Protesters overlooked Wickwire's history

November 08, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

In all the furor the past week about "racism at Johns Hopkins University" -- as the headline in the Nov. 4-Nov. 10 Afro American puts it -- aren't people forgetting something?

One of those somethings is the Hopkins Baltimore Scholars program. Students in Baltimore public schools -- which have an overwhelmingly black population -- who are accepted at Hopkins pay no tuition. It's a sure way to increase the number of black students on the Hopkins campus.

The program is extraordinary. It would be akin to the University of Pennsylvania offering free tuition to all qualifying public school students in Philadelphia, or George Washington and Georgetown universities offering the same deal to similar public school students in Washington.

At a demonstration near the Hopkins campus Friday, all speakers criticized Hopkins officials for a list of failings, real and perceived. Only one bothered to praise the university for the Baltimore Scholars program.

"That's a start," Erich March said of Baltimore Scholars. "That's not a finish. Johns Hopkins has to do more."

March graduated from Hopkins in 1974 and is the vice president and chief operating officer of March Funeral Homes.

"I hope people will understand that the university believes in Baltimore, it cares about Baltimore and it's working to support Baltimore," said Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman. The university has other programs besides Baltimore Scholars, O'Shea said, adding, "I hope that doesn't get lost in all this."

One of those other programs that did escape the purview of the protesters is the Hopkins tutorial program, the second-oldest in Baltimore, according to Hopkins alum Ralph Moore. Moore, who graduated in 1974 with March, is the director of the community center at St. Frances Academy. The tutorial program, which pairs Hopkins students for one-on-one tutoring with Baltimore students (the overwhelming majority of them black), is the brainchild of former Hopkins chaplain Chester Wickwire.

For the 30-plus years Wickwire was on the Hopkins campus, "he was the conscience of that community," according to Moore. Indeed, if Hopkins officials are serious about implementing courses, seminars and workshops on the history of racism, they could start with Wickwire's decades-long fight against Jim Crow and segregation here in Baltimore.

Though it may be difficult for some to believe, Baltimore was not always the oasis of racial brotherhood it purports to be in 2006. In 1963, scores of demonstrators were arrested trying to desegregate (successfully) Gwynn Oak amusement park. Wickwire was among those arrested.

Years later, Wickwire invited civil rights activist Bayard Rustin -- one of the key organizers of the March on Washington -- to speak at Hopkins. Members of the Ku Klux Klan -- perturbed that Rustin was too black, too gay, too communist or too all three -- responded by burning a cross on the campus.

Still later, Wickwire held an overnight vigil at the Baltimore headquarters of the Black Panther Party, an act that might have averted a Panther-police shootout like the one in Chicago that left Illinois Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead in a hail of cop bullets. (Readers are cautioned that the word "shootout" should be used advisedly in reference to what happened in Chicago.)

Hopkins administrators of the day were less than enthusiastic about Wickwire's notions of social and racial justice. Some City Council members weren't too happy with him either. I recall newspaper articles of that era in which the word "pinko" was bandied about City Council chambers in reference to Wickwire.

Then-police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau was among those who considered Wickwire part of the Great Red Menace. Wickwire made Pomerleau's "enemies list," which was actually a backhanded compliment. Pomerleau could best be described as a man who had an adversarial relationship with the Bill of Rights.

"Wickwire lived through all of this," said Moore, who used to work for Wickwire. At one point the chaplain had the tutorial project tutors leave campus and teach students in their homes in Baltimore's black neighborhoods.

"He was trying to get the students to experience the world beyond the campus," Moore said. Part of Wickwire's experience in the world beyond the Hopkins campus included a stint as president of the majority-black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. I remember when I was a volunteer for the Hopkins tutorial program in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Wickwire told me one member of the IMA was the local leader of the Nation of Islam mosque, who expressed misgivings about Wickwire's membership.

"The others got him to accept me as a brother in Christ," Wickwire quipped.

When it comes to the history of racism, let's start with racism in Baltimore. And let's start by teaching Wickwire 101: the history of the former Hopkins chaplain who fought racism for over 30 years.

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