- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

The Oxon Hill Manor parking lot is filled with luxury cars: an eggplant-hued Jaguar; a shiny green BMW; scores of cream-colored Lexuses. Elegantly clad men and women flock to the manor, a red-brick plantation-style mansion with a back yard overlooking the Potomac River.

The formal premiere of Prince George's County, Md.'s Black Chamber of Commerce is a ritzy event and with good reason. Blacks make up 63 percent of the county's residents, in which the average household income in 1998 was $57,800. Personal income countywide topped $16.6 billion, up from $10.3 billion 20 years ago.

"Let me tell you, here in Prince George's County," says Lorenzo Ferguson, vice president of the chamber, addressing the 400 or so in attendance, "if you are a minority business owner, the future is coming into focus."

Not that it's so blurry right now. Prince George's County ranks fifth in the nation for counties with the greatest number of black-owned businesses, as diverse as Subway fast-food franchises and Internet-service providers.

Kenneth White and Wesley McClure are here to mingle and make some contacts. They work for Bethel Communications, a computer firm in nearby Lanham.

"This is the perfect place to network," says Mr. White, looking over the up-and-coming crowd jamming for finger sandwiches and icy Heinekens.

"And it's a great place to see that our money stays in the minority community," adds Mr. McClure.

However, Prince George's County defies the stereotype of a minority community.

When the federal government opened opportunities for blacks to work in the civil service and bureaucracy, many came to live in the urban areas of Washington, D.C. They purchased homes and by the 1960s lived in well-defined neighborhoods.

Yet the upheaval of the 1960s with its race riots, rising crime rates and the influx of drugs convinced many urban families, black and white, to leave for the suburbs.

The black exodus had a strong effect on Prince George's County, which is 14 miles from the downtown of the District. The District's loss would be the county's gain, as it gradually developed into the wealthiest black suburb in America.

Driving through Tantallon, a particularly beautiful residential part of the county with wide streets and large oak trees, Mike Little lights up at the sight of all the wealth.

"Riddick Bowe lives there," said Mr. Little, pointing to the massive estate of the former heavyweight boxing champion, which looks like most of the other homes in the 95 percent black enclave. "But most of these are just regular people."

Mr. Little is a one-man promotion campaign for Prince George's County, even cautioning those new to the area against using the popular "PG County" term.

"That's what people use when they talk badly about the county," says Mr. Little, who is president of B&W Technologies, a local personnel contracting firm. His business opened in 1997 with two employees and "a 6-foot table and a telephone line."

He now has 80 workers, and his business continues to expand.

Mr. Little eschews traditional business attire in favor of a beachier look, consisting of a silk T-shirt, sockless loafers and a tan suit jacket. He has made it on his own terms.

"When I first came to Prince George's County, it was an African-American bedroom community," the 43-year-old North Carolina native says. "But I knew there was going to be some wealth out here, because people had all this money from both government jobs and from using that to start other companies."

Quickly, he adds: "I had the opportunity to go all over the world. And the best place is Prince George's County."

He eases his Lexus through other neighborhoods, eager to show off the county's success.

"Isn't this just the American Dream?" Mr. Little asks.

The county's newfound wealth has been generated predominantly by black entrepreneurship and hard work.

When Terri Roberts grew up there during the 1960s and '70s, it was a benign, blue-collar suburb, populated mostly by white government employees.

Yet she says that black creativity and the intense competitive desire to succeed transformed the county.

"My generation and my race have changed, and we have learned to make money," said Mrs. Roberts, who along with her husband has owned an industrial- and janitorial-supply service, Olympic Supply, since 1994.

Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, is particularly proud of Prince George's County. He may have a national reach, but he knows what he has in his own back yard.

"This county is the jewel," says Mr. Alford, who is based in the District. "This is an example of what happens when the playing field is level. This is really happening here, and will happen in other places."

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