Sollers Point High's first graduates return

Despite racial barriers, Class of '49 persevered

April 25, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Fifty years later, Reginald Evans can still recite his high school graduation speech.

"I believe in my country and its destiny and the great dreams of its founders," he told the Class of 1949 at Sollers Point Junior-Senior High School, the first to graduate from the "colored high school" built a year earlier on Baltimore County's east side.

It would be nearly two decades before the founders' dreams of democracy were shared by black Americans like Evans and his classmates. In 1949, the tide of civil rights was barely a trickle -- and it did not flow into places such as Sollers Point and Sparrows Point, the segregated steel mill town that was home to Evans and most of his classmates.

But the Class of 1949, accustomed to race-based barriers, didn't give segregation much thought. "You persevered," recalls class member Dr. Theodore C. Patterson. They did, choosing careers in medicine, teaching, architecture, manufacturing and government. Today, they will be reunited for the first time since their graduation.

Organized by Evans and Patterson, the banquet at Sparrows Point Country Club will bring together most of the surviving members of the Class of '49. Nearly all have retired. Eleven have died, and five others could not be found.

"We've never really had a reunion. This is more of an anniversary," said Patterson, a physician who returned to the east side after medical school and a stint in the Army to take over his family doctor's practice.

Patterson said he knew the reunion was right when he and Evans went back to their old school this month -- now Sollers Point/Southeastern Technical High School -- and entered the gym where they received their diplomas five decades ago.

"Reggie just walked up on that stage and started giving his speech from graduation," Patterson said. "He walked up on that stage as if it were yesterday and launched into that speech. I was so shocked."

The shared memories today will spill over the school walls, encompassing a time and a town that are long gone.

Nearly all of the Class of '49 grew up in Sparrows Point, the company town built on a peninsula jutting into the Patapsco River. It was a place created by steel companies, whose mills and wages lured ambitious black men from small towns -- and smaller opportunities -- in Virginia, North Carolina and points south.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Sparrows Point was a tightly knit enclave, and nowhere was it more closely woven than in the black community on I and J streets. Residents of I and J went to church together at Union Baptist or Ebenezer Methodist.

Teen-agers dropped by Jack's Snack Shop after school -- anyone short of money could earn an ice-cream cone by washing a few dishes -- and went to movies at the Methodist church hall. The black community was two streets wide and six blocks long, and secrets were few.

"It was a close-knit community," said Arthur E. Petersen Sr., who taught vocational arts to the Class of '49. "Most of the fathers worked at Bethlehem Steel. Mothers stayed home and raised the children. Everybody knew everybody. Many of the families were related."

One common value in every household on I and J streets was education.

The building of Sollers Point Junior-Senior High in 1948 was a milestone for the residents of I and J streets. It was the first time blacks in Baltimore County had been given a new school instead of having to make do with someone else's old building.

Even the 11th-graders, who would spend only a year in the new building, were excited in the fall of 1948.

"I was on the verge of quitting school and going into the mill," recalled Evans, who stayed and went on to work at Glenn L. Martin Aircraft, Bethlehem Steel and, finally, the post office. "But this new school was coming up. I wanted to stay and get in this new school. It had a gym. It made me want to finish school."

The students' delight in having something built just for them found its way into the first verse of the school song, set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne":

"Oh, Sollers Point, oh Sollers Point -- my praises are of you

A high school here, a high school dear, is Sollers Point High School

And I am sure all the children here feel just as I do."

The discipline and determination of that first graduating class show in its graduation photo, taken in the gymnasium. Principal Charles W. Fletcher sits in the center of the first row, hands clasped on his knees, flanked by girls in white dresses with ribbon belts and corsages neatly pinned over their hearts. Behind them are the boys, white jackets buttoned and bow ties perfectly aligned.

"I remember every single one of them," said Elizabeth Williams, who was Sollers Point's vice principal for a decade. "They had a desire to learn. They were about the nicest children I ever taught. I am so proud of them, so very proud."

Members of the Class of '49 remember their teachers just as clearly -- their interest and their determination to help the students succeed.

"They were really, really dedicated. They were really interested in you learning. No foolishness. That's the old school," said Clara Jenkins, a retired licensed practical nurse who will attend today's event.

Perhaps the most remarkable trait of the Class of 1949 is the shared sense that despite all the hurdles and unfairness they faced, life turned out pretty well. There are college degrees, career citations, children and grandchildren -- and memories of life at Sollers Point Junior-Senior High School. There is a sense of pride in having shouldered the burdens life gave them and moving ahead in spite of it all.

"The better things came along after we did," said Evans. "We did what we had to do."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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