Judge campaigns to restore reputation of city's first schools superintendent

John McJilton was fired for advocating public education of African-American children

August 28, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore city schools CEO Andrés A. Alonso will no doubt have a lot on his mind Monday morning when students pour off buses and sidewalks and through schoolhouse doors, marking the noisy beginning of another academic year.

It's unlikely that he'll be thinking of the Rev. John Nelson McJilton, an Episcopal rector, poet and educator who served as the school system's first superintendent in the 19th century. But a Connecticut Superior Court judge, some 300 miles away in Waterbury, Conn., certainly will be.

Judge Thomas F. Upson, 68, is the great-great-grandson of McJilton, and several months ago, while reading the city school system's official website, he noticed a brief and unflattering reference to his ancestor.

"The history on the website does not include him as the first superintendent of schools, and there is a negative reference to him that says, 'Steps were taken to remove Superintendent M'Jilton from office,' " said Upson in a telephone interview the other day from his Waterbury chambers. Upson is intent on restoring the reputation of his forebear.

Research turned up a lengthy 1987 Maryland Historical Magazine piece that details McJilton's story; an 1898 article from "Poets and Verse Writers of Maryland," by George C. Perine; and a two-page piece accompanied by a steel engraved portrait of his great-great-grandfather that was published in 1897 in "History of Freemasonry in Maryland," by Edward T. Schultz.

Armed with this information, Upson wrote a letter late last month to Alonso, giving him a brief biographical sketch of McJilton and his accomplishments in education.

"I am seeking that the negative reference to my ancestor be eliminated from your website history and that he be included as the first superintendent of schools, as indeed he was," Upson wrote.

"I am coming to Baltimore on Friday, November 12, 2010, for the day, and I have a framed copy of Reverend McJilton's portrait, which I would like to present to you on behalf of Baltimore city schools and to be hung in an appropriate setting," he wrote.

He also included copies of the aforementioned research to buoy his case.

"I also sent copies to all members of the school board," Upson said in the telephone interview.

In a letter dated Aug. 9, Alonso replied that he was in "receipt of your letter and accompanying articles regarding your great-great grandfather."

"I have asked my staff to review all of the materials and recommend any changes needed to bring our district history into alignment with the historical record," he wrote, and thanked Upson for "bringing this issue to my attention."

Upson was a little taken aback that Alonso failed to refer to his gift of a portrait.

What were McJilton's failings that launched him on a 142-year journey into institutional obscurity and shame?

McJilton, who was described as a "humorist, divine and educator," the son of a Methodist minister, was born in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1806, according to the stone that marks his grave in Green Mount Cemetery.

As a young man, he learned the trade of cabinetmaking and, following in his father's footsteps, became a lay minister in the local Methodist church.

Bookish and largely self-educated, he wrote poetry that was published in several Baltimore literary magazines during the 1820s and 1830s.

Eventually, McJilton became editor of The Athenaeum, where he worked until stepping down in 1836.

A year earlier, he was hired as a teacher at Male School No. 1 at Fayette and Greene streets.

"The recommendationby which the … gentleman [McJilton] was sustained in his application, show that he possesses the confidence of their inhabitants of the section of the city in which the school is situated, and induce a belief that in short time, the number of scholars in that institution will be largely increased," noted the 1835 report of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners.

By 1839, the board was so pleased with the performance of McJilton's school that it was the "standard by which others were measured," the Maryland Historical Magazine reported.

He resigned his teaching position in 1840, when he was ordained a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and a priest a year later.

McJilton was made rector of St. James African Episcopal Church in 1841, and continued there after also being named rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

In addition to his work in the church, McJilton was chancellor of the short-lived Newton University at 11 E. Lexington St., the first university in the city when it was established in 1845 by the Maryland General Assembly.

McJilton was elected to the Board of School Commissioners in 1845 and was elected board treasurer four years later.

"He was treasurer for nearly 20 years, and not only managed the financial affairs of the schools, but also was in charge of the supervision of the schools," Upson said.

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