Reunion: 6th-graders Of 1949

July 15, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

In sixth grade they learned and played together at the neighborhood school. Nearly a half-century later, they are working or retired, married or divorced. And this weekend, they will get together to talk about what has happened in between.

"We're all fatter now," said Annie Mae Henson-Jones, a member of the Coppin Demonstration School's 1949 sixth-grade class, which will have its 45th-year reunion tomorrow.

While body sizes may have changed, many relationships have remained the same, said Ms. Henson, 57, a nurse at Pleasant Manor Nursing Home. "Most of us started kindergarten together and went to high school together, and we've been friends since elementary school. All of our parents were friends. We did everything together."

Others lost contact with classmates -- but hope to renew them at the reunion. Clyde Derrill, 57, a retired letter carrier with 12 grandchildren, did not attend the three previous class reunions. But he plans to go tomorrow. "I just want to see what the old people look like -- just curious."

Coppin Demonstration School was one of two schools in the three-story building at 1114 N. Mount St. in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. On the top floor was Coppin Teachers College. Its teachers in training practiced their skills on the black elementary school students downstairs, including those in the sixth-grade class of 1949.

The college remained there until 1952, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision to desegregate schools. It has since moved to North Avenue and is called Coppin State College. The demonstration school, which taught children in kindergarten through sixth grade, closed in 1978. The building that once housed both has become the Sandtown-Winchester Community Support Center.

Thirty-six of the 43 people in the sixth-grade class of 1949 are still living; about 20 are expected to attend the reunion at Coppin State College. They include two Baltimore school principals, a Cornell University economics professor and a nephew of band leader Cab Calloway. Mae Cornish and James McDonald, former demonstration school teachers who have taught thousands of students, will be honored by City Councilman Carl Stokes, said Walter Gill, the reunion's organizer.

Keeping in touch with his sixth-grade classmates has been important for Dr. Gill, 56, who earned his doctorate in educational communications from Syracuse University. It has provided blacks with people to turn to, he said.

"It's called networking now, but [remaining in touch] was . . . part and parcel to surviving as African-Americans. We were segregated as youngsters and confined to a small geographic area, so it is relatively easy to know what your friends are doing, and that has remained the case throughout life," he said.

Dr. Gill, a college professor, author and social services worker, recalled that in sixth grade, "anybody in that school was your teacher, everybody in your neighborhood was your parent." Sylvia Ingram-Cothorne, 56, now the principal of Pinderhughes Elementary School, lived a few doors from the school, had a swing in her back yard, and remembers the school crowning a king and queen each year. Classmate Ruth Robinson-Diggs, 57, would recite poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar whenever anyone would listen.

"We used to play ball on the playground -- it was the school playground," recalled Eugene Watkins. "A railroad track used to run right beside the school. When we were hitting the ball, we wanted to make sure we didn't hit it over the railroad tracks." Mr. Watkins, a state tax investigator, also has fond memories of the college students teaching in his classroom. "We had to come in shirts and ties, and the girls were wearing dresses. It was very inspiring. It was something that was unusual. This didn't actually happen in [all] public schools. You felt good about this happening with you."

For a community so rich in memories, Dr. Gill said, an ordinary high school reunion would not do. "High school class [reunions]? Well, we have high school reunions, but how many . . . still have a sixth-grade reunion? It's special, anytime you can maintain relationships."

The reunion, which costs $10 and offers live entertainment and a buffet, will be held at the Tawes College Center from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m.

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