Breakfast celebrates King and a school

Robert Moton alumni gather for fund-raiser

January 14, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | By Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As former students of Robert Moton School gathered in Westminster yesterday for their 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast, they reminisced about their days at what was once the only high school for black students in Carroll County.

The breakfasts started in 1987 to remember King, to raise scholarship money - more than $62,000 to date - for African-American students in Carroll and "because we wanted some action taking place in Carroll County that was sponsored by African-Americans," said Sidney Sheppard, a 77-year-old alumnus who later returned to the school to teach and coach.

"We started this because Carroll County was not doing anything to honor Martin Luther King or to perpetuate the ideas he espoused," Sheppard said. "Since we are alumni of a segregated school, it is fitting that we do this."

The audience of more than 300 heard hymns from the Morgan State University Gospel Choir and a sermon from the Rev. Michael Thomas, pastor of Payne Memorial A.M.E. Church in Baltimore. Payne took his theme from the story of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt and the oppression of the pharaohs.

Robert Moton alumni had their own tales of oppression, which they overcame, often thanks to the inspiration of teachers, they said.

"The teachers we had are the reason why so many of us are successful today," said Sharon Hammond Jones of Westminster.

The first Moton school, a clapboard building on Church Street in Westminster, had no indoor plumbing, sporadic heat in winter, hand-me-down desks and ragged textbooks. But it had great teachers, many who were alumni, the former students said.

Until about 1960, black children attended segregated elementary schools throughout the county, but if they wanted a high school education, they had to find transportation to Moton, a 12-grade school.

When Sheppard started first grade there in the 1930s, he paid 10 cents a day to ride the only available bus - a steep price for many families at the height of the Great Depression, he said. Many students dropped out before high school. "At that time, the county was not too anxious for black kids to go to high school, and most kids couldn't get there," said Sheppard.

George Crawford, principal at the time, took out a personal loan and bought a bus. His superintendent told him if he missed a payment, he would be fired.

"He kept his job because our families kept raising money to pay the loan," said Sheppard.

The alumni group also includes other retired teachers such as Melvin Doweary, and Betty Dotson.

"We had books with pages missing, but good, qualified teachers and parents who insisted that we study," said Dotson, an alumna who started teaching at Moton in 1949 and worked in the Carroll school system until retiring. "I was always aware of discrimination, but still I was blessed."

Doweary, 80, taught sixth grade to Barbara Thompson and most of her seven siblings. Thompson said she is still grateful to him.

"I remember getting to school so cold from a long bus ride with no heat and the teachers telling us `I can't do anything about your circumstances but you are here to learn,'" said Thompson, who works in the Frederick County school system and is president of its support staff union.

For 14-year-old James Joyner, attending the breakfast for the first time, the stories he heard about the school were moving.

"When I think of it now, I can't imagine going to a segregated school," said James, a freshman at Franklin High School in Reisterstown. "I am sure they had it hard, but they were strong people and that school made them stronger."

Among those attending were state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, president of the alumni association, and Phyllis Black, president of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Black's siblings, including Jones, were students there until Carroll's schools were desegregated in the early 1960s. Then their father, Murton Hammond - the first president of the county NAACP branch - had them transferred to Elmer Wolfe, the school nearest their Union Bridge home.

"My father wanted a quality education, and there was no way he was putting us on a bus to Westminster when there was another school closer," said Jones. "The change was traumatic for us, but it instilled in me one thing: look at somebody's heart, not the color of their skin."

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