Second life for Arundel school

Once segregated, it now houses seniors

September 09, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

They were back at Bates High School, loitering in the halls without a pass, snacking outside without permission and gabbing without fear of being sent to the vice principal's office.

Five, six, even seven decades after graduating, former students celebrated yesterday the historic school's reincarnation as the $27 million Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park, with its senior center, senior apartments, legacy center and Boys and Girls Club.

"It made me who I am. It's a lasting connection," said Jolinda Brooks Gaither, Class of 1966.

Bates was always more than a school. For 33 years, the brick building in Annapolis was the sole high school for blacks in Anne Arundel County, some of whom rode a bus for two hours to reach it.

It became the cultural center, family center, academic center, sports center and all-around home away from home for African-American students and teachers who turned segregation into lifelong camaraderie, studies from secondhand textbooks into achievements.

Bates counts skilled workers, doctorate-earners and judges, Tuskegee airmen and teachers, doctors and lawyers, and political and religious leaders among its graduates.

"The greatest thing about it was that it was a big family. The teachers, they were like your parents. They'd tell you what you need," said Ida P. Mundell, of Glen Burnie, Class of 1948. Later, she recalled, "We would always stop by in front of the school and sing our alma mater, and it was all boarded up. I would cry, tears would be in my eyes."

To this day, many who didn't graduate from Bates after county schools were integrated in 1966 feel cheated out of the bonds formed there.

"It was about achievement, education, academic excellence, a village, a community that was built for them and around them. I truly believe a lot of this has been lost through integration," said Janice Hayes-Williams, Wiley H. Bates' great-grandniece. She unveiled a bronze bust of him in the courtyard yesterday.

Born a slave in 1859, Bates became an Annapolis alderman and prosperous businessman who donated $500 toward a high school for black students. At the time, they were sharing cramped space in an elementary school.

It opened in 1933, had two wings added over the years and remained segregated through 1966. Turned into a middle and junior high, it stayed open through 1981.

Community pleas to reopen it to other uses went nowhere until the efforts of the graying graduates landed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

That sparked new interest in redeveloping the site while preserving it for historical, cultural and educational uses .

Backers cobbled together funding from private sources and the county, state and federal government, and officials from every level turned out yesterday to laud the partnership at yesterday's celebration.

Mostly, though, it seemed like a huge family reunion that sang to "dear Bates," reminisced and toured the building.

At least half of the residents of the 71 units for seniors on fixed incomes are Bates alumni who leapt at the opportunity to live in classrooms reborn as apartments.

Mary Snowden Thompson, Class of 1943, was one of the first people to sign up to live in her old school.

"It was so long getting started, I didn't think they'd ever do it," she said, gazing up at the high ceiling of her apartment, a legacy from its era as a classroom.

"If anybody told me I'd be walking around here, I'd never believe it. It's great to be back here," said Walter I. Hunt, Class of 1960.

This was where he earned the nickname "Little Mousie," in recognition of his stature as the smallest kid on the basketball court.

It is where he sneaked out with friends to buy day-old doughnuts, 3 cents apiece, at the shop across the street.

That is, until he got a tongue-lashing from Philip Brown, the vice principal from 1957 to 1970. Brown, 97, laughed yesterday over how many doughnut-sneaking students heard his lecture.

Brown's collection of Bates memorabilia, including a tattered photo of the undefeated 1961 football team, is on display in the gym-turned-library called the Legacy Center. It will be a place to collect oral histories, offer tours and run special programs.

Around the corner, lockers have been preserved, and downstairs in the Senior Citizens Activities Center are two of the school's old water fountains. The stage where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave students their first exposure to classical sounds is now part of the Boys and Girls Club's new home.

"Bates was considered the apex of black education back in the `50s," said Anne Jenkins, a former English and drama teacher, in between hugs from former students and co-workers.

Evelyn O.A. Darden, Class of 1963 and a member of the Bates Legacy Center's Board of Directors, said she wants a younger generation to understand the significance of that heritage.

"I think we want them to appreciate the past, people who were survivors, who made the best of what we had," Darden said. "Segregation was not what we asked for. But we made the most of it, and our teachers were committed to having us learn. This was a community of people who were determined to make the most of their situation."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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