Amid the cheers of about 300 alumni, politicians and well-wishers yesterday, the first bricks were laid in the long-awaited project to convert Wiley H. Bates High School, Annapolis' former blacks-only school, into a community center and apartments for senior citizens.
During an upbeat groundbreaking ceremony, alumni from as far back as the first graduating class, that of 1936, gathered under a giant white tent decorated with balloons in the old school's colors, purple and gold.
They laughed and breathed sighs of relief that the school they love, which had been left to fall into ruin since it closed in 1981, will again become a symbol of pride in the community.
From 1932 to 1966, it was the only high school for black students in Anne Arundel County.
"Oh my God, we started this 12 years ago," said George Phelps Jr., a 1947 graduate. "Why did it take so long? Well, politics and all."
School alumni said they worked for years to get the county to keep its promise to renovate and reopen the building on Smithville Avenue.
What to do with the property was debated at length, with proposals for a townhouse community and a conference site among those rejected.
While the argument raged, alumni said, the shattered and boarded-up windows, vine-covered walls and sagging roof disgraced the black community.
Agreement was finally reached on the community center and senior housing. The first $3 million phase of the $16.5 million project -- stabilizing the building, removing lead and asbestos and replacing the roof -- is scheduled to begin in August. The renovated building is scheduled to open in five years.
Yesterday morning's ceremony, at tended by County Executive Janet S. Owens, school Superintendent Carol S. Parham and many other local officials, was bittersweet for graduates, who sat in folding chairs and fanned themselves with purple and gold paper fans.
The crowd clapped and shouted when Philip L. Brown, a vice principal during the 1950s and 1960s, recalled his memories of the school and the students who attended it.
"I'll be using the termed `colored' because at that time, we were all colored," he told the crowd. "And for the past 50 years of my life, I have been colored. I have trouble changing."
In 1865, when the Civil War ended, the Freedmen's Bureau paid for the county's first school for black children, a one-room school house on Mill Swamp Road near Harwood. In 1917, the school board built Stanton Elementary and High School on Washington Street in Annapolis. That school became crowded by 1925, and a new school was planned.
Brown recalled riding down Spa Road in a Model T Ford in 1926 to take a look at a possible site with Stanton Principal Frank Butler.
Back then, it was a tree- and bush-covered lot known as Sage Bottom.
"As we walked along the property, Mr. Butler folded his hands behind his back," Brown said. "I could tell he was trying to visualize a school there."
Wiley H. Bates, a grocery store owner and one of the city's first black aldermen, donated $500 to buy the property. The county paid $58,596 for construction of the school, which opened six years later.
It had seven teachers for seven classrooms and drew students from 42 elementary schools. Enrollment grew quickly, prompting two additions before 1950.
It was always cold in the school, Brown remembered. "Most mornings, the only thing that came out of the radiators was cold water," he joked. "That's just how life was."
In 1954, a court order required the school system to desegregate, but it wasn't until 1966 that the first white students came to the school, he said.
"They said it took them 12 years to comply, but I say they were trying to figure out how not to comply," he said.
From 1966 to 1981, the school was used as a middle and high school, he said.
Pearl D. Brown and William E. Brown -- friends and two of the oldest graduates at the ceremony, from the Class of 1936 -- held hands while Joyce McManus, director of the Bates Alumni Chorus, led the crowd in the school's alma mater.
"There is a school that we love so well. It's Bates, dear Bates!"
"I'm really thinking of all the old times we used to have here," Pearl Brown, who still lives in Annapolis, said after the ceremony. She described being thrilled to walk through the doors of the school with its shiny wooden floors and new wooden one-piece desks.
"The school was just beautiful to us," she said. "This is really the best thing for the community."
Pub Date: 6/26/99