Carroll Co. past recalled

Former student, teacher at all-black school to speak on era of segregation

Historical Society sponsors event

February 02, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Historical Society of Carroll County will help the county celebrate its 168th birthday today with punch, cake and the recollections of a revered teacher.

J. Sidney Sheppard will speak as a former student and teacher at the Robert Moton School, once Carroll's only high school for African-Americans. Sheppard, a member of the Class of 1939, will reminisce about the school's namesake, its mission and its alumni. He will speak of an era when schools were segregated and students had to struggle for an education.

Several of Sheppard's schoolmates will attend and contribute to the discussion, he said. "I know they are coming," he said. "I am the chauffeur."

The school, which opened in 1930 on Church Street in downtown Westminster, was named for the black Virginia educator who headed Tuskegee Institute from 1915 to 1935. For 35 years, students traveled for miles to study high school subjects.

"The trend during segregation was to name a school established for Negroes after an outstanding Negro," said Sheppard, 81. "By emphasizing what black folks had done, we built pride and self-confidence."

The students were aware of the separation between races in many areas of their lives.

"All schools were white or colored," he said. "That is just the way it was. I had caring, understanding parents, who prepared me for the harsh realities."

Queenetta Sheppard, a teacher until the birth of her fifth child, and Levi Sheppard, a laborer, insisted on an education for their eight children.

"For my parents, it was not `Are you going?' but `You are going,'" he said. "College was understood, too. There was no money and a lot of questions about where and how, but I knew I was going."

The family lived near the White Rock School, an elementary school for black children in the Eldersburg area.

"The teachers boarded with my family," Sheppard said. "I couldn't do much at school that my mother didn't know about. And then, in the seventh grade, my sister Gladys taught me."

While elementary school graduation meant the end of formal education for many black students in that era, the Sheppards maintained higher goals for their children.

"A lot of kids went to work out of elementary school," Sheppard said. "My first job was thinning corn for 50 cents a day. But I went on to high school."

He remembers hiking out to Liberty Road for a bus, driven by Mr. Lee, one of his teachers at Robert Moton. The principal and parents had raised the money to buy the bus when the county would not provide transportation.

The teacher drove about two hours each way, collecting students from Cooksville in Howard County before driving through Carroll County to Westminster and teaching a full day of classes. High school meant spending hours on a bus and using hand-me-down materials in a building with no plumbing and only sporadic heating.

"The only new desk we had was one we made in shop class," Sheppard said.

Small classes were about the only advantage. The Class of 1939 had 15 students.

"Our teachers knew the hardships we would have beyond school," Sheppard said. "They inspired us to be the best we could be. Robert Moton helped prepare not just me, but all who left there to go on to college. We could compete with students from all over the country."

Sheppard went to what was then Bowie Normal School. World War II and the Army interrupted his college education, but he managed eventually to earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education. He then attended New York University on the GI Bill and earned a master's in physical education. By the early 1950s, he was a husband, married to a teacher, and a father. He was back at his alma mater, too, teaching and coaching basketball.

"It was like coming home," he said.

By the late 1950s, Sheppard left Carroll County for a job with Baltimore City schools. It paid better and offered advancement opportunities to a black teacher, he said.

"There was little support for desegregation in Carroll County then," he said. "Baltimore had a mayor who had come out for integration."

Sheppard retired from teaching in Baltimore in 1982 but maintained his ties to Robert Moton School, which had closed in 1965.

He helped found the Robert Moton Alumni Group, which has awarded more than $70,000 in scholarships to college-bound African-American students in the county.

The county celebration will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today in the media center at another Robert Moton school, an elementary school built for all students in the 1970s.

Richard N. Dixon, former state treasurer, longtime Carroll County legislator and Robert Moton alumnus, insisted that the new elementary be so named.

When most of the all-black schools in Maryland closed, "the names changed and they ceased to exist," said Dixon. "Ours is an exception. This is significant because we continued to keep the name alive."

The school is at 1413 Washington Road, Westminster. Information: 410-848-6494.

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