Saving Bates School in Annapolis

August 18, 1992

Few projects mean more to Annapolis' black community than the restoration of the Wiley H. Bates High School, the red-brick building that used to be Anne Arundel County's only public school for blacks. Unfortunately, the project doesn't seem to mean much at all to county and city officials, who have shunted it aside for more than a decade.

They may talk about supporting black leaders' efforts to transform the school into a community and senior center, but what have they done? Ten years after neighborhood leaders started working for the school's re-use, there is no discernible plan to finance its preservation. Annapolis officials haven't even kept the building in decent condition; it's more dilapidated than ever.

Annapolis Mayor Alfred Hopkins and County Executive Robert R. Neall need to do something, soon, about saving Bates. This is not another story about people who want something nice for their community, but an intensely emotional issue with the potential to damage race relations in the city.

For black residents, Bates is more than a school building. It is a symbol of their struggle, a historic landmark, part of their heritage. Bates supporters literally have wept at public meetings on the topic. The fact that government officials (most of them white) have rejected or put off plans to preserve it is viewed as an insult by many black residents.

Blacks were deeply offended last February when the City Council voted down developer Leonard Frenkil's proposal to help pay for renovating the asbestos-riddled school by building 86 townhouses on the grounds. The city did have some good reasons for refusing to rezone the property to allow townhomes, the foremost being that the site sits in the protected Chesapeake Bay "critical area."

Since then, despite promises to find alternate government funding for renovations, city leaders haven't gotten very far. Mr. Hopkins says he has made a list of possible grants and even offered money to convert part of the school into a senior center. But the county, which would have to approve a senior center, has shown little interest.

Bates supporters are becoming more angry and bitter every day that the school falls deeper into disrepair. How can we blame them? They've done everything that can be reasonably expected of civic-minded people to encourage a project that makes sense, and after 10 long years they don't have a thing to show for it.

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