Black History Month Special ~ Bay Weekly Interview
with Sandra Martin & Dick Wilson
Commissioner Wilson Parran
The Rise of an African American Son of Chesapeake Country
Wilson Parran stands out in Chesapeake Country. The son of sharecroppers, he is the only African American on the county governing boards of either Calvert or Anne Arundel counties. Nor does either county have an African American delegate or senator. Parran, of Huntingtown, is one of three newly elected members of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners and the only member born and raised in Marylands fastest growing county.
Thats not all. In Annapolis, Parran holds the weighty position of director of Information Systems in the Department of Natural Resources. In that job, hes in charge of the communications web in a state department of 1,600 people spread over 104 locations.
Theres more. Parran, 53, is a successful businessman, a community volunteer and a political activist at many levels. We first interviewed him in Los Angeles, where he was serving as a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
For our coverage of Black History Month, he invited us to his fourth floor DNR office in Annapolis a big room with a view where he took a personal hour to talk about his busy life and his own views of how far Chesapeake Country has come since the days of segregation and to look at what lies ahead.
BW You worked hard to get elected in Calvert County and your winning numbers were big. Is that right?
WP When I do anything, I think it through. I agonized about whether to run or just enjoy life with my family after retirement, doing work I wanted. Once I decided, I gave it 100 percent. I was my own campaign manager. We had a strategy meeting every Tuesday. Nate Pope did public relations and ads, and he gave an objective look at what was going on.
Early on, I decided to run on my expertise, experience and leadership and not worry about the rest. I never responded to negatives, and there were some. I was top vote-getter in the primary and second in the general election. So for the most part, I enjoyed the campaign.
BW Hows it been going since you were sworn in?
WP The board we have now is working well together, were sort of jelling.
BW Jelling might be expected to take a while as campaign tensions ease. The way Calvert County Commissioners are elected, youre all running against each other, arent you? Thats on top of the learning curve as three new personalities you and cross-over Republicans Jerry Clark and Susan Shaw are added to the mix along with re-elected Republican commissioners David Hale and Linda Kelley.
WP Were elected in three [geographic] districts plus two at large, which gives full coverage of the county. But theres room for improvement in the system. In other places, when you get through the primary, you dont have any more fighting within your party. Thats not true in Calvert. Because of the district structure, youre not only running against the other party but against each other. I was so disgusted midway through the campaign that I thought about dropping out of the party and running as an Independent.
To eliminate the problem, Id recommend expanding the districts to five with all commissioners elected at large. That would mean the highest vote-getter in each district would win. Thats the way its done in St. Marys and Charles counties.
Another source of tension] is that we elect our board president every year, while in other counties the president is elected by voters for four years.
BW Not all our weekly readers follow county government as closely as they do, say, basketball. Explain to us how Calvert County is governed.
|Commissioner David Hale greets soon-to-be-sworn-in colleagues Jerry Clark, right, and Wilson Parran, center.
WP In Calvert County, we have five elected commissioners. To do the day-to-day management of county government, we hire a county administrator. And I cant even count all the agencies and board and commissions that advise us and carry out policies.
BW So the job of you five commissioners is to
WP Overseeing a budget of close to $200 million, were responsible for ensuring that county government and services are fiscally sound. Over 50 percent of our budget supports our schools, so we work with the countys nonpartisan school board. In a county growing by leaps and bounds, its also our job to ensure we provide adequate services like roads, trash and recycling.
Editors note: In one measure that Marylands fastest growing county is still rural, most citizens still manage their own trash disposal and recycling. Private trash-haulers can be hired, but all recycling and a lot of trash is taken by citizens to the countys regional centers.
BW Youre the only commissioner with Calvert County roots as well as its only African American commissioner on this board and only the third in history. That means youve firsthand experience of progress across the racial divide.
WP I was born January 22, 1950, and raised in Huntingtown [in the north of the county, midway between Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River]. I grew up on the farm with sharecropping. I was the youngest of 10 children. My parents, Gonia Magruder and Roosevelt Parran, farmed as tenants. Do you know how that works?
BW Please tell us
WP Sharecropping was an arrangement where a family had permission to live on a farm and they raised a crop of tobacco. In exchange, you got a house and you got half the tobacco.
BW We imagine sharecropping as people working from five in the morning
every single day, just barely getting by
BW Do you remember your childhood as being full of hardship.
WP I wouldnt say so, because hardship is relative. Youre right, you start early in the morning and work until late at night. But everyone around you is going through the same thing; you see people working together, working on the farm. You dont know how bad you have it until you look at what someone else has.
BW Given your age, you also grew up under segregation
WP Youre right. Calvert County was segregated until 1964 and totally integrated in 1966. In the year before the schools were totally integrated, I was one of fewer than 25 African Americans in Calvert High. But I didnt really experience any racism.
BW Tell us about that time.
WP Growing up in Southern Maryland in the 1950s, I didnt really see the impact of segregation because most of the people around me were black.
The one thing that was actually a turning point was that when I started school in 1956, I had to walk about a mile to catch the bus. I went to the original Plum Point School, a two-room school. I spent five years there, moving in different grades around the room. Back then, you had a lot of those two-room schools in Calvert County.
As a kid I didnt really think anything of it. But one of the eye-openers for me was when a family from Massachusetts purchased a store across the street from the farm. The mother was amazed that some buses went to that road, but my sister and I had to walk a mile to catch ours.
She took my mother down to the board of education, and the board actually said, okay, well change the bus route.
That was the first time Id seen government in action. Not only government being responsive but government in action. And that, for me, was a big plus because now all I had to do was watch the bus come in front of my house, turn around, and I had time to run out and catch it.
BW So that was a milestone in your life?
|Wilson Parrans team joined him in filing for County Commissioner: Irving Long, wife Deborah Parran, Wilson, MacArthur Jones, Marsha Plater and Roland Plater.
WP I remember that. My mom went down and she stood before the board of education and a change was made.
BW You were later on that same Calvert County Board of Education?
WPI was on their board in 1980, when I was 30 years old. I sat on the Calvert board for six years. One of those years I was also president of the Maryland Boards of Education. Then I spent six years on the state board of education.
BW But lets not get ahead of ourselves. What kind of kid were you in school?
WP I was a semi-bookworm. I loved reading in school. One librarian, Mrs. DeCook, actually interested me in a list of books you should read and I did, books like A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights.
BW So your head had been enlarged beyond Calvert County before you graduated?
WP Back then, growing up in a rural area, books were my escape to the rest of the world.
But I also joked and played a lot. Though I was not athletic, I was the vice president of my senior class in the second year of full integration, 1967. I was encouraged by one of my teachers, Steven Tarasen, to run. He taught Problems of the 20th Century. A young man right out of college, he could relate to seniors.
BW What next after you graduated from newly integrated Calvert Senior High?
WP When I graduated from high school, I went straight into the work force. I went to college later on.
I started working in communications for AT&T. In 1969 I went on leave to go into the military. You know, in those days, the Vietnam years, Uncle Sam came knocking on your door
BW What was that time like?
WP I was one of very few minorities in the military doing what I did, working on electronics in fighter planes. It was a good start for me in what Id like to do in the future. Had I gone to college out of high school, I would not have gone that way.
I would recommend the military to anybody. Any young person can learn a lot going through that kind of discipline. From my rural background in Southern Maryland, I observed the whole process of how the military takes all these folks from all over the country and for the most part in six weeks gets them disciplined and working as a team.
In 1969, we had guys coming in with long hair, big Afros, no hair. The first thing the military did was cut off all your hair, so aside from color, we all looked alike. So you jelled as a group to focus on this country.
BW After your service
WP I came back to AT&T, and in 1979, transferred to C&P Telephone, which became Bell Atlantic. Finally, I retired from Frontier, but it was considered service with all one company, so I had 30 years. By then Id been chief information officer in one company and vice president in two.
BW So when did you get your own college degrees?
WP I had to really crank it up from 1980 to 1991. When I was on the school boards, I was going to school myself. I was out of high school 12 years before I got my first degree. I decided to get academic papers to go with what I could do. I did not want to run into a point where not having a degree was an excuse for not being promoted.
BW You and your wife Deborah have two sons. They went to college. Did they go to the military?
I was the first one in my family to graduate from college. I got my AA from Prince Georges Community College in 1980. I got my bachelors from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, and my masters from George Washington University.
WP No. They didnt have to. And there was never any question theyd go to college. Our younger son, Khaliel, graduated from Towson in computers. Our older son, Damani, studied biology at UMBC. Then he got his Ph.D. in toxicology at the University of North Carolina.
BW That they didnt have to get their start in the military tells a bit about how much the world has changed in the generation between you and your sons. When you were their age, America was described as two societies, separate and unequal. Have we become one society?
WP What has happened over the years since segregation was eliminated is that the differences between our two societies are more along the line of economic. You still have economically deprived folks and you have more heterogeneity in the middle class and above.
In Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, there are areas where for years there have been big bases of land owned by African Americans, and there are still African American communities there. On the campaign trail on a Sunday morning, you walk into a church you see for the most part a majority of one race or another. I would say that were not a totally diverse county. We have a long way to go.
BW And weve come a long way to get you back on the campaign trail. After you retired, were you immediately drawn to politics?
WP First, I took six months off. Before I retired, I had worked in Rochester, New York, for two years and flew home on weekends. So I had a lot to catch up on, reading and projects around the house. My wife is a teachers aide at Sunderland School, and she has summer off, so we traveled. I wanted to take time to think about what I really wanted to do, and that was consulting. I took a job consulting with one of the big six, KPMG, for 18 months. Then I opened my own business, Windspeed Technologies.
BW And what is that?
WP I can help a company determine where they are in their technology, what they need and where they need to go. It goes beyond computers and telephones to managing the overall chain of production, supply, distribution and billing in terms of how a single business compares to the industry.
BW But youve since worked a year for Calvert County as director of Management Information Systems, and now for more than two years on the fourth floor at Maryland Department of Natural Resources as head of information technology
WP I like a challenge. Im proud of what Ive been able to achieve, and I came to government to give back to my county and state.
BW You survived new governor Robert Ehrlichs first round of top-floor cuts at DNR. Now, with a new secretary, is your job at risk?
WP Ive been serving at the pleasure of for years. Ever since I left the union for management in 1978, Ive not been protected. So Im skilled enough to take care of myself. I can understand the concern of many in state government. But I feel that technology is technology, and I know technology. Ive been successful in managing and saving money.
My job here also meshes well with my work with the Calvert commissioners. Before I ran, I made sure I could still work here. Theres precedent, and this position is not in line with decision-making impacting policy in Calvert County. I take off from DNR on Tuesdays, when the commissioners meet.
BW Running for commissioner was a challenge, too?
WP I look at what I can contribute, as I always have, how I can help solve problems. Im not a complainer unless I can roll up my sleeves, get in and fix what I see wrong. I cant fix all of the problems facing Calvert County, but I will work to help solve them.
Thats what I have to offer. Martin Luther King said that his dream was that people would look at content of a persons character rather than skin color. Were not there yet, and thats a fact. You look at me and the first thing you see is that Im black. But I tend to look at myself in a broader view. I dont like inertia. I tackle problems head on. Thats part of leadership, and Im really competitive, bringing that energy to any situation.
BW How do you balance being a commissioner with your full time job, and your family?
|The Parran family: sons Khaliel, left, and Damani, right, and wife Deborah.
WP I take off all day Tuesdays, when the commissioners have our weekly staff briefing and meeting. On Friday, we get a briefing package to look through, and I do that over the weekend. Every week I have a stack of information nine to 12 inches high coming in, and I go through it all. And I spend a lot of time in community events, though I make a rule to do no more than three nights a week to make a balance with my family. Then there are 10 to 15 e-mails a day more on weeks when an issue is hot over 60 phone calls a week and mail. There was some advantage in putting my picture on 800 or 1,000 campaign signs, because everywhere I go, I get recognized.
Editors note: To add to that number, reach Parran at 410/535-5081 [email protected].
BW What are Calverts main issues?
WP Growth continues to be an issue. In an area growing as fast as ours where weve enjoyed the Bay and rivers, growth brings traffic problems and weve got major ones. To provide services to keep up with the growth, we need to enhance our revenue-tax base. We have a business park in Lusby, where we need to attract businesses, preferably the consulting kind where you can be based there and work at Patuxent River Naval Air Base in St. Marys County. We also need to increase our commercial tax revenue in town centers.
People come to Calvert County because of quality of life, and they stay because of quality of life. Part of that is being able to grow as well as to retain our rural landscape and preserve our farm land.
We have adequate public facilities laws to ensure that once our schools hit a certain level, we dont allow any new building permits. Of course there are thousands of old permits out there.
Im struggling as a commissioner over how we can get our arms around how much we actually have thats developable so we can manage growth.
BW Whats your own goal in your new job as one of Calvert Countys five commissioners?
WP All of us should take as our mission to leave this place better than when we came on board. I want the legacy of this board to be that we have effectively managed growth, supported education for the betterment of all students and have left our budget better than we found it. I want to have the courage to make tough decisions that may not always be popular but are for the good of our county.