4 Loyola teens found identities

After assassination and riots, `light bulb went off' for students

April 04, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, Baltimore was ablaze and four teens at Loyola Blakefield High School responded with their version of rebellion. They began asserting their racial identity, challenging authority and reading militant authors. They grew Afros.

In the days and months after King's murder 40 years ago today, consciousness spread nationwide as the word black replaced Negro and clenched fists were raised with pride. But the elite Jesuit school in Towson was caught off guard by the assault on its dress code. The Afros nearly got them expelled.

Christopher H. Foreman Jr., Ralph E. Moore Jr., Erich W. March and Victor Thomas - sophomores in high school when King was killed - were undergoing a rapid transformation. They were approaching manhood, grappling with what it meant to be black while straddling two vastly different worlds.

A year earlier they had left working- and middle-class city neighborhoods for Loyola's country-club campus, a complex of stately stone buildings, tennis courts and lush grounds. As members of the Loyola class with the largest number of black students - the four of them, out of 140 - their admission was a symbol of racial progress.

For the boys themselves, however, the transition between worlds was intimidating.

Would they be accepted at Loyola? How would their old friends view their new private school status? And what if they didn't belong in either world?

On April 4, 1968, they stopped asking such questions.

"After King, a light bulb went off," said Moore, 55, now the director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, which links low-income people to jobs and training. "The transformation was pretty radical in us. We went from apologizing for our blackness to being more confident and assertive."

`Strong psyches'

Upon arriving at Loyola, Moore was the comedian, using a self-deprecating sense of humor as a shield from the unknown. In West Baltimore, he had attended a school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a black order of nuns who instilled the need to work twice as hard as whites to be considered equal. The consciousness awakened by King's death would shape a lifelong dedication to fighting poverty.

Foreman was the pragmatist, the eldest of four reared by a single mother in a dilapidated Walbrook apartment. The confidence he gained in 1968 helped earn him the distinction of becoming Loyola's first black student body president. He would go on to pursue an academic life, earning a bachelor's degree, master's and doctorate from Harvard University.

March was the self-described square, the child of a solidly middle-class family whose funeral enterprise has been a fixture in East Baltimore for half a century. He would draw on the discoveries of his high school years when he launched a community development corporation devoted to improving the struggling neighborhood around the business.

The three describe Thomas as the most politically aggressive of the bunch, a vibrant personality who was dedicated to a career in theater before he died of AIDS in 1987.

On the surface, the boys arrived at Loyola composed and confident.

"These were strong kids, with strong psyches," said Frank Fischer, 81, then a Jesuit priest who helped recruit black students. "They didn't have any special program to help them. They were all very bright, capable and psychologically equipped to deal with this."

But the boys certainly didn't feel that way. They arrived at an academy that was out of their comfort zone both emotionally and geographically.

Moore's journey to the suburban campus began at 6:30 a.m., required three buses and the occasional indignity. He met March at a coffee shop at the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue for the second leg of the trip, surrounded by black domestics traveling out to the county to jobs in the homes of white people.

A white bus driver routinely ignored Moore's request for change. Then, just before Moore would exit the bus, the driver would hurl coins at him.

Moore felt white passengers were affronted to see a black boy traveling out to the county. "I remember sitting there and feeling that people just didn't approve," he said.

In his own neighborhood, Moore stood out as well. Peers took one look at his tidy necktie and duffel bearing the bright yellow Loyola insignia and assumed he was uppity.

"Somebody, I never saw who, yelled at me down the street `White boy,'" said Moore, who said he hopes one day to write a book about the psychological effects of integration. "I never wore that bag again."

Moore rarely discussed these feelings. It wasn't the type of conversation his parents had time for in a household of eight children. Besides, civil rights and integration weren't topics of discussion in the hard-working, fairly conservative family.

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