Getting a lesson on education in an era of segregation

At restored Colored Schoolhouse, tours offer glimpse of 1900s

December 17, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The teacher rang the large golden bell as she stood on the porch, welcoming her charges for the afternoon. The Girl Scout troop stepped into the Historic Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse, a place white students would not have set foot in.

They were among the few groups that have come to the newly restored schoolhouse since it reopened in September. They had come to learn about an era when students drew water from wells. When the outhouses were called "Aunt Sally" and "Uncle John" for propriety's sake. When separate but equal was still the order of the day.

"We're going to go all the way back to 1906," Patricia Greenwald, the schoolhouse coordinator, said to the group. "Let's pretend that you walked a long way to get here." Some of them lived on the hill next to the school, she said, but others came all the way from Howard County.

"That's far away," Rachel MacLean, 10, said.

She and her fellow Scouts stepped inside the one-room schoolhouse. Some of them hung their jackets on the nail hooks along the back wall. Then they headed for the black potbellied stove that students would have gathered around to warm themselves on cold December days.

Greenwald lifted a blue-and-white specked ladle from inside a pail and mimicked how students would get a drink of water -- toted by a couple of male students from the spring up the hill in early morning -- and sometimes sneak gulps from the dipper.

Each wall sported some kind of tribute to American and black history's major figures: portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on one, a poster of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass on another.

A 45-star flag that represented the state of the union in 1904 -- the year the school opened -- hung on the front wall, next to a board with a rhyming lesson written in white chalk:

"The fisher who draws in his net too soon will have no fish to sell; the child who shuts up his book too soon will learn no lesson well."

The kids slipped into the three rows of antique school desks. They giggled as Greenwald described the three-student desks, which trapped one poor student in the middle, used when the schoolhouse opened more than a century ago.

Built in 1903 at the request of three black fathers, the school catered to students from first through seventh grade, Greenwald said.

Soon, more pieces of the past -- this time living history -- stepped before them.

"They were two of the kids who went here," Greenwald said by way of introduction.

Rosie Hutchinson, now 80, and her sister Mae Whiten, 87, sat in chairs on the teacher's stage.

"You know I'm an old lady," Hutchinson said, an explanation for possible lapses of memory. "And my sister is older."

"And I don't remember anything," Whiten added.

But they proved themselves wrong in the next minutes, as Hutchinson, with her sister's help, drew vivid sketches of their childhood: the Bible verses they struggled to memorize for recitations in school, the walls dirtied from coal burning in the stove, the books that were never new, but torn and scrawled in -- raggedy discards from white schools.

"I never had a new book until I went to college," Hutchinson said.

"And you had to buy that one," Whiten said, chuckling.

Their family, the Dorseys, lived on top of a hill, near the schoolhouse.

"We had one teacher who taught all of the children, all the grades" -- a black teacher from Baltimore, Hutchinson said. The students sat by grade.

"How did the teacher teach all the different grades?" Ashleigh Kirker, 10, asked. "Did she have a certain amount of time with each?"

The teacher would instruct a few grades at a time, Hutchinson said. First-, third- and fifth- graders one day. Second-, fourth- and sixth-graders another. History, geography and social studies were combined, she said.

What did they bring for lunch? Greenwald asked.

"We had syrup sandwiches," Hutchinson said.

"Ew," one girl said. "What is that?" Like syrup used on pancakes, the 80-year-old replied, smiling.

"That sounds weird," Rachel said.

Hutchinson continued.

"You have any idea of what games we'd play?" she asked.

"Yahtzee," said Jordan Reynolds, 12, who had come along with his sister's troop.

The women laughed. No, not Yahtzee.

"Hopscotch?" Ashleigh guessed.

Yes, they said.

"We played jacks. We jumped rope," Hutchinson said. They also played marbles, dodgeball and pick-up sticks.

And, of course, they learned. Their mother "said the only way out of this poverty is through education," Hutchinson said. She and her siblings were never allowed to miss school, even when they were sick.

Society considered them second-class citizens, Hutchinson said, but in their minds, they were far from it.

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