Reunion raises issues of race for some on Eastern Shore

Event: A gathering of classes of a once all-white high school is a reminder of segregation for African-American residents.

September 18, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

PRINCESS ANNE - An all-white high school reunion next weekend celebrating the "good years" of the 1950s and 1960s has become a reminder of the Eastern Shore's segregationist past, say African-Americans who remember the days when the races led separate lives here in the Somerset County seat.

Critics say organizers of the Sept. 25 event for graduates of the old Washington High School have excluded black alumni by inviting only those people who graduated between 1940, the school's first year, to 1969, the last year of legal segregation in Somerset.

George "Mickey" Wigglesworth, Class of 1957, insists that the reunion was never meant to exclude anyone. Attendance is limited, said the retired banker, because the Somerset County Civic Center can accommodate only about 600 people - the average crowd for the events, which are held about every five years.

"The first time we had the idea for doing this was back in 1992 after we'd had a class reunion - and not one single person has ever complained about it," said Wigglesworth, 65.

"I lived in the good years - that's all we're trying to do is re-create all those good times we had," said Wigglesworth, who has spent countless hours painting murals that serve as reunion backdrops, portraying in meticulous detail the town's Main Street as it appeared during the late 1950s. "When we went to school, it was a segregated school. What could anyone do about that? It was a different time."

But some see the event as more a reflection of the present. "This is just the status quo in Princess Anne," said Kirkland Hall, an African-American physical education professor who coaches the women's softball team at University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. "There's a separation in this county, a self-perpetuating separation."

Organizers say the early homecomings included only classes from the 1950s. A few classes have been added at each event.

"We're trying to reach out by including a few more classes each time," said Wigglesworth.

These organizers, mostly retired and middle-age volunteers, say they plan to add four graduating classes, 1970 to 1973, for the next get-together, a move that would include the first African-Americans who attended the brick school that, since 1979, has been Somerset County's government-office complex.

Hall was not one of those students. As a member of the Class of 1969 at Somerset County High, which was housed on the 3,500-student UMES campus, Hall was among the last to graduate from the all-black school.

Some things change

He said a lot has changed in his hometown. But much has not.

"Over the years, I've barnstormed all around this county, trying to get people together, but there doesn't seem to be much use," said Hall, who is the former head of the Somerset chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Hall said the argument for limiting the number of people who could attend the reunion because of the size of the county convention center makes little sense - unless, as he suspects, organizers never considered holding the event at UMES.

Despite recent attempts at forging closer relations between the town and the historically black institution, the university has always been an afterthought in Princess Anne, African-American leaders say.

"Here we have UMES right across the street from town, and nobody thinks about it," Hall said. "We have a student services center that could handle 2,000, an athletic center that could hold 6,000. It's ridiculous."

Eddie Lee, who heads the NAACP chapter in neighboring Worcester County, agrees.

The idea that the integrated classes - some of which have held their own reunions - have to wait several more years for an invitation, he said, seems like something from another era.

"So they're saying that here in 2004, African-Americans ought to wait some more," Lee said. "It seems so out of place, not with the times."

Somerset, long Maryland's poorest jurisdiction, is experiencing a real estate boom led by the resurgence of Crisfield, where condominium projects are sprouting on waterfront sites. In Princess Anne, housing developments are going up on the edges of town.

The checkered racial history of this county, which is 40 percent black, includes the last known lynching in the state, in 1933, but also the hiring of the Eastern Shore's first African-American school superintendent in 1988.

H. DeWayne Whittington, fired by the school board without explanation in 1992, won a $835,000 discrimination settlement ordered by a federal judge.

Whittington, 73, said he knows little about the reunion, but characterized it as a gathering of classmates who want to reminisce.

"It's just getting the old people from Washington High School together,'" said Whittington. "I don't have a problem with friends getting together. The old Somerset High School graduates have had the same thing. I've been part of the same kind of thing for the old Woodson school in Crisfield."

A 1957 graduate

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