FOR the sake of her children, Sandra Quarles wrestled for a share of American suburbia, and it is paying off. Her daughter, Sharon, is a middle-class princess: Pretty and smart, she will be presented at a debutante cotillion this Saturday night and will head off to Penn State University as a pre-med student in the fall. Mrs. Quarles, who is black, is part of a community that new census figures show to be the largest affluent black suburb in the country: Prince George's County, a crescent-shaped region bordering D.C.'s east edge.
Moreover, ``This area became [more] desirable because of the influx of black affluence,'' points out Margery Turner, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. Education and income levels of this previously white majority, semi-rural suburb increased with the growth in the numbers of blacks. Many of the new residents were middle-class black professionals like Quarles, who owns a small computer business.
``We strived so hard to get in so that the girls [an older daughter is now an adult living on her own] could grow up in an atmosphere of a planned, mixed neighborhood... in a better environment,'' she says of the determination she and her ex-husband, a school principal, showed when they moved to this area, then all white, in the late '70s.
Since then, the racial balance of the neatly clipped neighborhood has tipped heavily to blacks, home values have continued to rise, and the area has become largely professional. The confident young Sharon explains that growing up here made her ``oblivious to racism.'' ``It wasn't until I started looking at colleges that I was aware places weren't predominantly black.... When you go anywhere that you're a minority, there's a sense of tension.''
Blacks became a majority in Prince George's County during the 1980s - United States Census figures show the black population grew from just 37 percent in 1980 to 51 percent last year. Meanwhile, the white population continued to grow in absolute numbers, suggesting that white flight was not a factor in the shift to a black majority.
Traditionally, the county had been the ``ugly stepsister'' of Washington suburbs. This less-than-prestigious image kept a lid on the real estate market here while real estate prices in other Washington suburbs skyrocketed in the 1970s and '80s. Consequently, Prince George's remained an affordable, convenient place to locate for government workers in D.C., and for those who worked at large in-county employers like Andrews Air Force Base, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Universi ty of Maryland.
``You could buy the same house from the same builder for 30 percent less here,'' observes Major Riddick, Prince George's county executive. One of only a handful of black county executives in the country, he looked at homes in the whole Washington region before settling here.
Prince George's is ``the poster child of the civil rights movement,'' says Wayne Curry, a prominent black attorney here. The county represents the black realization of 20th-century American dreams that are nearly exclusively associated with white middle-class success, explains Mr. Curry. Raised in the county, he was the first black to integrate many institutions, including his elementary school and the county Chamber of Commerce, where he was named the first black president last year.
Certainly the county has not been free of racial tension over the years - battles flare periodically over school desegregation and the largely white police force and county government. Many still feel that the lack of any major upscale shopping centers in the county is a form of redlining. Even though the median family income for blacks here was $22,930 - well above that for whites nationally - as early as 1980, major upscale retailers continue to ignore the area.
But there is a distinct lack of tension out here past the Interstate 95 beltway, the dividing line between the county's urban and suburban areas. The suburbs are quiet, full of two-career couples who have chosen this area for its affordable housing, safety, and proximity to good schools. New supermarkets, broad new avenues feeding into neat-as-a-pin subdivisions, and well-kept parks give it the look of much of white America.
Talks with middle-class blacks suggest a comfort, even excitement, about the place.
``We are the beneficiaries of the struggle of the 1960s,'' says Rev. Grainger Browning of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church. ``Prince George's County has the best possibility of bringing about empowerment in the black community by not only getting the hamburger but owning the hamburger stand, by not only getting to ride on the bus but owning the bus company.''
Indeed, there is a certain ``blossoming'' of confidence that takes place when blacks are not the minority, observes Alonia Sharps, assistant to the president for minority affairs and affirmative action programs at Prince George's Community College.
``To live in a community that's predominantly black, you're there amongst people like you with similar goals,'' she explains. ``We [in the county] have the same motivations, the same high expectations....''
The black middle class ``has existed all along,'' explains Ransford Palmer, a Howard University professor of economics who has studied the demographic changes in the county. ``They just had not been concentrated in a suburban county like this and the numbers have grown for the simple reason that more blacks are going to college and moving into a wider range of professions.''
The status of the county continues to rise as a result of blacks moving here, says researcher Margery Turner. ``And potentially this is one of the really promising things happening in our society....'' If there could be more Prince George's, she says, ``our society would be much healthier.''