The Long, Hard Climb An American story: The Goldsborough family's faith in hard work and education took them from the segregated world of servants to the promised land of the middle class. But can they pass on their gains to the next generation?

February 18, 1996|By KIM CLARK | KIM CLARK,SUN STAFF

SHE STARTED LIFE in a big, poor family on the Eastern Shore, one of eight children whose parents had to scrub, polish and mow for wealthy white folks to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

There was no reason to expect Leah Goldsborough or her seven brothers to get much further than their parents. Not in a town where black children were barred from the local library. Not in a country where black teachers earned less than butlers.

So there was a sense of triumph when a crowd of 350 gathered at Martin's West last October to celebrate the retirement of Leah Goldsborough Hasty: teacher, principal and educational pioneer.

The jazz quintet blowing a brass fanfare wasn't just celebrating her four decades of work in the Baltimore school system. It was trumpeting her family's long, hard climb out of poverty, a journey that took them from the servants' quarters of the Rouse estate in segregated Easton to split-level houses in middle-class suburbs.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rushed into the dining room fresh from a dinner with President Clinton to toast the strong, animated woman he's known since he was a child.

Leah was quick to tell a funny story, quick to laugh, and quick to grab a mischievous little boy and scare him into behaving, Mr. Schmoke told her family, friends and colleagues. And she was passionate about education, passionate about her work as principal of Matthew A. Henson Elementary School. There, Leah Hasty launched an all-male class for black boys that was copied by schools across the country.

Decked out in a creamy white dress and gold jewelry, Leah basked in all the praise, her face round and luminous. And watching with pride from a wheelchair at the front of the dining room was Leah's mother, 104-year-old Sarah Ida Goldsborough.

For Mrs. Goldsborough, the retirement party was an affirmation of everything she and her late husband, George, had drilled into their eight children. Hard work and education, they told them over and over, was the way to a better life.

And their children listened. All eight went to college; six earned degrees.

In some ways, the Goldsboroughs aren't spectacular: There are no doctors, lawyers or company presidents in this family. Instead there are teachers, postal supervisors and electricians. It is the distance they have traveled that makes them remarkable. Their lives tell the story of 4 million African-American families who marched out of segregation and into the middle class.

Now those who have made it face a much different and, perhaps, more difficult task. They must pass on their gains to the next generation at a time when good jobs are disappearing, affirmative action programs are under attack and the values that the Goldsboroughs believed in are often mocked instead of admired.

No one at the party knew this better than Leah Hasty. During her years in the school system, she had watched drugs, violence, crime and teen-age pregnancy steal the future of hundreds of children. At Matthew Henson, she sometimes felt like a torchbearer in a darkening storm of self-destructive ignorance. Eventually, the storm shook not only her school, but her family as well.

Seated at the head table, Leah looked out over a room filled with the most important people in her life: her indomitable mother; her husband of 42 years, Tom Hasty Jr.; her son, Tom III, a bank vice president; and a flock of college-educated brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews.

There was only one person missing from the celebration: Leah's 25-year-old daughter, Nicole. While her mother was being crowned by a white-gloved waiter and applauded by her colleagues and friends, Nicole Hasty was sitting in jail.

*

The yellow clapboard house on Graham's Alley in Easton looks almost the same as it did 60 years ago, when the Goldsborough family first unpacked the brown leather family Bible that carefully records each birth and death on its crumbling pages.

Inside, each of the six tiny rooms serves as a shrine to the family's past: Anniversary plates fill the cupboards, pictures of beaming youths in mortarboards and grim-mouthed privates in Army caps clutter Ida Goldsborough's bedroom shelves.

Sons Warren, a retired teacher and tradesman, and Coleman, a retired financial manager for the University of Maryland hospital, have moved back in to take care of their mother, who has !B difficulty walking and talking because of a stroke. But Mrs. Goldsborough is still in charge of the household, rasping out one-word commands to Leah to polish the silver or to Coleman to fix soup for lunch.

While the house is filled with life, the view outside is bleak. Mrs. Goldsborough's sons wheel her around a house that stands across from an empty lot and a few doors down from a closed-up warehouse.

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