Museum will honor vision, achievements of early black leader

Recent research adding to image of Wiley H. Bates


March 25, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

He gazes serenely out from the faded photo, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and fedora. His proud expression says, "I made it."

A black man born in North Carolina during the waning days of slavery, Wiley H. Bates had no formal schooling and no easy time of it. Yet by the late 1890s, he had become a wealthy Annapolis merchant and community leader.

From his seat on the city council, he decried a jailhouse lynching in the state capital and made sure black neighborhoods got new gutters and curbs. He condemned deep-rooted racial discrimination and supported black institutions.

But the self-made, self-taught Bates also exhorted fellow African-Americans to lift themselves up with "pluck" and "perseverance" - just as he said he had done, drawing particularly strong motivation from a chance encounter with former President Ulysses S. Grant.

So it made sense that he put great value on education, and in 1933 the public Wiley H. Bates High School opened in Annapolis on land he helped to buy. Until 1966 - a dozen years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools - it was Anne Arundel County's only black high school.

Now, nearly seven decades after Bates' death, researchers are dusting off his life story for a new generation. A museum planned as part of a $15 million renovation of the old school building will honor the school's place in local history, as well as the man who helped make it happen.

"He touched every corner of the community and took it upon himself to take care of it," said Janice Hayes-Williams, 43, a distant Bates relative who is delving into his past as part of a four-person museum team.

Ask Anne Arundel residents of a certain age about Bates and they may well relate the story of how his $500 went toward land for a school on Smithville Street. In those days, the school system paid for an all-black school - it put up $59,000 for Bates - if others bought or donated the land. Eventually 2,000 youths would head off to the high school each day.

But if the school's history is well-known, Wiley Bates' personal story is not. Few have heard about his reported brush with Grant - an event that Bates said changed his life - or the kindergarten that his daughter Mattie operated behind his house on Cathedral Street at a time when kindergarten was uncommon.

Old city and county records being unearthed by Hayes-Williams paint a fuller picture of Bates. And a former school administrator recently found a treasure trove - a 1928 book by Bates in which he held forth on the world and doled out sayings like, "In everything, consider the end," and "Courtship is the frying pan and marriage is the fire."

Philip L. Brown, a 92-year-old former Bates High teacher and vice principal, republished the book two years ago. In one section, Bates attacked society's treatment of blacks in rather strong language for the times.

"Americans to a great extent are still unwilling to recognize the Negro as a bona fide citizen, a member of the body politic, a loyal patriot," he wrote.

"Five hundred thousand foreigners came to America during the last year, and it is easier for that half-million to get remunerative employment than for the same number of Negroes, who would lay down their lives for the Flag of this Country."

At the same time, Bates had harsh words for blacks whom he considered insufficiently thrifty: "Those that suffer in the Winter will, during the Summer, spend their last dime on an excursion. The money spent on these pleasure trips would keep many a family during the Winter from cold and hunger, and from being the objects of charity.

"This money would put into operation building and loan associations and banking houses, which would be of more advantage to our race than `good time excursions.'"

Yet, in spite of everything, he couldn't help noting that "our material progress has been remarkably wonderful."

Bates might have had himself in mind. Born in Wageborough, N.C., in 1859 (Hayes-Williams has not determined whether his parents were slaves), he wrote that he went to work on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at an early age, moving to Maryland with his mother at age 11 after his father died. By 15, he was working with oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay.

One summer during his teen-age years, he waited tables with a friend in Old Point Comfort, Va., and by chance had Grant as a customer. Bates saw the fuss made over the former president and Union army general and told himself, "I shall not always dance behind the white man's chair."

That epiphany, he wrote, inspired him to become "a leading example for his race to follow."

Remarkably, Bates had another famous customer while waiting tables the next year in Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, another Union army hero. The eloquence of those seated around the table struck him, and Bates was even more determined to achieve success.

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