Shady Side schools exhibit shows student life, segregation

Captain Salem Avery Museum shares documents, stories in 'Memories and Mementos'

  • An old photograph donated by a Shady Side resident shows a class of all white students.
An old photograph donated by a Shady Side resident shows a class… (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore…)
July 24, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Carmelia Hicks' favorite grade-school teacher, Julia T. Smith, was a kindly human being, but she kept a thick paddle in her desk drawer and was never afraid to use it.

The way Hicks remembers it, Miss Smith had plenty of backup.

"If you acted up, she sent you to the principal's office. Miss [Alice] Battle, the principal, had an even thicker paddle. Then they'd call your parents, and when you got home, you'd get another beating," Hicks says of the mid-1960s, when she was a student at the Lula G. Scott Elementary School in Shady Side.

Hicks, now director of an award-winning Head Start daycare program in town, shares the story in a 22-minute film at the heart of "Memories and Mementos," the latest exhibit at the Captain Salem Avery Museum in Shady Side.

It's the kind of vignette to which any student from her era might relate. The exhibit brims with such nostalgia, from old black-and-white photos to a slate chalkboard dating to the 1920s. But the show also demonstrates that Shady Side school life was as much about division as common experience.

"Memories and Mementos" shines a light on an elementary school system that was segregated for more than a century, and only changed when forced to in 1966, a dozen years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

"We're exploring Shady Side's diverse community through the lens of its public education opportunities," says museum board member Beth Denniston, who directed the project.

A framed letter from the county superintendent hangs on one wall. "The United States Office of Education is not able to discover any justification for further delay in the total desegregation of the faculty and student body of your school system beyond the opening of school" in the fall], David S. Jenkins wrote on April 30, 1966.

The exhibit revels in what was good in school life on both sides of the divide. But after Jenkins' letter, Shady Side was never quite the same.

Side-by-side and separate

It's hard to gauge whether segregation of the races was more persistent in Shady Side — an unincorporated town of about 6,000 people where the West River flows into the Chesapeake — than in other parts of the county and state.

When the community took shape during the 1800s, it was principally home to African-Americans who had come to help seafood companies harvest the bay's bounty. Over the generations, whites moved in, mainly watermen and farmers. Many of those whites would employ their African-American neighbors as gardeners or maids.

From the beginning, a physical division was evident. African-Americans settled mainly on the bay side of Shady Side; white families clustered on the river side, to the north and west. Even today the geographical distinction remains, though African-Americans now make up a smaller proportion of the population.

Many find symbolism in the fact that black and white worshippers still attend separate churches, even though all-black St. Matthew's Methodist and all-white Centenary Methodist stand side-by-side on the town's main drag, Shady Side Road.

But separation of blacks and whites was never more visible than in the schools. According to a timeline Denniston assembled, Shady Side Elementary, the white institution, appears to have opened sometime during the 1870s. The first school for blacks, set in a shacklike building near the Churchton line, opened shortly after that.

The white school moved to a better site in 1917. An improved black school, known as the Shady Side Colored Elementary, opened in 1926. Thirty-one years later, it was renamed for Scott, a longtime African-American educator; today, the building houses the Lula G. Scott Community Center.

For the video that anchors the exhibit, organizers reached out to members of both communities. Denniston and her two volunteer filmmakers aimed to interview those who remembered the system well.

They focused on eight Shady Sider residents, four black and four white, and if their memories are any guide, segregation stemmed as much from habit as from any kind of malice.

"It's just the way things were," Hicks says on-camera. "You didn't think anything about it."

Doris Brown, 77, who went to the "colored" school during the 1940s, speaks as much in the film about the big black potbellied stove she recalls as about any racial inequality.

Shady Side "is a unique community," says Brown, who would later teach at the school, as well as the current Shady Side Elementary, which opened in 1971 as the town's first fully integrated school. Even before integration, "white and black families went to the same stores, worked together and knew one another. The transition was smoother than a lot of people expected."

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