Community hopes to preserve relic of school segregation

Black students attended Marley Neck until 1959

March 07, 2004|By Sarah Lesher | Sarah Lesher,SUN STAFF

Marley Neck School is a modest clapboard building more than 75 years old, a former schoolhouse for black children that now has peeling paint and holes that let daylight through the siding.

For decades when it was open, Marley Neck had no electricity, depending on large windows to let in sunlight. Heat was provided by two large cast-iron stoves that burned wood or coal during the day, and had to be banked overnight. Water came from a well in front, and in back were separate privies for girls and boys.

But some who attended the Glen Burnie school during the era of segregation have nothing but fond memories -- and now are fighting to preserve it.

A bill introduced by Anne Arundel County Del. Joan Cadden seeks a $331,000 bond to restore Marley Neck School, one of 24 in the county built with assistance from the Rosenwald Fund, set up in 1911 by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 1909 to 1924.

Rosenwald was inspired by Chicago rabbi Emil Hirsch, who advocated teaching self-help along with charity. In 1913 Rosenwald began working with civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, who shared his belief in self-reliance. Grants from Rosenwald were contingent on substantial contributions from local sources.

Marley Neck School got about 15 percent of its construction cost of $4,300 from the Rosenwald Fund. Anne Arundel County bore most of the cost, but parents had to scramble to come up with the rest.

At one time, Marley Neck was among about 300 Rosenwald schools in the state and about 5,300 in the southeastern United States.

Marley Neck's neighbor Freetown, which in the 19th century was the heart of the county's largest population of free blacks outside of Annapolis, rescued its Rosenwald school, as have the communities of Shady Side and Edgewater. All are used now as community centers. A school in Galesville is not being used.

The push to restore Marley Neck came from Helen Johnson, 66, of Glen Burnie, who attended school at Freetown, and from other members of the Friends of Marley Neck School.

"We were a very close community," said Rosalie Gaither, who attended the school during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"Teachers pushed all of us to do better," said Yvonne Henry, who was in Gaither's class.

Samuel Gaither, 89, Henry's father (and a distant relative of Rosalie Gaither), and his cousin, Rachel Hall Brown, 91, were students at a previous school on the Marley Neck site that burned down in 1921. Classes had to be held in the neighboring Hall United Methodist Church until a new school could be built. Gaither's father, a truck farmer, stretched his earnings to contribute.

In 1928, when he was in seventh grade, Gaither was taught in the then-new Rosenwald school by Rachel Hall Brown's husband, Philip Brown.

"I'd never been in a school that size before," said Philip Brown, 95, who grew up in Annapolis and now lives in Arundel-on-the-Bay with his wife.

During the late 1940s, when Henry and Rosalie Gaither were attending Marley Neck, it had up to 70 students in two rooms.

Everyone walked to school -- Henry and Gaither three or four miles, sometimes in shoes with cardboard inside to cover holes in the soles.

Each student had to bring in a jelly glass or jar for drinking. Teachers often had a pot of soup or beans, donated by parents, simmering on the stove to go with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches students brought for lunch.

Henry and Rosalie Gaither double over laughing remembering how at age 7 they got into trouble just by trying to help. "We wanted to clean things up, so we washed the floor, then used that same dirty water to do the dishes," said Henry.

Brown said their teachers, who had to manage students in many different grades, used older students as tutors. Students learned by singing the alphabet and later their multiplication tables, drilling each other with flashcards.

Students were required to learn a Bible verse every day and a poem a month. In geography class they made three-dimensional maps out of papier-mache, then colored them with onion skins for yellow, and poke berries for purple. When they played baseball they had to make do with an old nylon stocking stuffed with rags.

Integration did not come to the county until the late 1960s, more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It caused many changes -- not all good for the education of black children, said some of those who attended Marley Neck.

As black students became the minority in white classrooms, they endured racism and suffered from the lack of a supportive teacher who lived as they did and with whom they could identify, Johnson said.

In 1959, the Marley Neck students were moved to a new elementary school in Freetown, and Marley Neck School was closed.

Hall United Methodist Church, the school's owner, first used the school as a meeting room, then converted it to storage.

A large and dusty wooden cross now rests in front of the place where blackboard, erasers, and chalk once ruled.

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