Testament to history in shambles

Ruins: Bates High School graduates are upset that the monument to black history has been neglected. After years of promises, renovations will begin this spring.

February 26, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A tree sprouts from rotting carpet in the library. Rain drips from light fixtures dangling at drunken angles from the collapsing roof. Coils of graffiti surround a painting of a school principal wearing a bow tie.

The ruins of Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis inspire conflicting emotions for alumni who graduated from Anne Arundel County's only high school for blacks during the decades of segregation that ended in 1966.

For most graduates, the boarded-up buildings are a monument to the black teachers who inspired students to become judges, principals and business owners.

The school is a milestone in the history of a county that refused to build a high school for blacks until 1917 and failed to pay black teachers equal wages until Thurgood Marshall won a lawsuit against the county in 1939.

But many alumni are angry at the sight of the building's shattered windows. They say the county has repeatedly broken promises to renovate and reopen the school since its closing in 1981, and should not have allowed a symbol of black pride to fall into decay.

As rain drummed against his umbrella on a recent morning, Errol Brown Sr. pointed to a sign on the wall of his alma mater: "Property of Anne Arundel County Schools."

"You see that sign there? They should at least maintain their own property," said Brown, a 1965 Bates graduate who is president of the Banneker-Douglass Museum Foundation, which raises money for the black history museum in Annapolis.

"This school is a symbol of respect and pride for African-Americans, but unfortunately now it's an eyesore," Brown said. "It's a disgrace."

After 18 years of delays, the county plans to begin in April a three- to five-year conversion of the building into a community center with up to 85 apartments for senior citizens, said Jerome W. Klasmeier, the county's chief administrative officer.

The project also might feature a gymnasium and learning center to educate students about space exploration, Klasmeier said.

`Why has it taken so long?'

The construction will cost $16.5 million, with the county and state budgeting $6 million this year to repair the roof and remove asbestos, Klasmeier said. County officials hope to find a developer willing to bear the cost of building the apartments.

"Why has it taken so long? That's a difficult question," said Kathleen Koch, director of Arundel Community Development Services Corp., a nonprofit group the county hired to head the project. "But I think it is incredibly important to save this building because of what it means for the African-American community."

In 1989, the Annapolis city council vetoed a proposed renovation that would have allowed a developer to build townhouses behind the school. In 1994, neighborhood activists rejected a plan to put a conference center at the site.

Efforts to reopen Bates as a school have also been rebuffed because other local schools aren't filled to capacity.

Carl O. Snowden, a former city alderman who works as an assistant to County Executive Janet S. Owens, said county politicians have made empty promises to renovate Bates as a way of placating black voters.

"There has been a lot of lip service paid to Bates over the years, but the fact is that nothing has been done," Snowden said. "I think that Mrs. Owens, however, has made it a priority to get Bates completed during her term."

School's history

Philip L. Brown, the 90-year-old father of Errol Brown and vice principal of Bates for 13 years during the 1950s and 1960s, wrote a book -- "A Century of `Separate but Equal' Education in Anne Arundel County" -- that describes the history of the school:

Until 1865, Maryland law prohibited eduction for blacks. The year the Civil War ended, a federal agency called the Freedmen's Bureau supplied money to build the first school for the children of former slaves in Anne Arundel County, a one-room schoolhouse on Mill Swamp Road near Harwood.

"Colored" people could not attend high school in the county until 1917, when the school board built Stanton Elementary and High School on Washington Street in Annapolis. By 1925, the school was crowded.

Wiley H. Bates, a grocery store owner who was one of Annapolis' first black aldermen, donated $500 for the purchase of land on Smithville Street for a larger school.

Unequal pay

The county paid $58,596 to build the seven-classroom Bates High School in 1932. But it refused to pay its black teachers a salary similar to that of whites.

The teachers sued the school board in 1939, hiring Thurgood Marshall as their attorney. Marshall was general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

"We were elated when we won. We tried for so long to get equal pay, but they always claimed they didn't have enough money," said Philip Brown.

By 1950, Bates had more than tripled in size, with the addition of 45 classrooms, a 700-seat cafeteria, library, gym, language lab and 399-seat theater.

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