- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) | This Chesapeake Bay city of idled crab-processing plants and costly vacation homes has a history of racial strife. But when residents elected its first black mayor last week, they said their worries about joblessness and the economy were foremost on their minds - not the race or sex of the winning candidate.

“I didn’t set out to make history, but here it is,” said new Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley, 54, a social worker who ousted an eight-year incumbent in a nonpartisan election. The victory also marks the first time the Eastern Shore city elected a female as mayor and that times are changing.

Cambridge has only 11,000 residents. But in the history books it looms large as the birthplace of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery in the 1840s on a rural plantation outside town. After fleeing the area, Tubman devoted her life to helping others escape northward.

In 1967, Cambridge again gained national attention when a race riot left much of the black section of the city in ashes.

Miss Jackson-Stanley recalls growing up in Cambridge when blacks lived in a section called Ward Two and attended segregated schools. She was among the first black students to attend the county’s previously all-white high school.

“It’s a very beautiful, diverse, multicultural place now,” she said of her hometown, where blacks make up just over half the population. “It wasn’t always like this.”

William Nichols, a machinist who became the first black Dorchester County Commission president a few years back, said “attitudes here have changed.”

Mr. Nichols, 49, grew up in Ward Two and remembers watching flames from his bedroom window in 1967, when a speech by H. Rap Brown ended with a segregated elementary school set on fire. The blaze spread, destroying black-owned businesses as an all-white fire department refused to douse the flames.

Cambridge was among the cities studied by the federal Kerner Commission, which is 1968 looked at racial conditions in the United States, concluding that the country is moving toward “two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.”

Incumbent Cleveland L. Rippons, a white man, and other residents also said race played little role in the mayoral campaign.

More pressing to voters, said Mr. Rippons, who lost by about 150 votes, were disagreements over growth and jobs as traditional employment in harvesting and picking crabs dries up amid a declining crab population and competition overseas. Residents agreed that economic growth and other concerns were more pressing than the sex or race.

Cambridge is becoming a gentrified resort town a couple hours east of Baltimore and the District. For locals, times are tough as costly vacation homes and yachts supplant the crab-processing houses that once employed most area residents. Dorchester County has an unemployment rate of about 6 percent, compared with about 3.5 percent for the state average.

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