Douglass troubles cloud anniversary Alumni recall past glories, offer help to students

October 29, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

If you chattered in class or stepped out of line in the hallway or failed to turn in your homework, you heard about it all the way home from Frederick Douglass High School.

The principal would call your parents, who would tell the neighbors, who would be waiting for you when you passed their stoops. That was before your parents and your grandparents and your aunts and uncles got to you, says Twilah Scarborough, a 1944 graduate.

" 'Why were you acting up today? You know better than that, Twilah,' they'd all say," recalls Mrs. Scarborough. "Boy, did that set you straight."

Mrs. Scarborough's grandparents and her parents and her 10 brothers and sisters and some of their children would identify with the story. They all graduated from Douglass.

This weekend, about 3,000 Douglass alumni are expected to gather to celebrate the school's 110th anniversary, its rich heritage as one of the premier black schools in Baltimore -- the only city high school blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two until 1954.

Proud Douglass, where teachers accepted no excuses for less than your best and where generations of young Baltimore blacks learned that neither Jim Crow nor poverty nor the color of their skin could hold them back.

Through the decades, the school named for the one-time slave )) shaped its students, permeating them with its spirit, imparting wisdom that guided them through life. They had a saying: "Don't just go through Douglass; let Douglass go through you."

Douglass, proud Douglass, went through many of Baltimore's most-renowned citizens: Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who will be honored posthumously; former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and Rep. Kweisi Mfume; Cab Calloway, the entertainer; Ethel Ennis, the singer; George Russell Jr., Baltimore's first black city solicitor; Alice G. Pinderhughes, the former schools superintendent; Clarence H. "Du" Burns, the city's first black mayor.

The Douglass honor roll goes on and on. But for old-timers, the celebration is tempered by the realization that their alma mater's troubled present clashes with its glorious past.

* Today, teachers, the targets of profanity and physical threats, fear for their safety and demanded that classes be canceled for two days so that they could be trained to stave off violence. Three teachers have missed school this year after being assaulted by students.

* Over a period of a month, school police confiscated four weapons, including a sawed-off rifle, inside the school.

* Some teachers tell of stopping class 10 or 15 times an hour to deal with disruptive students. That detracts from any real education, as performance measures attest: Students' scores average among the lowest in the city on standardized test scores, 1 in 4 students drop out each year, only 7 of 10 students show up each day.

Outside the three-story brick school, sure as the sun sets, a good many streets in the surrounding neighborhoods become war zones at night. Drug dealers take control of the corners, and the sound of gunfire no longer surprises anybody.

Sometimes, the ways of the streets come dangerously close to the campus. Two weeks into the school year, rival neighborhood gangs feuded across the street in a Mondawmin Mall parking lot with steel poles, wood slabs and knives just after dismissal. Parents, clergy and community leaders worried that violence would spill over into the school.

Douglass is in no small part a victim of its surroundings, struggling to cope with more than its share of the scourges of urban America -- rampant unemployment, poverty, despair, violence, drug trafficking, single-parent households supported with welfare checks. The school's story -- of triumphs and tribulation, of glory and frustration, of remarkable success and dismal failure -- reflects the ups and downs of those streets and those neighborhoods.

Hannibal Mickens walked them -- 40 minutes every school day -- when he attended Douglass from 1954 to 1957. Last week, he made the journey again, from the rowhouse where he lived on West Saratoga Street to the school at 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Driving through the Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods, he points to the homes where he stopped each morning to pick up a dozen classmates, the buildings that housed a movie theater and a gas station and markets and a big bakery.

He hardly recognizes the old neighborhood. On corners, young men and women amble aimlessly. Drunks sip from bottles, while drug dealers work the streets. Boarded-up houses are disturbingly common. Vacant storefronts far outnumber successful businesses. A bail bondsmen and a funeral home and a liquor store thrive.

"It pains me because these are the streets I walked to school and everyplace else," says Mr. Mickens, a hearing examiner for the state Insurance Commission.

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