampling. They went to work and boy did they get results.”
The next mark of progress, Purnell suggested, is that the story of Berlin begins to include both sides of its history. Alongside Linda Harrison, who starred in the original “Planet of the Apes,” and gospel songwriting legend Charles Tindley, Purnell hopes to see the names of trailblazing doctors, judges and teachers, men and women who affected the change that continues to inch toward true equality.   
Little things like the first state championship, Williams said, helped transform the culture “from being a novelty to an expectation.”
“I think that’s where we still are, it’s just at different levels and it’s becoming more and more commonplace to look at each other as people,” Williams said. “We still have a ways to go, but the fact of your racial or your national origin in this town and in many parts of America is less important than it used to be.
“Your heritage should always be a point of pride,” Williams continued. “You should always be proud of it, but it should be a kind of pride that you share, not one that makes you feel exclusive.”