CHESTERTOWN — If you attended school any time in the last 40 years, you probably look at segregated schools as symbols of an unhappy era when children were hostages to their elders' prejudices.
While undoubtedly true, that picture tells only part of the story. Often, in black communities, the school was second only to the church as a center of the community: a source of pride and a symbol of aspirations. In some ways, the end of segregation blended liberation with loss, especially for teachers who found themselves out of work – or starting from scratch in a system where their seniority and skills counted for nothing.
And there was an era when even segregated schools were a daring step forward. Believe it or not, the notion of educating black Americans at all was at one point unthinkable to many of their fellow citizens. The early history of "colored" schools in Kent County is surprisingly complex – and its lessons are well worth examining.
Much of that history can be seen in the African American Schoolhouse Museum, at 11730 St. James Newtown Road near Worton. Built in 1890, the school served the Worton Point black community until 1958, when it closed and its students were transferred to Chestertown.
Karen Somerville has been instrumental in preserving the old schoolhouse as a museum. She said on Sunday that the one-room schoolhouse has served as a community meeting house, a social hall, and even as a temporary church in the 50-plus years since its closing as a school. There are still many local residents who attended it as students, and Somerville encourages them to help tell its story to visitors. One is Irene Moore, who lives nearby, as the museum's chief docent.
The inside of the museum is filled with relics of the county's black communities: Worton Point, Butlertown, Coleman, Still Pond, Morgnec and Chestertown each have photo exhibits. The roots of the "colored" school system are on display in pictures of the three generations of women who worked to educate the community's children, beginning with Emma Miller, who graduated from the famous Hampton Institute in 1887 and returned to Kent County to teach. She eventually became supervisor of schools for the county's black community. Her daughter Celia Ricketts and granddaughter Thelma Ricketts Wilson, also teachers, are pictured as well.
The photos give an idea of the importance of education to the community. Some date back to the early days of the community, showing ancestors in the formal clothes people wore for portraits. Others show people enjoying themselves, as in a large photo of a crowd at a dance. There is also a significant amount of documentary material, including diaries kept by a couple who worked as domestics in the 1930s and 1940s.
The building's days as a church – a temporary meeting hall while nearby St. George's United Methodist Church was being rebuilt – are commemorated in the cross on one wall, and the Lord's Prayer written on the blackboard.
It still serves an educational function, with old household implements from an earlier day, contributed by Moore – flatirons, farm tools, an old hand pump, and a scoop used for making "snowballs." School classes come by regularly to see how their grandparents' generation lived.
There's an account of the school on the 2-CD set Somerville compiled, "Our Stories Our Songs – Eastern Shore Legacy and Treasures." The selection, "Social Hurdles of Integration," details the disorientation of many students who had previously had little contact with white fellow students and teachers. The CD is available at the museum and many local stores.
State school reports list early teachers at Worton Point – or as it was officially known, School 2, District 3. The school is listed as early as 1877, but the reports don't indicate whether it was in the same location as the current museum. Unfortunately, the 1877 report does not list teacher names.
However, from 1879 through 1881, the teacher was George W. Biddle. Biddle, born in Washington D.C., was listed in the 1880 census as 35 years old and living in Worton with his wife Rebecca and three children. His successors, as listed in the annual reports, included Renis C. Delam (1883); James A. Jackson (1886); Virginia White (1889); S. Augusta Medley (1891-93); D. Ella Johnson (1893-95); Anna A. Riley (1897-1901); and Bessie Moore (1903). Riley appears in the 1900 census, boarding with the family of George W. Wilson. She was 29.
Teachers in the "colored" schools were not listed in the state reports following 1905, so the record, pending further research, is incomplete.
The teachers at Worton Point in the 1950s, Somerville said, were "Mrs. Turner" and Barbara Jones, who was the last teacher at the school. At the time, the school taught students up to 6th grade, at which point they were bused to Garnett, then the county's only black high school.
It would not be until the 1960s that the segregated school system was ended. The first black student graduated from Chestertown High School in 1963, but full integration of the county schools did not take place until 1967. That was the culmination of a process that had taken more than a century to reach its conclusion.
It began in 1864, when a Maryland constitutional convention outlawed slavery by a slim margin and mandated public schools for the first time in the state's history. The following year, the General Assembly enacted legislation establishing the state's public school system.
As the creation of the school system coincided with emancipation, the issue of education for blacks naturally came under discussion. Education was recognized as a route to a better life by many blacks, and role models from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington stressed the importance of education in improving their lives.
Education of the new black citizens was also endorsed by the new state educational leadership. The Maryland superintendent of public instruction, the Rev. L. Van Bokkelen, stated in his first annual report (December 1865) that black Marylanders, after generations of unpaid service to whites, were owed education as compensation. He urged the state to establish "separate schools for the education of youth of African descent" wherever 40 or more applied for "public instruction."
Van Bokkelen reported that there were 34 schools for black children, most of them privately funded, at the time of his report. Seven of those schools were in Kent County, according to Howard Meeks, president of the county board of school commissioners. Because few blacks owned their own land at the time, most of the schools were built next to black churches, or even set up in part of the church building.
Despite official approval, prejudice was strong. Meeks' report notes that two of the recently opened black schools in Kent County had burned down. He said that one, near Reese's Corner, was "without doubt, fired by incendiaries." The other school fire, near Millington, he reported as accidental, caused by a faulty flue.
However, the teacher at the Millington school, Addie T. Howard, reported that the fire was set. Whatever the truth, Millington's white townspeople contributed rebuilding the church in which the school was located. A $500 reward offered by the governor for those who burned the schools was never claimed.
There was violence elsewhere, as well. In Crumpton, in 1870, a white teacher named Hamilton was attacked by a gang of youths for teaching black children. The Centreville Citizen, in a report picked up by the Kent News, blamed the attack on "naughty boys," and added, "every respectable citizen denounced it." The paper urged Hamilton to "immediately return and open his school." It also noted that fundraising for a "colored" school in Centreville was under way, supported by "persons of every political sentiment."
And in Baltimore, the Rev. John McJilton was removed as superintendent of schools in 1868 for establishing two "colored" schools without official school board sanction. The school board also refused to appropriate funds for the schools.
Most of the early black schools were founded by the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of Colored People, which established schools throughout the state. The Baltimore Association also founded what was eventually to become the first state normal school (teacher's college) for black educators in Baltimore in 1865. In 1914, that school moved to Bowie. It is now Bowie State University.
The effort to build local schools was also supported by the Freedmen's Bureau, which looked after the welfare of the former slaves. William Perkins, a prominent black businessman in Chestertown, traveled around the Shore in 1865 as an agent for the bureau. On one trip his report recorded enthusiasm among the Queen Anne's County black community for building schools.
Despite the enthusiasm, progress was slow. In the 1865 Kent County report, Meeks estimated that perhaps 150 students were enrolled in the county's five black schools. That was a small fraction of the school-age black population. Black residents of all ages often had to work to keep the family housed, clothed and fed. Education was, for many of them, a luxury.
Meeks also reported that many of the schools were open in the evening for adult students. We can get an idea of the prevailing attitudes among whites from his claim that adult education for blacks was a good thing because night school would distract the prospective students from the "Coon and 'Possum hunt" and other "more questionable pursuits" they would otherwise take part in.
Meeks recommended having black schools report directly to his office so they could be brought in line with the state system. However, it wasn't until 1873 that Maryland took responsibility for the 225 black schools that had sprung up in the state. They were teaching some 14,000 pupils, and the state superintendent of the time – M.A. Newell of Kent County – predicted that the total would reach 20,000 within a year.
However, after praising the progress being made in educating blacks, Newell went on to state in his annual report that "There is no evidence that the colored people in Maryland desire admission into white schools." The state was willing to provide its black citizens an education, but it wouldn't be ready to let all its children attend the same schools for another 90 years.
Kent County maintained segregated schools well into the 20th century. Documents donated to the Kent County News by the county teacher's association list some 25 black schools in the county in the years preceding integration. Almost all were one-room schools; not in itself unusual in the early days of public education. More than 30 of the county's white schools were also one-room institutions.
That doesn't mean there weren't differences. A look at the salaries of teachers in 1895 tells a lot of the story: white teachers in Kent County were paid between $300 and $400, while black teachers typically earned between $175 and $250. Class size was larger, as well; the student/teacher ratio in the black schools was nearly twice that in the white schools. Those statistics changed little over the succeeding decades.
Despite the inequalities, the schools remained central to their communities, while opening portals to a better life for many residents. Much of their contribution is evident in the African American Schoolhouse Museum. The museum is open by appointment; call 410-810-1416 to arrange a visit.