Steele's bluster vs. Doc's 'can do'

March 06, 2009|By LAURA VOZZELLA

There was Michael Steele on national TV the other day, slamming Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School for failing black kids, the same ones he failed after making a dramatic personal vow three years ago to get the school fixed.

And there was Doc Cheatham on local radio yesterday, announcing he'd gotten the Maryland Historical Society to take down a monkey mural because he thought the stripes on the animals' heads looked like cornrows.

You have to wonder which America needs more: public figures who raise real issues but do nothing about them, or those who get silly things done.

Let's first consider Steele. As the Republic National Committee chief hones his "urban-suburban hip-hop" outreach, he can argue that the Dems who have controlled America's urban school systems for decades have let black kids down.

"I can take you right now to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore City, where the educational system that's supposedly training and teaching the future generation of black folks ain't doing that," Steele said on CNN. "... And Republicans aren't running the city of Baltimore."

But Steele should think twice about invoking that particular school, much less using the word "ain't" in a screed about education. On a visit to Douglass in 2006, Steele went on a three-hour public rant about the school, which had no Advanced Placement courses or computer lab. It had sent just 42 of its 114 graduates to college the previous year.

Then Maryland's LG, Steele promised students he'd personally see to it that things improved.

"When one asked if he would put that in writing, he said, 'I'm asking you to check me on it. My word is my bond,' " The Baltimore Sun's Sara Neufeld reported at the time.

Steele's word proved to be not a trusty bond, but a mortgage-backed security. Nothing came of his promise, as Neufeld reported this week, though he claimed afterward that the school system did not want his help. His spokesman did not return my call yesterday.

Now compare Steele's results-free bluster to Cheatham's triumph over painted monkeys.

A caller to Larry Young's show on WOLB reported seeing an offensive mural on the side of the Maryland Historical Society building on the West Side. Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, checked it out and found "cornrows and monkeys."

He announced on the show yesterday that he'd gotten the society to remove the mural.

"The monkey thing has become a big issue," Cheatham said, referring to a controversial New York Post cartoon. He also noted how someone in Florida recently slipped a book on monkeys into a Barnes & Noble window display otherwise devoted to Barack and Michelle Obama.

Monkey slurs seem to be making a comeback. But was this mural actually one of them?

Artist Linda DePalma, who could not be reached for comment, based the picture, right down to the animals' bow ties, on a mechanical monkey in the society's historic toys collection. The suspected cornrows are actually black-and-white stripes (though you could take them for cornrows if you wanted to).

So why did the society take it down? Director Rob Rogers said he took his first good look at the mural at Cheatham's request. He was disturbed - because that mural, like seven others along the Centre Street side of the building, was in terrible shape.

On display since 1997, the plywood-and-paint creations were falling apart. Rogers had a contractor check them out and learned the murals covered damaged windows. He had all eight taken down so the windows can be repaired. The murals will not be put back on display.

"We have exhibitions in this building as well as collection storage," Rogers said. "The reality of water and/or moisture coming in is not something I could just allow. ... I'd love to be able to tell Doc and others that there was something corrected here, but I don't think at the heart there was anything negative when it was put up."

So who did a greater service to society here, Michael Steele or Doc Cheatham?

Steele got us talking about a school that, for all its recent progress, still has a graduation rate below 60 percent. But all he's done is talk.

Cheatham saved monkey-sensitive eyes from offense, got some worn murals off the streets and inadvertently saved historic artifacts from mold.

If only we could pair Steele's schools cause with Cheatham's can-do.

Gender confusion

From the misplaced obsessive attention to detail file: In writing about Fred Bealefeld's missing dog Wednesday, I double-checked Scooby's gender (male) but somehow assumed the police chief's two "kids" were boys. The commish has one boy and one girl. The Baltimore Sun, and this columnist in particular, regret the error.

@baltimoresun.com

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