Teacher whose work proved Mencken wrong is honored by black men's group

November 13, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Essie Hughes said she remembers being a student at the city's Frederick Douglass High School in the 1920s and reading H. L. Mencken's assertion that blacks were too passive to overcome the sociological scars of slavery.

Miss Hughes didn't buy it, became a teacher and made sure that her students proved Mencken wrong.

"He said be more aggressive, and we were saying, we were aggressive, but we were held back by the institution of segregation," said Miss Hughes, who was honored yesterday by a group of African-American men who helped her make her case.

A former student of Miss Hughes', Baltimore police Maj. Alvin Winkler, remembered her as a counselor at Douglass.

"It was Miss Hughes that kept me straight and helped me get where I am today," said Major Winkler, who was part of a panel of successful black men meeting yesterday at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue to discuss "The Continuing Empowerment of African-American Males Through Education."

But Miss Hughes doesn't believe simply looking back can solve the problems that have frayed the fabric of the community that turned out the successful men of her era, such as her late classmate, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Miss Hughes taught at Douglass for 20 years, starting in 1934 and went on to be an administrator until retirement in 1971.

Yes, the schools need nurturing teachers who don't fear students, but big problems need big solutions, she believes.

"We need to reclaim our youth," she said, proposing a National Youth Reclamation Act similar to the Great Depression-era National Recovery Act.

If the federal government could address failures in the education and training of youth in a way that reflects the magnitude of the problem, she said, "then perhaps we will get a feeling that we're not just talking, but we're making our walk and our talk interface."

Such a program could provide an alternative for the youths who can't succeed in the traditional school setting, Miss Hughes said.

"They would be able to develop some kind of marketable skills and also learn the basic [academic] skills in a different environment," she said. Traditional classrooms can be too confining for many of today's students, she said. The alternative would "give them more of an opportunity to have someone listen to them, to have someone to talk to."

Asked if she would want to design such a program, she said, "I think a lot of us teachers would."

Hers was one of a variety of philosophies and methods proposed by the panel convened by the church's Men's League for its annual community forum.

The messages ranged from simply giving young black men a chance -- a word of concern, help with school or even a job -- to major changes in the way the inner-city black community is structured, including stopping the flight of talented students to private schools and successful men to the suburbs.

"We have to find a way to keep our best here -- it's an all-or-nothing situation," said Charles Dorsey, an attorney who works in the city Public Defender's Office.

Some expressed hope that the troubles of inner-city black youth are not insurmountable.

"We have a rich history, and we have been through much worse than this drug epidemic we're going through right now," said Michael Wright, director of Ambulatory Services at Liberty Medical Center. "I believe that this will pass, but I believe that we must take some action" to see that it does, he said.

The Rev. Donald Major, pastor of New St. Mark Baptist Church, said he didn't see successful role models during his youth in the neighborhood around the church. He said that in his school days, he was labeled "gifted and talented," but also had "a behavioral problem."

"I'm a black male from this community, and I don't know any of you," he said. "I didn't know you, but I may have been one who antagonized and tortured your children," said Mr. Major, 27. "Nobody every went and dealt with the children who played in the projects. I know because I played in the projects. Out of 20 of us, three are still alive."

He urged action over talk. "We have to get past these wonderful little meetings," he said.

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