Shady Side schools exhibit shows student life, segregation

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 of all white students. (Gabe Dinsmoor, 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."

Still, museum researchers found that white students got to use new textbooks, then handed them down to their counterparts at Lula G.Scott. Even when the county sought to improve the situation for African-American students, the efforts were jerry-built. Officials closed tiny Churchton Elementary, another school for black children, in 1953, hauled the building to Shady Side on a trailer and made it an addition.

Miss Battle was principal of the new complex, which featured four rooms, a kitchen and, for the first time, full-fledged indoor bathrooms.

A large photo of Principal Battle hangs over the exhibit, along with equally imposing images of Scott, a white teacher-principal named Flora Ethel Andrews (1914-1955) and Nellie C. Nowell, who taught and served as principal between 1933 and 1973. They gaze down like a Mount Rushmore of "separate-but-equal" education.

Gumballs and Girl Scouts

Capt. Salem Avery, a white waterman who trolled Long Island Sound during the mid-1800s, worked those waters until they were largely depleted. He moved to southern Anne Arundel County, where he bought a piece of land in 1860 overlooking the West River in what is now Shady Side.

His wife, Lucretia, tended farm operations, Avery captained a "buy boat" on the Chesapeake and the couple raised seven children in the two-story clapboard house they built, now site of the Captain Salem Avery Museum.

On a July afternoon, the weather is so hazy it's difficult to make out one of the sights usually visible in the distance, the Bay Bridge.

Ospreys soar in and out of a pole-mounted nest. Expensive beach cottages surround the historic setting.

It's a section of Shady Side that black residents — now roughly 6 percent of the town's population — rarely visit, Denniston says, adding that blacks have tended to visit the museum sparingly.

"Memories and Mementos" has helped change that. It's open every Sunday between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., and museum officials say visitors have been more diverse than at any previous exhibit.

What all guests experience is a time gone by.

Along one wall near the entrance, a mural painted by local artist Allison King depicts recess as both blacks and whites enjoyed it: slides and games of hopscotch, jacks, Red Rover and "caddy," an activity in which players would try to use a stick to propel a wedge of wood as far as possible.

Recess seems to spawn a disproportionate number of warm memories.

"Basil Dawson would take wet gumballs and throw them at you," writes Ruth Phipps Zirnhelt, 84, of Churchton, who attended Shady Side Elementary between 1939 and 1941, in a note pinned to the mural. "They hurt! I don't know why we never told on him, but we never did."

"We played … anything we could make up," adds Mary Lee Neiman Murphy (Shady Side Elementary, 1936-1944) in another note.

In a far corner of the exhibit, an old-fashioned teacher's desk stands on an elevated platform, as in the old days. A slate chalkboard hangs overhead, a remnant of Shady Side Elementary, circa 1920. (It will remain part of the museum's collection.)

An American flag stands on a pole, and George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass gaze down from framed pictures

"We said the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer every morning before class," according to a note from longtime resident Raymond Bast. "About ten feet from the back of the school there was a water pump. You brought your own cup from home, and if you didn't have one, you could get someone to pump the handle [so you] could drink water out of your hand."

In the film and in typed notes, others remember making paper airplanes, devouring copies of the Weekly Reader, going on Girl Scout trips, playing outside in the snow and watching a classmate climb out an open window to take care of a wounded bird.

In a note stuck to the teacher's desk, Howard G. Rogers (Shady Side Elementary, 1941-1947) recalls something to which students of any stripe can relate.

"Mostly what I remember," it reads, "is writing on the blackboard 500 times that I must not talk in class."

Continuing process

Largely funded by grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland Humanities Council, the exhibit has established an archive of community memories.

That process is continuing. Guests can sit down at a "Memory Desk" and respond to a list of questions about their school days: What happened when you broke a rule? How was your school heated or cooled? What did you bring for lunch?

"It has been so interesting to learn these details," says Denniston, who sent questionnaires out to members of the community and got dozens of replies.

Then there's that 1966 letter.

Framed beside a chalkboard on which someone has been writing their ABC's, it informs the parents —presumably of a white child — that their daughter would be attending Lula G. Scott that September.

Five years after that, a full 17 years after Brown v. Board of Education deemed integrated education a right under the Constitution, the community opened Shady Side Elementary, an integrated institution that is still in operation.

In and out of school, the process was hard at times. Hicks tells of walking to the home of a friend in the mostly white Avalon Shores neighborhood and hearing racial insults. Jean Yvonne Johnson of Churchton, 58, felt intimidated starting at a formerly all-white school.

Yet throughout the film, the character of the speakers rises above bigotry.

Hicks was not brought up to judge by skin color, she says, and still doesn't. Johnson made friends, including one white girl others routinely picked on. And Bobby Bast, 75, a fourth-generation Shady Sider, tells the filmmakers that blacks and whites worked together as watermen, an experience that made them brothers.

"That water can get unfriendly and take you down. If you fall in, it don't make no difference what color you are. The bay isn't prejudiced," he says.

Jennifer Sturgell, a teacher at Shady Side Elementary and a fifth-generation resident, says her students are so used to an integrated life that they "don't see black and white." But it gives her pause that their exposure to people of other cultures is so slight.

She detects confusion, even fear, among grade-schoolers toward religions such as Islam, she says in the film, and hopes they'll be able to keep an open mind when they get older.

If that happens, they'll probably look back fondly on the education they've gotten.

"That's the nice thing about Shady Side," she says, sounding every bit a latter-day Miss Smith. "The [elementary] school is the hub of the community."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the race of Flora Ethel Andrews. The Sun regrets the error.


If you go:

WHAT: "Memories and Mementos," a retrospective on Shady Side's elementary schools

WHERE: The Captain Salem Avery Museum, 1418 East-West Shady Side Road, Shady Side

WHEN: 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 1.