Dr. King's legacy

Scholarship: A group of African-American alumni shares Martin Luther King Jr.'s faith in education, and they want to pass it to future generations of students.

January 15, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Aging graduates of a tiny clapboard school in Westminster, once the only school for African-Americans in Carroll County, want young people to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for something more than his famous dream.

For 25 years, alumni of Robert Moton School have encouraged young African-Americans in this rural county to embrace King's love for learning by awarding scholarships to local youths.

As the years slip by, they see themselves running out of time and falling short of their goal: an endowment that would carry on their work for future generations.

"Martin Luther King was more than a pretty speech, more than the dream we always hear about," Sidney Sheppard says of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "Throughout his life, he promoted higher learning. He believed that higher education was the one thing that would really make us free and equal."

King, who was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, would have been 70 today.

Fueled by King's passion and by memories of their small school, Sheppard and other graduates of Robert Moton help African-American students go to college by giving scholarships to local youths. It's a tradition they started in 1974.

The alumni have recently begun to reflect on their mortality as well. They wonder who will herald King's message after they have passed on. African-Americans make up less than 3 percent of Carroll's population of 150,000.

The graduates are hoping to establish an endowment that would continue their work after they're gone. They've raised $57,000, but they're short by $18,000, according to Ralph Hooper, treasurer of The Former Students and Friends of Robert Moton School Inc.

"All of us Moton graduates, we think back on all the lean years we had to go through to get an education. It gives us the stamina we need to keep moving forward," says Sally Greene, Class of 1952.

"That school was so poorly built, you could sit inside and look out the holes in the walls. And when it rained, we had puddles in the library," adds Ralph Hooper's wife, Elizabeth, who graduated from Robert Moton in 1947.

For books, "we had the toss-aways from the white school, from Westminster High," Greene recalls. "Some may have started on page 32, others had the whole middle section missing."

Robert Moton School, named for the black Virginia educator who headed Tuskegee Institute from 1915 to 1935 and was an adviser to the White House, opened at the corner of Charles and Church streets in 1930 with 60 students. Mamie Dixon, the mother of state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, headed the committee that named the school.

Dixon, whose political career has spanned three decades, graduated from Robert Moton in 1956 -- nine years before the school was closed. He was instrumental in founding the alumni association.

"We started the group in 1972 to recognize three outstanding teachers," he says. "The turnout was so large, we decided to stay together."

Lasting friendships

Members of the group have formed lasting friendships. To serve on the Robert Moton scholarship committee is to hold a prestigious position in Carroll County's tight-knit African-American community.

"In the 1950s and '60s, every county in Maryland had a black school, and every school had an alumni association," says Dixon. "In Baltimore County, there was Silas Point, Carver and Banneker. In Frederick, there was Lincoln. Harford County had Central, Howard County had Harriet Tubman, and on the Eastern Shore there was another Robert Moton. Today, nowhere else in the state is there a parallel group. We have survived them all."

It's a distinction the Robert Moton graduates are proud of. Many have been with the group more than 20 years. Sheppard was a founding member.

"A couple of people on the scholarship committee started first grade with me," says Greene, a retired nurse who has been with the group 24 years. "Once you get on the committee, you stay on it. You realize there's work to be done. It's an honor."

What began with a $500 scholarship has grown to include up to five $1,000 scholarships each year. Over the past 25 years, the former pupils of Robert Moton have helped 82 high school graduates go to college or trade school.

"We are trying to encourage the students to go on to bigger and better things. And knowing this is available to them, we think they'll do better in high school," says Sheppard, who graduated from Robert Moton in 1939 and later taught physical education at the school.

Teaching wasn't his first career choice.

"If you had asked me when I was in high school what I wanted to do, teaching probably would have been the last thing to come out of my mouth," says Sheppard. "But at that time, there wasn't much else for black folks to do. If you went to college, you had four options: preacher, teacher, doctor or lawyer.

"I wasn't inclined to be a preacher, couldn't afford to be a doctor. My mother always told me I didn't need to go to school to learn how to lie, so that left me no other option. I became a teacher."

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