Students share in own black history book

May 16, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

Warren Sweeley is a 16-year-old junior at Doris M. Johnson High School. He has five cats, one dog and his favorite movie is High School Musical. Like most kids his age, Warren learned his history in public schools.

No wonder he'd never heard of the 1942 "March on Annapolis." Until recently, that is.

Warren said he learned early in school about the famous 1963 March on Washington in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. But Warren knew nothing about the March on Annapolis in late April of 1942, when some 1,800 black Marylanders went by train, bus, car or foot to the state capital to protest police brutality and racial discrimination in Baltimore. After the march, three blacks were added to Baltimore's police force and then-Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor appointed a Commission on Problems Affecting the Negro Population.

"Everybody knew about the March on Washington," Warren said yesterday in Frances Hall at the Maryland Historical Society, "and nobody knew about the March to Annapolis."

Thanks to Warren, maybe that will change. But there are others to thank.

First, there are the folks at the historical society, which has formed a partnership with Doris M. Johnson High School the past three years to study several topics in Maryland's history. There's Mike Douglas, a history teacher at Doris M. Johnson, who steered his students through the research project.

Then there's the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which, with the historical society, put up $40,000 the past two years to fund the project. (A $10,000 grant from the History Channel's "Save Our History" program funded the project the first year.) There are Naomi Coquillon, the historical society's school resources coordinator, and Tricia M. Rock, who has a special interest in the students who participated in the project.

"Every year I learn something that is new," Rock said. "I've learned so many different things. Last year it was about the civil rights struggle in Cambridge. The year before that it was about Pennsylvania Avenue."

For the past three years, Rock has been the principal at Doris M. Johnson, a separate school tucked into the east wing of Lake Clifton High School. Rock is a graduate of Bethune-Cookman University, where she majored in criminal justice. (Boy, did she ever settle in the right city after her college days.)

Yesterday eight of Rock's students gave oral presentations about the essays and research they had done for the project, which is called "Keep on Movin' Toward Freedom: The `Free' State's Struggle with Equality." (Seventeen students in all participated.) A 95-page paperback book is the fruit of the project, covering topics as varied as the lynchings of George Armwood and Matthew Williams on the Eastern Shore in the early 1930s to the Royal Theater to the Black Panther Party in Baltimore.

Warren's topic was the March on Annapolis. According to Warren's research, Carl Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American and the NAACP's Lillie Mae Jackson were organizers of the march.

The impetus for the march was the police slaying of Pvt. Thomas Broadus, a black soldier, in February of that year. Broadus fought briefly with Officer Edward Bender, who shot Broadus in the back after the soldier tried to run. NAACP activist Juanita Jackson Mitchell told an interviewer for the historical society later that "we thought the killing was wanton police brutality and cruelty."

In the 1960s, police brutality and mistreatment of black Americans was still a problem, which is why chapters of the Black Panther Party sprang up in several cities, including Baltimore. Epiphany Butler and Maryland Shaw both did essays and research on the history of the Panthers in Baltimore.

"The only thing I ever knew about the Panthers was from the movie Barbershop," Epiphany said. She must have realized that the film was a poor source, because she studied further, focusing on the case of Marshall "Eddie" Conway. Using oral histories at the historical society, newspaper sources and a personal interview with former Baltimore Panther Steve McCutchen, Epiphany rehashed the tale of how two Baltimore police officers were shot in April of 1970 and how Conway was eventually tried and convicted of murdering one and wounding the other.

For 37 years, Marshall's supporters have maintained that his arrest and conviction haven't quite passed the smell test. Epiphany is now added to that number, although as the child of a white mother and black father, she didn't always feel sympathy for the Panthers.

"From what I'd known about the Black Panthers from my mother's side of the family, I thought they weren't really nice," Epiphany said. "But I learned they were fighting the only way they knew how."

Maryland has done some fighting herself - figuratively. She's an activist with the Algebra Project, a student group that has led demonstrations demanding more school funding in Baltimore. Maryland said she learned in her research that "the Panthers used armed struggle because they were tired of police brutality and they thought the nonviolent way wasn't working."

Maryland also learned that the Panthers had their critics - most objected to that advocating violence thing - but she was impressed by the free breakfast, clothing and free health clinic programs the party started.

"Everybody needs to give back to their community some kind of way," Maryland said.


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