The day Sarah E. Carter broke the color barrier in Anne Arundel County nearly a half-century ago, she said she recognized the significance of her achievement.

“I had a lot of people helping me and it’s amazing to win,” she told Michael Wentzel, a reporter for The Evening Sun newspaper. “We didn’t do it alone. People told me that I’m with white people too much. They’d tell me they wouldn’t vote for me when the time came. This proves that racism isn’t good from any angle.”

Carter was sitting in the county election board office on that morning in September 1974, witnessing the slow tally of absentee ballots. The tallying of ballots on election night had left her clinging to a narrow lead over her opponent, slate candidate Harry Barnabae, in the race for the Democratic nomination. By the time the absentee ballots were counted, her lead had grown — and she was on the way to an anticlimactic win over a weak Republican candidate in November.

“I’m happy for my people,” she said. “We have much to do.”

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On Monday, Anne Arundel County belatedly honored Carter’s historic win by naming a county building in Glen Burnie after her. The ceremony came on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, an event that was commemorated in Washington and Annapolis this past weekend. Carter was the first Black person — and among the first three women — to win a seat on the County Council.

As you would expect, there were speeches.

“The fact that it’s also, to the day, the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is also not a coincidence,” said County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat. “There’s no question in my mind that what happened on the day of that march inspired Sarah Carter.”

And more speeches.

“In 1974, in a county that had voted twice for George Wallace, in a county that was segregated at one point, this woman named Sarah Carter was running,” said Carl Snowden, a civil rights activist who cast his first votes in the election that year. “You could not go anywhere in the county on the day that she got elected and not run into somebody who was an African American who did not take on the pride, that after all these many years, she got elected.”

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Carter’s legacy is sometimes forgotten. After two terms, she mostly left the public stage. She died in 1998 in Delaware, and when attorney Daryl Jones became the first Black man elected to the council in 2006, more than a few people thought he was the one who had broken the barrier.

That’s a shame, but perhaps not surprising.

“She thought the job she was doing on the council was doing the right thing, not to have things named after her,” said Vanessa Carter, one of the late councilwoman’s daughters.

We remember the Rev. Martin Luther King in part because of the eloquence of his words, including at the March on Washington. While Carter didn’t leave a record as a great orator, her personality is reflected in newspaper clippings from the day. Sometimes, you can hear what she was up against, too.

In Carter’s day, council seats were chosen at-large, meaning anyone could vote for council representatives of all seven districts. The Evening Capital in Annapolis noted that with only 2,000 registered Black voters, white voters were key to Carter’s 5,439 vote total. The story appeared under a horrendous headline:

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“Sarah Carter: ‘Whitey’ did vote for her.”

She quickly wrote back, chastising the newspaper for putting words in her mouth.

“I have never used the word whitey in my life,” she wrote in a letter to the editor. “In my opinion, it is a racial slur and a hatred term used by sick-minded people. … The caption may have helped you to sell more newspapers, but it hurt me and probably cost me many votes.”

She was just as clear about the significance of being one of the first three women elected to the council in 1974, along with Virginia Clagett and Ann Stockett.

“It’s not because men don’t care, it’s because they don’t want to be bothered with other people’s problems,” she told The Evening Capital. “Women are perhaps more sensitive. We will bring government back to the people.”

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Sarah Carter was the first Black person, and one of the three first women, elected to the Anne Arundel County Council in 1974. Monday, the county named a building in her memory.
Sarah Carter was the first Black person, and one of the three first women, elected to the Anne Arundel County Council in 1974. On Monday, the county named a building in her honor. (Courtesy photo)

Once on the council, Carter often found herself on the losing side of votes, like the time in 1977 when she couldn’t convince her colleagues to rein in exotic pets. Constituents complained to her about the owner of a grain business who walked his wild animal collection through the neighborhood — and didn’t see a reason to stop after his chimpanzee bit a woman.

“Now they’re waiting for all Hades to break loose up there because they know he feels nothing can touch him,” she said.

She lost again later that year when the council voted to let the affluent Chartwell neighborhood create a special tax district and use the money to hire its own police officer.

“It seems to me that if a person has enough money, he can get police protection, but if he doesn’t, that’s tough,” Carter said, according to an Evening Capital story. “What happens to the other areas?”

Sometimes, she could be contradictory. In February 1982, she voted against a proposed subsidized apartment building in Odenton despite supporting the idea.

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“I don’t think all low-income people would mess up a community,” she said, according to the Evening Sun. “I would be a good neighbor and I am very low income.”

“I can’t in my heart vote for something where people aren’t going to be treated right.”

If she had a political nemesis, it was Robert Pascal, then the Republican county executive.

Pascal, who had played college and pro football, paid two members of the old Baltimore Colts football team $16,000 in January 1976 to make the rounds of schools talking about drug abuse. When he asked the council for money to pay the contract weeks later, Carter called him arrogant.

“What makes you think you can reach kids when specialists who work with them all the time can’t?” she asked Pascal, according to The Evening Sun. “What will you do to reach them when others can’t? What happens when you leave?”

Pascal returned the antipathy in 1978. During a community meeting on recreation programs, he introduced her Democratic primary opponent George Mills. He urged the crowd to vote against Carter and was Mills’ biggest donor.

“Mrs. Carter’s been unresponsive to our goals in recreation,” he told Michael Schultz of The Evening Sun.

Carter was having none of it.

“It’s just a cheap shot. The cheapest shot I’ve ever seen.”

So when she defeated Mills in the primary, the victory sounded very sweet.

“Pascal the rascal has lost,” she laughed, according to The Evening Sun.

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Eventually, though, there was a consequence for being a frequent lone vote. When the council redrew its political boundaries, council members got to stay in their safe, old districts — except Carter. It was the first year that voters elected council members by district, a practice that remains in place.

Carter fought anyway. After losing to pharmacist Ted Sophocleus in the Democratic primary, she waged a write-in campaign that alienated party leaders.

“The people who put me in office for two terms couldn’t put me in the primary,” she told The Evening Sun’s Jeanne Garland.

It wasn’t enough.

So Monday, when a crowd of well-wishers unveiled Carter’s name above the entrance to the building in Glen Burnie, it might have fit with the councilwoman’s ideas about public service.

“She was very driven by her faith,” said Vanessa Carter, her daughter. “She was a Christian. She felt that’s what drove the decisions she made and the paths she took. She felt doing the right thing was very important.”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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