King breakfast speaker recalls trials, triumphs

Memories shared of education at segregated school

Carroll County

January 13, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For the 15th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held yesterday in Westminster, The Former Students and Friends of Robert Moton School Inc. gave the task of guest speaker to one of their own.

The Rev. Burton L. Mack, alumnus of what was until 1964 the county's only high school attended by African-Americans, praised his teachers and all the parents who encouraged children to overcome the deprivations of segregation and get an education.

The school in Westminster was understaffed, crowded and poorly equipped - Mack studied biology without ever seeing a microscope or test tube.

Still, he said, "It was my grounding. It was a life-giving affirmation.

"We had a small group of dedicated educators who put their own meager checks together to buy us a bus," said Mack, 59, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Frederick. "They battled against inadequate facilities and an uncaring county school board."

The breakfast, which began as a tribute to the fallen civil rights leader, raises money for the organization's scholarship fund. The fund has awarded $65,000 to college-bound black students in Carroll.

Typically, the organization chooses a well-known African-American from outside the county to speak at the event. Past speakers included Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and the Rev. Michael Thomas, pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.

`We did what we had to'

At 83, Erkwood Chase still remembers walking five miles from her home in Mount Airy to catch a school bus that took her another 17 miles to Robert Moton School.

"I used to walk along the railroad tracks every day all by myself, but I was determined to go to high school," said Chase, a 1937 graduate. "The hardship didn't bother me at all because I was going after something I really wanted."

Chase's three children graduated from Robert Moton. Her daughter, Alice Chase Dorsey, Class of 1960, said she had fond memories of the teachers "who taught my whole family."

"Even though segregation was prevalent, we did what we had to and we survived," Dorsey said.

Giving credit where due

The audience of nearly 300 at Martin's Westminster applauded as Mack listed the names of memorable teachers and distinguished graduates, including Maryland Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, president of the alumni group.

"Thomas Dixon was the projectionist at a segregated movie theater, where blacks had to sit in the balcony, and now a building in this county bears his son's name," said Mack in a reference to the Dixon building at Carroll County General Hospital.

Mack paid tribute to his mother and other students' parents, who he said lacked education themselves but knew the value of a college degree for their children.

"Many of us had undereducated parents who would not compromise in their aspirations for us," Mack said. "They dreamed that life in Carroll County would not play the same tricks on their children as it did to them."

Mack detailed the many injustices he experienced growing up in Carroll County in the 1940s and '50s.

"I was not allowed to play on the city playground, bowl at the bowling alley where I worked or to eat with my baseball team," said Mack. "When I asked why I could not go to Westminster High School and why I was chased off the Western Maryland College campus, I was told it was because I was colored. But, I am back and those people are not."

Mack was the first African-American to play in Westminster's Little League and the first to be admitted to WMC. He chose to attend Howard University instead, where he earned a master's degree in divinity.

`Make some noise'

Minorities make up less than 5 percent of Carroll's population. Mack challenged the audience to "make some noise in this burg" and continue the spirit of the school today by working for greater equality in housing, employment and minority businesses.

"We are the offspring of some of the greatest people," he said. "Our young people need to know who planned and piled the pyramid they have today."

With apologies to his former English teachers, Mack added, "Somebody forgot to tell our young folks just who we be."

The event ended with anthems and hymns sung by the Morgan State University Gospel Choir. A rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" had many in the crowd on their feet, swaying, joining in the chorus and shouting "Amen!" at the conclusion.

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