Baltimore man touched lives on historic and personal level

Retired public school educator and civil rights activist was the first African-American to graduate from Washington College in 1962

March 13, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Regrettably, so many names of those who marched together on the road to freedom during the push for civil rights during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have been lost to time.

One of them was Thomas Edgar Morris Jr., a modest and quiet man whose earliest memories of his childhood in Virginia before moving to West Baltimore with his family in the late 1940s, was of "long bus rides [that] passed white schools to segregated schools," recalled his wife, Mellasenah Y. Morris, a concert pianist, who is dean of the Peabody Conservatory and deputy director of the Peabody Institute.

Last month, I had mentioned her late husband in a column, noting that he was the first African-American to attend and graduate in 1962 from Washington College in Chestertown.

"Both of those paragraphs are special to me because I am the widow of Thomas E. Morris Jr.," Morris wrote in an e-mail several days later.

"Why am I writing you? Just to share the emotions that your article evoked in a Peabody alumna, former Peabody faculty member, current Peabody senior-level leader, and widow of a great man who helped shape the lives of so many students as a mathematics teacher in Baltimore City," she wrote.

I wanted to hear the story behind the story of a man who evidently made such a difference in the lives of others and who used his own life experiences to help put an end to racism.

Thomas E. Morris, was born in Ditchley, Va., and moved to Baltimore when his father went to work for Bethlehem Steel Corp. at Sparrows Point. His mother owned and operated a day care service.

Morris' parents were also foster parents.

A good student at Douglass High School, Morris was urged by his guidance counselor and teachers to apply for a state scholarship to attend Washington College.

"His teachers realized his potential and helped him get a scholarship, which shaped his future," his wife said.

After graduating from Douglass in 1958, Morris entered Washington College that fall.

"His parents took him to Chestertown, dropped him off, and that was it," she recalled. "He was the first black student there and remained so for his first two years. And it was awfully lonely and hard for him."

Godbolt White was the second African-American to enroll at the college in 1960, and he was followed in 1961 by Dale Patterson Adams.

Chestertown and the college were different places in those days, said Morris.

"There were restaurants in Chestertown where he wasn't welcome, and when he went to the movies he was forced to sit in the 'colored section' in the balcony," she said.

As he had been in high school, Morris was very successful academically. He also was a member of the college track team.

"As a member of the track team, he couldn't go into places where his teammates ate when they were on the road, and there were always issues about buses and railroad stations," she said.

Morris joined his Washington College peers and participated in the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, earning the ire of the college's president.

"Thomas, who had been in marches and demonstrations, was summoned to the college president's office, where he was warned if he continued these activities, he would not graduate from Washington College," his wife said.

Immediately after graduating from Washington College with a degree in mathematics, Morris, who was the first member of his family to graduate from college, entered the fledgling Peace Corps, where he served in the Philippines.

Returning to Baltimore in the fall of 1964, Morris joined the faculty of City College and later taught math at Northern High School. He later taught algebra, geometry and calculus for many years at Polytechnic Institute.

During the summer, Morris taught in the Upward Bound program at what was then Baltimore Junior College and served as acting director of the program in 1969.

He also taught math courses on an adjunct basis at what is now Bowie State University in the 1970s.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he stayed after school to help students with their math or saw them in his Northwest Baltimore home.

"Many students returned to visit after graduating to express their appreciation for his caring manner and expert help," his wife said.

Morris met his future wife in 1964 when she entered Peabody to study piano on a full scholarship. "I lived in a resident house on Park Avenue when I met Thomas," she said.

"He was seven years older, but that's another story," she said with a laugh.

Still sensitive about racism, the couple tended to go where they felt comfortable and welcomed.

"When we went out for dinner, we went to black restaurants. We went to places on North and Pennsylvania avenues. These were traditional places, and we did that for a long time," Morris said.

The couple married in 1966 and had their first child. She is now Mellasenah Indira Edwards, a violinist who is a substitute with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and coordinator of the Baltimore School for the Arts' TWIGS program for young artists.

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