Civil rights activist continues contributions with volunteer work

May 18, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special To the Sun

Leola M. Dorsey remembers a time in Howard County when African-Americans weren't allowed in some restaurants and when doctors' offices had separate entrances for "whites and coloreds." That's all changed now, thanks, in part, to her fight for civil rights.

"I always had a lot of nerve," Mrs. Dorsey laughed. "I sometimes sit back and remember some of the things I did, and I think, 'Gee whiz, you were a crazy girl.' "

Last month, the 77-year-old lifelong Guilford resident was honored for her civil rights and education activities as part of the Women's History Month celebrations held by the Howard County Commission for Women.

"We selected her because of her diverse contributions to the community," said Susan Rosenbaum, executive secretary to the commission. "She is a very giving, generous woman who sets the example for the young people."

The award is the latest addition to Mrs. Dorsey's two boxes full of commendations, spanning 27 years, honoring her work in community, state and national organizations, including the PTA, the Columbia Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She currently is a member of 10 organizations, including the Howard County Republican Women, Howard County General Hospital Auxiliary and the League of Women Voters of Howard County.

A part-time manager at the Guilford Eating-Together Site, which offers hot lunches and activities for seniors, Mrs. Dorsey reflected about her past and her seemingly boundless energy.

"Whenever there's a sunny day, there's no way I could lie down and go to sleep," she said. "There's always something I can be doing."

Mrs. Dorsey joined the county's NAACP in 1944 and, three years later, became the first and only female president of the chapter.

She recalled an occasion in the 1950s, before integration, when she decided to enter the "white" portion of her doctor's waiting room. Her husband, Remus, who died in 1974, entered the "colored" side of the waiting room.

Mrs. Dorsey stuck to her principles, was treated and left the office without incident. "I got out a lot faster than my husband," recalled Mrs. Dorsey, with a laugh.

Her tireless efforts led to a long list of African-American firsts in Howard County. They include being the first to serve as woman's vice chair of the Republican Central Committee, in 1967; the first African-American to run for County Council, in the early 1970s; and the first to serve on the advisory committee for the county's Board of Education in 1978.

Mrs. Dorsey also has been deeply involved in education. As a girl, the fourth of 10 children, she attended Robert Guilford Elementary School, originally located at Guilford and Mission roads.

At that time, a seventh-grade education was the highest an African-American could achieve in the county, she said. Mrs. Dorsey's mother paid room and board to relatives in Baltimore so her daughter could continue her education at the city's Booker T. Washington Junior High School.

Mrs. Dorsey attended Lakeland High School in College Park, but never graduated because her mother couldn't afford to send her to school away from home.

TTC Married in 1939, her son Charles was born that year, prompting Mrs. Dorsey to work for better educational opportunities for African-Americans. She became PTA president at her son's school, striving to improve the educational environment for the students.

Eventually, Mrs. Dorsey became vice president of the Maryland Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers which, through her efforts, later merged with the Maryland Congress of Parents and Teachers, an umbrella group for PTAs around the state.

"I wanted my son to have a good education," she said of her activities on behalf of the schools.

Her efforts paid off. Today, her son is an educator, working in vocational education with the Calvert Career Center, part of the Calvert County public school system. He has five children and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Dorsey's work as an education activist led to her appointment, in 1973, to the board of trustees of Howard Community College by former Gov. Harry Hughes. Retired from that position since June 1987, Mrs. Dorsey had the longest tenure as a board member.

Recently nominated by the Howard County Commission for Women to the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, Mrs. Dorsey also received a resolution from the County Council and County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

"I never thought I would receive so many accolades," Mrs. Dorsey said. "I wanted to be involved and to help somebody one way or another. If I helped someone, my living will not be in vain."

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