Volume XI, Issue 7 ~ February 13-19, 2003

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<Dock of the Bay>
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<Bay Reflections>
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Dock of the Bay

For Black History Month, Chris Haley Gets to ‘Roots’ of Unsung Hero’s Life

When Chris Haley, nephew of famed Roots author Alex Haley, auditioned for a janitor’s part in a PBS special for Black History Month, he wound up with the lead.

“It was one of those things you hear about,” says Haley, who by day is reference director at the Maryland State Archives. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Haley, an actor and filmmaker himself, went to the casting call to, he says, “make some contacts with PBS for a documentary I’m filming on the homeless.” He knew only a vague outline of the story.

© 2002 Spark Media All Rights Reserved
Chris Haley, nephew of Roots author Alex Haley, plays heart-surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas in the PBS documentary Partners of the Heart.
But when the film’s crew saw Haley on the elevator they called him “Vivien,” the first name of the film’s main character. When the producer saw he looked more like the lead character than did the actor already cast, the part was his.

Filmed in Nashville and Washington, D.C., the documentary Partners of the Heart is the story of Dr. Alfred Blalock, a Johns Hopkins surgeon, and his 34-year interracial partnership with Vivien Thomas, the young black janitor who became his trusted assistant. It’s also the story behind one of the first successful heart surgeries ever conducted.

The 1940s’ era operating room scenes were filmed at the Soldiers Home in Washington. Morgan Freeman narrates, and scenes are re-creations.

“You’re not really doing dialogue,” says Haley. “You’re enacting what is being described.”

Thomas’ improbable alliance with white surgeon Alfred Blalock and rise to partnership in a powerful scientific team began in Depression-era Nashville, where Blalock was born into wealth and privilege. Thomas had come with his parents to Nashville during the great migration of African Americans northward from the Deep South. He was instilled with a strong work ethic and high academic goals.

When the Depression wiped out Thomas’ savings and his dream of attending medical school, he took a job as lab technician, a job classified as janitor at the time at Vanderbilt University in the 1930s. There the two men developed not only friendship but also respect for each other’s talents.

In 1940, Blalock became chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins — on the condition that Thomas could join him. In Baltimore, Thomas experienced prejudice as never before. The partners in science could not eat at the same cafeteria table.

“For a black person to have a white coat on and not be a janitor was one of the big symbols of crossing over, of making it,” says Haley. “It was Blalock who insisted that Thomas wear it and that he be in the operating room. You see the reaction, the stares from people passing him in the hallway.”

The pioneering work of Blalock and Thomas redefined the medical world’s understanding of shock and led to a surgical technique for treating the congenital heart defect called “blue-baby syndrome.” Thomas was responsible for the day-to-day work in the lab on the project, inventing specialized surgical instruments for the meticulous procedures that are still used.

Together, they trained a generation of international surgeons. After Blalock’s death in 1964, Thomas, became mentor to a further generation of cardiac surgeons and lab technicians. In the 1970s, Thomas’ achievements were finally recognized. He was awarded an honorary doctorate and teaching position on the medical school’s faculty. He died in 1985. His portrait now hangs at John Hopkins University Hospital alongside other surgical greats.

Mame Warren who wrote the University’s 125th anniversary history, Johns Hopkins, Knowledge for the World, calls Thomas “a god for Johns Hopkins.”

In Partners of the Heart, Haley found himself playing another part besides Vivian Thomas.

During the filming the man routinely introduced as Alex Haley’s nephew met another nephew of a famous uncle. Koco Eaton, a physician who advised on the film, is Thomas’ nephew.

“It was the one time I could actually be the uncle watching someone else be the nephew,” says Haley.

Partners of the Heart premiered in February on public television during Black History Month as part of its American Experience series. Future showings? www.partnersoftheheart.com. It will also be issued in DVD format.

— M.L. Faunce

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No Utility in Beauty

photo by Sonia Linebaugh
Annapolis, Anne Arundel Try to Trim Back BG&E’s Chain Saws
Buzz. Burr. Whirr. Whiz. That’s the sound of the electric hair trimmer. Just a trim, please. Leave a little extra on the top.

Buzz. Burr. Whirr. Snarl. That’s the sound of crews working on the streets and roadsides of Anne Arundel County and Annapolis. Only louder. Much louder. And it won’t do to ask for just a trim with a little more left on top — except perhaps in Annapolis’ Historic District.

When Baltimore Gas & Electric’s tree trimming contractor, Nick Valentine, started work in the historic district late last month, the phone rang immediately in the office of city environmentalist Marissa Calista, who is called by Mayor Ellen Moyer’s office “the guardian of the trees.”

“When I was called by Alderman Louise Hammond and another resident, I immediately called BG&E. They were very cooperative and stopped work as soon as I called. They were not aware that they had to submit a plan and have it approved.” Trees are trimmed on a four-year cycle, but Valentine and his crew from New York State are new to the contract.

“BG&E is going to submit a package to me,” says Donna Hole, of the office of City Planning and Zoning, who holds the power to approve what’s cut in the city’s historic district. Hole is not so generous in her reaction to BG&E. “They do whatever they damn well please, pardon my French,” she says. “They always say that these are primary feeder lines, but I’m going to try to get them to do the least they can do rather than the most they can do.”

BG&E spokesperson Bonnie Johansen, speaks yet another language: “We have to maintain the integrity of the system,” she says. “People don’t want trees to be cut, but they do want electricity. We work closely with the city and county to let them know what we’re doing and where.”

Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer may be one reason BG&E is cooperating. Not long after the mayor raised a stir over the scalping of trees along Cedar Park Road in Admiral Heights, the utility’s new Right Tree, Right Place program promised $30,000 to the mayor’s campaign to plant 1,000 trees in four years. The BG&E grant will add another 540 redbuds and crape myrtles to naval stadium grounds.

“BG&E probably wants to be cooperative,” said the mayor’s spokesperson Jan Hardesty. “But we could call this compensation for the mayor’s outrage. She is actively looking into less severe tree trimming, replanting trees and undergrounding electric wires.”

But “putting wires underground is not in the near future,” says Hardesty. “It’s very expensive. When Francis Street was done, the state helped with a grant because this is the capitol and the view was improved a lot. We know what shape the state is in now.”

Last spring, County Executive Janet Owens also took BG&E to task. While driving along Generals Highway, she saw BG&E’s pruning firsthand.

“The county executive was taken aback and appalled,” said spokesman Matt Diehl. “She felt the work along Generals Highway was a travesty. While she understands the need and the legitimate reasons for BG&E to trim trees, she feels they can do it in a less damaging way.”

In response to that buzz cut, Owens wrote directly to Mayo Shattick of BG&E’s parent company Constellation Energy Group. The result was a letter of understanding that pertained only to the 2002 Generals Highway tree-cutting campaign, the first in that area since 1987.

“The trees that had already been pruned severely, which drew attention to themselves due to their aberrant shape, were marked for removal,” the letter states. It also agrees that, “in this overall process there will be initial tendencies to err on the side of preservation.”

Now BG&E’s 2003 tree-trimming campaign has begun. There is no agreement about this year’s pruning. All day long, the sound is buzz, burr. All day long, the sound is whirr, snarl. It’s the sound of a severe and aberrant present and misshapen future. It’s a sound that raises a shriek among those who value both utility and beauty.

—Sonia Linebaugh

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Touring African American Maryland
From Billie Holiday to Benjamin Banneker, black history is easy to find

Travel down the same road as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman — above ground. Maryland is rich with African American culture. In case you’re not aware of Maryland’s museums, beaches and landmarks in the state, here’s where to find them.

Cambridge’s Underground Railroad Museum.
The sturdy Maryland’s African American Heritage Guide lists some 120 destinations from Alleghany to Worcester County where vacationers and weekend-trippers can journey and explore African American lives both past and present.

The map-folded little guide is free, user friendly and well organized. Landmarks and attractions are alphabetized under each county and also arranged alphabetically overall. The last page in the guide folds out into a complete map of Maryland, color-coded by county so you can chart your route.
Among artwork and photos, the guide presents Did You Knows and short bio clips of blacks whose lives have made their mark in United States and Maryland history.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) is Baltimore’s first lady of the early days of jazz. You can see her bronze statue on Pennsylvania Avenue in east Baltimore.

Benjamin Banneker (1737-1806) marks his spot as the first African American mathematician and scientist, whose inventions range from devising irrigation methods to building the first wooden striking clock ever made in the United States to completing the layout of the District of Columbia. In Baltimore County — his native county — Banneker has a historical park and museum. The museum, in the African American village of Oella, contains artifacts relating to the colonial lives of the Bannekers. At Banneker-Douglass Museum, the mathematician/scientist shares the museum’s name with black orator, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). This Annapolis museum houses artifacts from African American cultures in Maryland and the Chesapeake region.

Harriet Tubman (1819-1913) is the heroine of the Underground Railroad. On Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Cambridge, a historical marker at the former Brodess plantation marks the spot of Tubman’s birthplace. Also in Cambridge is the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman Museum, a resource area for Tubman memorabilia.

Sharing Annapolis Neck with the capitol city is the planned black community of Highland Beach, created as an exclusive vacation destination for African Americans but soon developed into a mecca of artists, educators, politicians and civil rights activists.

In Baltimore, the Arena Players — the oldest continuously operating African American theater company — present a variety of musicals, comedies and dramas. Also in Baltimore, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum features more than 100 lifelike wax figures in dramatic historical scenes. Among the newest are the partners Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Maryland’s first African American elected to statewide office.

The Maryland’s African American Heritage Guide contains a brief introduction by the governor and lieutenant governor. With Parris Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend no longer holding those posts, updated reprints with a new introduction are in progress.

Get your free guide at www.mdisfun.org or 800/737-2849. Can’t wait for U.S. mail? Pick up a copy in the lobby of the Banneker-Douglass Museum and at the Visitor’s Center, both in historic downtown Annapolis.

Additions? Suggestions? Call the Maryland Office of Tourism Development: 410/767-6331.

— Sara Kajs

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EPA Chief Whitman Vows Chesapeake Commitment

In the Maryland State House alongside Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman last week found a friendly backdrop to trumpet the Bush administration’s new environmental budget.

The Chesapeake Bay got something in return: the promise that Whitman would seek a slight increase in funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, the partnership of states surrounding the Bay, to $20.8 million next year.

“The Chesapeake Bay is one of America’s greatest treasures, and its environmental health is important to millions of people, from those who make their living harvesting its bounty to those who enjoy its boundless recreational opportunities,” Whitman said.

Chesapeake Bay typically enjoys goodwill from political leaders. Just a 50-minute Town Car ride from Washington, the Bay has provided a playground for sporting powerbrokers for a century and these days offers easy access for photo-ops for politicians’ trumpeting public policies.

photo courtesy of Governor’s Press Office
Visiting the Maryland Statehouse, EPA administrator Christine Whitman (center) jokes with Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his nominee for secretary of the Department of the Environment, Lynn Buhl.
Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, is known to prefer horses over sailing vessels. Nonetheless, her words of support for the Bay might be welcomed in a season — make that several seasons — when environmental protection hasn’t ranked as a priority in Washington.

Maryland is one of the states suing the EPA for dropping a rule requiring the nation’s oldest coal-fired power plants to install pollution control equipment when increasing their production capacities. The winners in that trade-off were the Midwestern utilities that emit the pollution that wafts eastward on the prevailing winds.

Meanwhile, conservationists have bemoaned the loss of wetlands protections, the opening of national forests for logging and proposed changes in the National Environmental Policy Act that would make it easier to change other protective rules.

“I try hard not to focus on what’s happening in Washington because it is so depressing,” remarked Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental advocacy organization.

But Schmidt-Perkins, like many other environmentalists, said she is heartened by Ehrlich’s promises to protect the Chesapeake Bay. “We’re eager for him to tell us these policies; he hasn’t said enough yet to have us sleeping well at night,” she said.

Ehrlich did not address the clean-air issues that have troubled Maryland officials or the president’s proposed “Clear Skies Initiative,” which Whitman said in Annapolis would reduce that power plant production over the years.

But Ehrlich told reporters that he had talked to Whitman about getting more money for his Bay priority: upgrading the dozens of sewage treatment plants that produce Bay-choking nitrogen pollution.

And he listened to Whitman as she repeated what she said in Washington the day before, a statement most Marylanders hope will be backed up by money and pro-environment actions in the months ahead.

“The president’s proposed budget fully reflects the obligation we all have, government, industry, indeed every American, to be good, faithful stewards of the national environment,” she said.

—Bay Weekly

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Way Downstream …

In Chesapeake Bay, two historic lighthouses — Thomas Point Lighthouse near Annapolis and the Middleground Lighthouse in Virginia — are in need of adoption as a result of federal budget cuts. The General Services Administration is accepting proposals until March 28 from organizations with the wherewithal to maintain them …

In Virginia, a new poll finds that Virginia voters worry more about sprawl than the flagging economy, crime or education. But in a sign of the times, the Virginia Senate last week ignored the Mason-Dixon poll and dispatched four Smart Growth bills to the dust bin of study commissions …

At the Bronx Zoo, animal-keepers are deploying perfume in what they call their wildlife enrichment program. They report that the female cheetahs have a clear favorite: Calvin Klein Obsession for Men

Our Creature Feature comes from your trees, and it’s not about birds. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the number of power outages around the country was growing by leaps and bounds — of squirrels.

Those acrobatic little devils are electrocuting themselves more frequently and in so doing blacking out neighborhoods. In Washington, Pepco said that squirrel-related outages grew by more than a third to 999 last year. Nothing — not pole guards, noise nor fake owls — is working. But in Connecticut, a utility is trying to outfox squirrels with a new plan: bottles of fox urine along sub-station fencing.

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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated February 13, 2003 @ 3:13am