The long road to recognition

John T. Lee Sr., who has led the years-long drive to memorialize Harford's black educators, is not giving up. Next step: Annapolis.

October 23, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

In his quest to get some of Harford County's most prominent black educators and landmarks recognized, John T. Lee Sr. has little more than a 750-page, self-published tome - and an unwavering drive.

For more than 10 years, he tried to drum up support to turn the former Havre de Grace Colored High School, a one-room building in a residential neighborhood near the Chesapeake Bay, into a museum of artifacts and information on the county's most prominent blacks. It would have been named for trailblazing black educator Percy V. Williams, a close friend of Lee's.

But time has been cruel to Lee's plans. The school was purchased at auction in the mid-1990s by a local businessman, who recently gutted the building for renovations. And at 91, Williams, who has Alzheimer's, is in a local nursing home.

Lee, a manager of a rest-stop Starbucks, hasn't given up. He has been able to catch the ear of some of the most influential people in the state and distribute his book, Portrait of a Black Educator, which documents Williams' struggles and achievements.

Next up: Annapolis and the General Assembly, where Lee hopes he can secure the funds to build a replica of Havre de Grace Colored High School.

"It takes persistence, and I'm committed to seeing this project to its end, however long it takes," he said recently.

In Harford County, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population, and their representation in county and city governments is even less, which can create problems in bringing attention to the cause.

Several years ago, the black community petitioned the Harford County Board of Education to name the previous all-black schools after principals who headed them. After several meetings and protests, a compromise was reached, and Oakington Elementary School was named Roye-Williams Elementary after Williams and Leon S. Roye, the first black principal.

It was an achievement, yet one that left many smarting - it is thought to be the only school in the state named for two people.

Some were so disappointed that they said the county shouldn't even bother with the new name, said Harford NAACP chapter President Laura Copeland. "Dr. Williams and his family agreed that at least that'd be something."

Seventy-five years ago, Williams, his parents and others from the Harford County Colored PTA lobbied for a publicly supported high school in the county. He had graduated from a segregated elementary school at 13 but had to travel to Cecil County, where he attended Elkton Colored High School.

A year later, Harford established a high school for black students. Williams would go on to become the county's first black teacher and administrator and later the first black state Department of Education official, helping to eliminate school segregation.

Williams is not overlooked in the state's educational record. In addition to holding numerous high-ranking positions, he has been honored by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and is one of many black people inducted into the Harford County Public Schools Hall of Fame. His name is instantly familiar to education leaders.

"Everyone in this school system owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dr. Williams," said schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison. "He did a tremendous amount in bridging the gap as we went through the 1950s and '60s."

The history of that era in Harford County education hasn't been completely erased. Bel Air Colored High School, for example, has been designated a historic landmark and retains its original name. A local Habitat for Humanity chapter is located there, and the building is frequently host to community events.

Yet Lee can't shake the need for a museum to keep alive a central memory of the county's black educators.

Lee has met with all the right people - developers, politicians, school officials, community leaders who take his calls, agree to meet with him and take copies of his self-published book. They listen and nod. Most agree something should be done.

But that's where it has stopped for Lee. What he needs now, he says, are results.

His journey is about to get tougher - navigating Annapolis in search of funds is no easy task, and Lee may have to accept that a resolution could take at least another year, said Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a former Havre de Grace mayor.

"First-time efforts usually aren't that successful," said Craig, a former state delegate and senator. "You usually need educational efforts to get delegates to come around and then persuade the legislature."

This month, Lee went before the Havre de Grace City Council with some assistance - his grandson Quentin, a third-grader at Havre de Grace Elementary who read a statement he had typed up at a library computer earlier in the day.

Williams "loves all the children, no matter whether they are black, yellow, brown, red or white. He was concerned about education for everyone," Quentin read. "I wish that we could have a museum with all the famous black people and also of Dr. Williams."

Then, Lee took the podium once more.

"We've had great men and women who got their degrees and came back to this city and poured their blood and sweat into this city," he said. "Let's include all the people. I want something to leave with my children and grandchildren."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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