At 90 years old, Betty Williams' clearest memory of her days at Colored School 115 is running through an alley the schoolchildren thought was haunted.
"It was a game to run through and not get caught," she said, describing the lane between two of the old school's buildings.
Williams attended grades one through six at the school, built in 1888 in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood, from 1929 to 1935. It was declared unfit for children in the 1920s but continued in use because of "the feeling that black children weren't deserving of anything better," said historian JoAnn Robinson. The school was torn down in the 1950s, after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling forbade school segregation.
On Monday night, about 50 community members gathered for the opening of Schoolhouse Garden, which now commemorates the space where Williams' school used to be, at Brentwood Avenue and Merryman Lane.
The space was transformed from a rubble- and trash-filled lot to a garden with silhouettes of children and teachers, hydrangeas, fruit trees, mulch and paving stones.
The garden is an "homage" to the first colored school in Baltimore, said Waverly Main Street Executive Director Jermaine Johnson.
"It keeps history alive so young people coming along know where their grandparents and great-grandparents came from and how well they did despite hardships," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "Instead of looking at a littered lot, you're looking at a legacy."
Williams, who grew up to be a teacher and retired in 1982 as principal at Eastern High School, is one of many notable alumni and teachers, said Robinson, a retired history professor at Morgan State University.
"Imagine the feats of intellect, imagination and devotion these teachers must have performed to overcome these surroundings," Robinson said, referring to the ramshackle buildings, outdoor toilets and potbellied stoves the teachers had to tend.
Though the three buildings were called the "chicken coop" by students who attended, Williams said she loved going to school and that the experience was not at all unpleasant for her.
Williams thinks the garden is a "fine remembrance." She visits often.
"Gardens always conjure up memories," she said. "I think that's one of the fine things about a garden."
For two years, Waverly Main Street, a commercial revitalization organization in the area, and Civic Works, a nonprofit that transforms vacant lots around the city, have been working on the property.
Located in a high-traffic area across from the Waverly Farmers' Market, it had become an eyesore, but there was a "deep community interest" in it, said Civic Works COO Earl Millett.
"There was always an idea to do a garden in that area," Johnson said, but the idea for a memorial garden was proposed by local historians.
The renovation cost more than $22,000, with funding from the community, alumni of the school and a state grant, Johnson said.
Johnson hopes the public uses the garden, and that the nearby Waverly branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library keeps with the educational theme and hosts reading programs there. Waverly Main Street has programs planned for fall, including a fundraiser to help sustain the garden.
"If you allow a vacant lot to go down, it causes people to not fix up buildings," Millett said. "It's a keystone to that area, a lot easier way to get [revitalization] going, it's contagious."
Millett said people owning surrounding buildings have already begun to fix them up, which he credited to the garden project.
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