Pioneering educator was `a warrior'

She was stalwart in starting high school for pregnant students

Vivian Irene Washington 1914 -- 2007

October 18, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN REPORTER

Vivian Irene Washington said she was traumatized when one of her teenage students was pregnant and, by law, was immediately ejected from public school classes. Working against social standards of the early 1960s, she fought for a school for pregnant students, a place where they could study and get diplomas.

The pioneering educator who founded such a high school in Baltimore died of stroke complications Friday at her son's Flint, Mich., home. The former Ashburton resident was 92 and would have turned 93 this month.

More than 40 years ago, she lobbied school authorities to found an educational institution for teenagers who had been thrown out of the classroom because of their pregnancies. Her first school, later known as a Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School, was at Fayette and Greene streets in downtown Baltimore. It opened in 1966.

"She was a warrior," said Dr. Rosetta Stith, principal of Paquin. "We open our doors every day in her name. Her picture hangs in our assembly room because she battled the educational establishment to have a school like ours."

Newspaper articles described Mrs. Washington as "diminutive, a dignified woman with a delicate voice." Her pastor called her "a bulldozer."

"For 30 years she has resolutely pushed out of the way any obstructions that lay between her and her plans to help pregnant teenagers build a life for themselves," said a Sun profile published in 1996 when officials with the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families created an annual award in her name.

"I was assistant principal at Clifton Park Junior High," Mrs. Washington said of her work in the early 1960s, "and because I was a woman, I was in charge of the girls. One thousand girls."

Recalling that period, Mrs. Washington said that if a girl in the city schools became pregnant - married or unmarried - she was tossed out of school the moment anyone found out. Rumors would reach the office, or the nurse would tell, or the girl would get sick, and Mrs. Washington had to call in the parents, throw the girl out and tell her she could not come back.

After the baby was born, the girl could resume her education, but shame required that she be sent to another school.

"They cried so badly when the parents came," she said in the interview. "And I was appalled. They looked like babies themselves."

Moved by the plight of the girls she saw, Mrs. Washington persuaded the state and city officials to approve a secondary school for pregnant teenagers. It opened in 1966 with 175 students 18 and younger. The school quickly outgrew its original quarters and was moved to the old City College-Western High School building at Howard and Centre streets.

"When they [her students] got on the bus," Mrs. Washington recalled, "people would point at them and make fun of them."

Born Vivian Irene Edwards in Claremont, N.H., she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Howard University in Washington in 1938 and moved to Baltimore the next year. She later earned master's degrees in education and in social work.

She worked in the Baltimore school system for 34 years, beginning as a civics and history teacher. In 1941, she became a junior high school counselor, and in February 1944, she was appointed the first Negro visiting teacher, a position that later became known as school social worker.

"Some people said we were making it acceptable to be pregnant," she said. "We weren't saying that. We were saying, `You made a mistake, but we're not going to punish you. We're going to help you get back on your feet.'

"A lot of people had negative feelings. It wasn't the easiest thing. It wasn't like today. It wasn't like it a bit."

The school, she said, helped the girls go beyond their shame and realize that they had to make lives for themselves and their children.

Mrs. Washington retired from the school administration in the early 1970s and became executive director of the Baltimore Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Pregnancy Prevention.

A 1983 Evening Sun article described her as remaining "restless and unsatisfied" at Baltimore's birth-poverty cycle.

In 1987, the Baltimore Urban League honored Mrs. Washington alongside former school board Chairman Walter Sondheim Jr., who referred to her as a "heroine."

In 1993, she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Baltimore.

Mrs. Washington was an active Episcopalian and formerly belonged to Katherine of Alexandria Church. She served on the Diocese of Maryland's Council and chaired the Commission on Human Needs and the Community Services Committee. She also served on the Board of Episcopal Social Ministries.

Mrs. Washington was active in the Baltimore Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and the national Delta Organization. She was a founder of the Baltimore Chapter of the Pierians Inc. and a member of the DuBois Circle.

In 1985, she was elected to the Hall of Fame of the United Way Community Services Committee. In 1991, she was named Maryland's Outstanding Church Woman by the National Triennial of the Episcopal Church. In 1992, she was awarded the Distinguished Black Marylander's Award by the Office of Minority Affairs at Towson State University.

Mrs. Washington wrote two books, Mount Ascutney, published in 1958, and I am Somebody, I am Me, A Black Child's Credo, published in 1986.

Her husband of 44 years, G. Luther Washington, who taught at Carver Vocational Technical School and Morgan State University, died in 1995.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, 2300 W. Lafayette Ave., where she had been a communicant.

Survivors include a son, Valdemar L. Washington of Flint, Mich.; four sisters, Katherine McCray, Lena Lowe and Sylvia E. Johnson, all of Springfield, Mass., and Mae Bentley of New Haven, Conn.; and two grandsons.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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