Richard Epps is 18 years old, black, proud, wears a stovepipe hair style and wooden beads and has some provocative ideas about blacks who fought in the Civil War.
But come June, the senior at Milford Mill High School in Baltimore County will be trading in his hair cut, beads and perhaps even a few of his radical ideas. He's joining the Marines.
Yesterday, as the war in the Persian Gulf appeared all but over, Epps and a group of fellow seniors marked the last day of Black History Month with a discussion of the role of black soldiers during the Civil War.
Their guide was the movie "Glory," 1989's Academy Award-winning film about the trials and triumphs of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment. They got assistance from Lt. Col. Anita McMiller, a Pentagon expert in the contributions of blacks in all of America's conflicts, particularly the so-called Buffalo Soldiers who helped conquer the West.
The discussion centered primarily on the hardships black soldiers endured in segregated regiments prior to the Korean War. Despite the talk of racism, mass degradation and the slaughter of war, most students in the group spoke of how proud and moved they were by the contributions blacks had made.
However, Epps asked why blacks did not start their own regiments during the Civil War rather than join the segregated Union Army.
"Maybe we could have taken over territory, like Louisiana, so that black people could have their own culture and government," he said. "It just seems to me that, if we would have started back
then, it would be so different now. We would have a power source to build on and we would be able to win white people's respect."
Epps later acknowledged that such a movement would be inconceivable today, given how much the U.S. military has changed and accepted blacks into all its branches.
"Look at the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, [Gen.] Colin Powell," Epps said. "I'm using him as a role model."
Quentin Wyatt, a social studies teacher at Milford Mill, said he organized yesterday's session to help students feel pride in their heritage.
"I never grew up with a lack of self-worth," said Wyatt, whose family was among an elite of blacks who owned vacation homes in Highland Beach, an Anne Arundel County enclave that is one of the oldest African-American resort communities in the nation.
"But I realize that some people do grow up with a lack of VTC self-worth, and it's not because of any intellectual shortcoming," Wyatt said. "It's because of omissions of history."
Milford Mill, which has an 85 percent black student population, sits in a mostly middle-class community northwest of Villa Nova Park between Reisterstown and Liberty roads.
That corridor has been generally viewed as a pathway to the suburbs for blacks who have escaped urban Baltimore. But the progress has not been total and, today for example, only 60 percent of Milford Mill students are expected to attend college -- below the county average of 70 percent who go on to higher education, school spokesmen said.
While some critics have suggested that a disproportionate number of black youths enter the military because they lack other options, Milford Mill apparently has not been a major contributor to the armed services.
In 1989, the last year for which statistics were available, the school recorded just 11 students out of a senior class of 170 entering the military after graduation.
Except for Epps and about three other students who stayed to talk with two recruiters who were on hand yesterday, students showed little or no interest in the armed services. One recruiter, who asked not to be identified, said the Middle East war hasn't necessarily made recruitment more difficult. It has made some young people feel more patriotic and willing to sign up, while frightening off others, he said.
Teddy Colbert, 17, said he plans to go to college when he graduates. Already accepted at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Colbert said he wants to study electrical engineering.
Still, Colbert said, he is proud of blacks who serve, adding that black soldiers in the Persian Gulf are on a par with those who served during the Civil War, when conditions were harsher.
"When you're treated like children and degraded, it's easy not to have motivation to do anything," Colbert said of the black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. "But they had motivation."