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DC Intersections

A demographic shift in Prince George’s County

by Andy Medici


“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

Tabitha Washington repeats the greeting again and again, a litany, each repetition bearing the weight of a different inflection and stress and each as unique as the parishioner at whom she directed it. For Tabitha, “Good morning” is nothing less than the truth, an expression that sounds less like a traditional greeting and more like a final determination about the day, a judgment set as firm as cement.

The 32-year-old has come prepared that day as she always has, armed with programs laying out that day’s service. Dressed in a black skirt and purple blouse, she stands about five feet three inches and a few more if she wears her church hat – Tabitha blends in with the suits and Sunday best of the guests she is greeting.

The programs are emblazoned with the Greater Mt. Nebo logo – an olive branch. They list everything from the opening hymn to the benediction, with just one caveat along the bottom. It is inspiration disguised as disclaimer, and warns all who take Tabitha’s program, “Service Subject to Change as the Holy Spirit Leads.”

Tabitha hands out flyers every Sunday to almost 1,600 people who file in every week to hear the sermon and take part in the service. It wasn’t always this many. In 1987 the church had only 100 members. The congregation had outgrown its previous spaces rapidly, making this location Mt. Nebo’s fourth building in 20 years. There was the time they had to use office space, and then the old church, and the even older one – which is now a national landmark. Now they finally have space — a church and Christian academy nestled inside 87 acres of land, complete with parking lots. It’s right off Old Mitchellville Road in Bowie, Md., now renamed Mt. Nebo Road.It stands as a brick-and-mortar reminder of the sweeping changes in Maryland and how communities that had sprung up because of the short drive into Washington, D.C., are now forming a character and purpose all their own.

But even as the identity of Prince George’s County, a fast-growing area bordering the southeastern edge of Washington, D.C., is becoming more distinct, the residents continue to seek a balance between commuter population and those who find everything they need within the borders of a rapidly diversifying community.

Since 1990, the population of Maryland has grown from 4.78 million to 5.6 million and the black population has grown from 1.1 million to 1.67 million. Never has the black population in Maryland been as large a percent of the total population, and for the African Methodist Episcopal church outside Mitchellville, there has never been a better time to, as Pastor Jonathan Weaver puts it, “have a good opinion of the Lord.”

And Pastor Weaver wants to share that opinion with anyone listening, who at the moment are the several hundred people – programs in hand – who have made the trip to sit side by side in rows of red velvet chairs bathed in fluorescent lighting. The white walls are punctuated with banners and signs. Some are flashy in blues and gold, while others exude a homespun quality. All are covered in biblical verse or inspirational prose.

His words meld seamlessly together, a mixture of theological thought and a call to concrete action. He grips the podium and at times springs into motion, pointing at one person or calling out for another. For Weaver prayer and praise is not a spectator sport – it’s a give and take of biblical proportions, an affirmation of faith set to music and song.

Weaver said that his congregation has grown by leaps and bounds because people moving to this area are eager to hear his message. As the population grows, more people are seeking solace and comfort in the church.

It was this spirit, faith and diversity that brought Carlos Perkins, a youth minister, to Maryland, and specifically Prince George’s, in the first place. Originally from Jamaica, Perkins left the island with his parents when he was 13 to immigrate to New York City. After going to college upstate in Ithaca, he came to the University of Maryland to pursue a master’s degree in education.

After more than five years with Greater Mt. Nebo, Perkins has made his home in Prince George’s County. According to the Census Bureau, blacks make up 64 percent of the population, and have higher median income than in any other county in the state. Perkins stayed in the area after graduating because of the weather, the close proximity to the capital, and what he saw as the evolution of an area growing more diverse. He now has a four-bedroom apartment in a brand-new neighborhood.

“For me as a young professional African American, I felt like there were more opportunities for professional growth in the area,” Perkins said. “Once I left graduate school and started a family of my own, I wanted to make sure that my family was being raised around a mix of a diverse culture.”

His 7-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter now call a small development in Upper Marlboro home, watching cartoons and playing games in the new fourbedroom house. Sometimes he and his wife take in children from the congregation that need a place to stay because of family problems, extending their family and sharing in the sense of community they have found.

It is this growing community and expanding diversity that makes Prince George’s County one of the fastest-growing in the area, according to County Councilman Samuel Dean. Although a far cry from the rural tobacco land that greeted Dean when he moved here in 1966, the population has become a melting pot of not just race, but also cultures from around the world. While 64 percent of the county identifies as black, 20 percent identify as white, and the rest is divided between Asians, Latinos and others. The county also has an ever-growing population of international residents from the Caribbean and across the Atlantic.

“I think that Prince George’s offers the most opportunities for people of all races, and the most diversified jurisdiction. This offers them a chance to be engaged,” he said.

Now that the more rural areas are beginning to get built out, there is enough housing for people, like Carlos Perkins, to start families and build communities, Dean said.

“We really have become the new melting pot.”

Cedric Southerland, 51, a county resident and real estate manager, prefers to describe the area’s diversity as a “tossed salad.”  Southerland, who has lived in the county for 25 years, said that when he sits down at restaurants, he sees all types of people, from young students to elderly couples, and that’s how he measures a successful community.

“We have young African Americans and senior whites all mingling together. We have families of both races. Everybody is enjoying themselves and having a good time,” he said.

In Prince George’s County, he can go from an urban setting and to a rural setting in 20 minutes, Southerland said. The housing is the same as in other areas around D.C., but they are still waiting for the retail companies to come in.

“There are pockets of great communities in every community in Prince George’s County, you just have to find them, look for them – they’re there,” Southerland said. He said the county’s 15 Metro stops serve as a reminder of how close it is to Washington, D.C. Still, people increasingly are taking charge of their own destinies.

“People are starting to claim ownership of Prince George’s County as opposed to just laying back and waiting for someone else to get involved,” Southerland said.

Back in March, Southerland had gone to a Prince George’s County town hall meeting called “Envision Prince George’s” which has billed itself as a county-wide community meeting “to help develop and implement a vision for the future of Prince George’s County with a vibrant economy and a high quality of life for all of its residents.”

More than 1,000 people attended the event, and Southerland said the group really did represent the whole of Prince George’s County.

“There was a very diverse group of people from every ethnic group in the county, age wise and gender, everyone was there to help plan the next ten years of the county,” Southerland said.

“We’re working, we’re trying to get things going.”

A changing demographic landscape

The last 20 years have seen a significant movement of African Americans moving away from areas that have historically had a majority minority population to states in the mid-Atlantic and the mountain West. South Carolina has seen its share of the black population as a percentage of its total population fall every decade since 1880, when it was just above 60 percent. Now the population stands at 28 percent of South Carolina’s total.

But while other states’ black populations have decreased, Maryland’s black population has grown higher than at any point in its history since 1840. The share of the black population in Maryland is now is now 29 percent, up from 17 percent in 1970. Census information attributes most of this growth from families moving to Maryland from other states and, more often, overseas.

Cathy Dennis followed her husband to Prince George’s County in 1979 from New Jersey, without knowing anything about the area. She said that Prince George’s was the best place to raise kids, and it reminded her of her home in rural New Jersey. Her children attended a magnet school in Suitland, where she said they received a quality education.

“It was just a nice place for the kids to grow up and go to school,” Dennis said.

She likes the diversity, and she said that as the years have passed, she has watched her adopted home grow from its rural roots into a suburban community.

“I didn’t know about Prince George’s County, but in the last 30 years I have seen it grow,” Dennis said. “People just seem to be on a fast pace and just going in different directions.”

Gwen Terrell was born and raised in Prince George’s County, and although she said she has no other experiences to compare it to, she has never left the county to live somewhere else. Besides that it is convenient to live near D.C. and where her family lives, Terrell sums up her perspective on the area as one of incremental, but steady, progress.

“I think that the development of everything is getting a lot better. The schools have gotten a little bit better, especially since I have grown up,” Terrell said.

Bill Gardiner thinks that Prince George’s has a lot to offer businesses and companies that are expanding or moving into the area. Part of his job at the Prince George’s Economic Development Corporation as the director of business resource and project analysis is to help retain old companies and bring new business to the county. He said that its proximity to Washington, D.C., and its less expensive real estate make it an attractive area for businesses. Also, many businesses move to be near larger anchor stores such as Target, in order to attract more traffic.

He also said that diversity plays a role as well.

“A lot of businesses are looking for diversity as a strength to perform better for their customers,” Gardiner said. “In Prince George’s County you can find a diverse workforce.”