Experience Corps volunteers Audrey M.B. Weems, right, and… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
When James H. McDonald was 16, back when Baltimore was legally segregated, he set out to apply for a job in a drugstore a few blocks into the white side of town. Almost as soon as he'd set foot over Fulton Avenue, the dividing line, he had company.
"This gentleman - he said he was a policeman - asked what I was doing there," said McDonald, now 80.
McDonald, who was followed to the store to prove that there was indeed a job opening, offered the story Monday as an example of life before the civil-rights activists made inroads, before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and long before a black man was elected president. McDonald was one of dozens who came to share or listen to personal civil-rights stories at a multigenerational gathering in Baltimore.
The event was filled with members of the Experience Corps, older adults who tutor and mentor children in urban schools. Relatively few young residents showed up to join the discussion, but a handful of high school students and 20-somethings gathered at tables with the retirees. However, plenty of people were on hand to fill the basement of Miller's Court on North Howard Street and make the conversations one big, lively din.
"A lot of members have such great, interesting stories, but they haven't found the audience," said event coordinator Laura Schmitz, who is part of AmeriCorps VISTA. "A big goal of this project is to try to reconnect the generations."
The next step, she said, will be school children interviewing Experience Corps members "to put a face to this history."
Some residents offered stories Monday that had a bittersweet edge. Dora Tapp, who grew up in Baltimore and is an Experience Corps team leader, said her family was poor but she and her siblings didn't know it as kids, so rich was their family life. Every Sunday after church, they would go on an outing together, even if just to the airport to watch planes take off.
"Somewhere along the way, we lost our family values," Tapp said, referring to the country.
McDonald shared a tale to show that interracial interactions weren't always about who had power and who didn't. In the early 1960s, he got a flat tire in the South and discovered his spare was flat, too. He was stunned when a white farmer stopped his tractor, produced a tire, put it on his vehicle and didn't charge a cent.
Christian James, 27, a staff member with the Board of Child Care, brought high-schoolers to the event with him. He settled at McDonald's table and listened to him and Experience Corps team leader Audrey M.B. Weems, 74, share their experiences.
James likes to hear people's stories. They connect to him to a time when something as simple as crossing Fulton Avenue was a momentous act.
"I try to remind myself that I'm privileged," he said to Weems.
"You are," she said.