Greenbelt's first black council member recalls historic journey
Jordan says he wants emphasis to be on his contributions to the city
It took Greenbelt slightly longer than the United States to elect its first black representative, but like President Barack Obama, Emmett Jordan the city's first black council member wants less emphasis put on the color of his skin and more on what he plans to accomplish for his community.
"Many people are talking about how I am the first African-American elected to [the] council, and I'm sure my grandparents would be very proud, but it's not a means to an end," Jordan said.
Jordan, 52, not only made history for simply being elected to the council on Nov. 3, he also scored the second-highest number of votes, making him mayor pro tem, meaning that in the absence of Mayor Judith Davis, Jordan would serve as mayor.
"I'm going to continue the responsible fiscal management, but I'm also going to be open to thinking outside the box and not being so traditional," he said.
Jordan, a Cincinnati native who has lived in Greenbelt for 10 years, has been an independent consultant working in marketing and communications services for nonprofits and associations for 25 years, although he has been self-employed for the last four.
Before joining the council, Jordan was involved with city organizations, including the Greenbriar Condominium Association, the Greenbelt Community Foundation and Greenbelt Neighbors Alliance.
"Greenbelt has an interesting mix of people you don't find in other places," Jordan said.
The city had lacked minority representation on its council, an issue some residents brought to Mel Franklin, the Greater Marlboro Democratic Club's president, who in turn took the matter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's chapter in Prince George's County in January 2008.
The last black candidate to run for city office did so in 1979, and a second withdrew from the 1993 city elections. This year, Jordan was joined by another black city council candidate, Che Sayles, who received the most votes from Greenbelt West, where he lives in Empirian Village, but the least votes of all the candidates city-wide.
"I at least felt it was worth having a discussion with the NAACP," Franklin said. "It's great that all of that along with the Greenbelt electorate led to the first African-American city councilman. It was a great outcome. Greenbelt residents reacted in making history."
To have a council more reflective of the community, the NAACP suggested after a meeting in the spring with the city council and residents that the city be divided into five districts with a council member from each. The NAACP supported district voting over the city's current at-large voting because county NAACP President June White Dillard thought smaller districts would provide a greater opportunity for more people to run for office.
While that initiative did not gain support from the council, it approved a measure to increase its members from five to seven by a 4-1 vote June 25, effectively adding two new seats to the council.
Jordan said he favored the decision to expand.
"It just makes sense. We've had five seats since 1937, when the city was founded," he said. "Having seven council members instead of five means that we can split up responsibilities and ultimately do a better job."
Dillard said she was very pleased with the election, adding that she was in attendance at the Nov. 9 meeting in which Jordan was officially sworn in to the council.
"We feel like we have certainly created diversity on the City Council," she said. "According to the most recent census data, the African-American population is about 60 percent for the city of Greenbelt."
The American Civil Liberties Union also called for the city to increase registration and turnout efforts; to shift its election date to coincide with the state and national elections; and to employ a single-member district system or proportional representation.
"I was pleased in general with more diverse candidates from different parts of the city [that] turned out and I was pleased to see that an African American candidate was elected for the first time," Deborah Jeon, ACLU of Maryland legal director, said. "The only disappointment was that it still looks as if turnout in some areas of the community was low."
Jordan said he wants to move forward with his agenda, including building the city's economy by reaching out to Greenbelt's small businesses.
"We've got businesses that other cities envy, like hotels, retailers, doctors and lawyers," Jordan said. "We need to engage business owners to make them feel like they're a part of the community."