Warren Dorsey, 97, lives in Frederick, where he once worked as a germ warfare research scientist at Fort Detrick and, later, as a school principal.
But Dorsey grew up in Sykesville in the 1920s, in a family of 12 children, one of fourteen African-American families in an enclave atop the hill climbed by Oklahoma Road. In his remarks to an audience at White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church on Saturday, Dorsey made it clear just how the white people who lived in the town thought of him and his family at that time.
“We were sort an appendix to the main town,” he said. “Those of you who read much, you might have read a book by Ralph Ellison, ‘The Invisible Man.’ We were the invisible people of Sykesville.”
Dorsey’s family, in particular his mother Carrie, are the subject of a book by Jack McBride White, “Carrie's Footprints: The Long Walk of Warren Dorsey,” and that book was chosen in 2017, as the first tome in the Carroll One Book project, a collaboration between the Carroll County Public Library and Carroll County Public Schools system designed to foster conversations about race and race relations.
But Dorsey’s talk at the church as about more than simply discussing the book. It was part of a next step for the Carroll One Book project: the first African-American Heritage Tour, which took more than 50 people in two buses across the county to visit the many important sites in the county’s deep African-American heritage.
Those on the tour visited Ellsworth Cemetery in Westminster, founded in 1876 by six Black Union Army veterans and rededicated on Memorial Day 2018, and the Robert Moton School, which, built on Westminster’s South Center Street in 1948, served as a segregated school for first through 12th grades until 1965.
They also visited the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse, which sits near the hill on which the Dorsey family lived and began service as a single room school for African-American children in 1903, according to Patricia Greenwald, who helped restore the building after the town acquired the property.
Greenwald talked of the extreme difficulties the school faced, from the need to solicit teachers to come to Sykesville from Baltimore by train due to a scarcity in Carroll County, to the many miles children had to walk each day due to a lack of transportation and the rough condition of the desks and books, cast offs from white schools.
Despite all that, Greenwald said, the school had an extremely high attendance rate, and it often meant “the difference between enlightenment and ignorance.”
Many of the people on the tour were familiar with some of the information presented, but were impressed by the depth of the history with which they had not been fully aware.
“You know I moved here in 1977. I had no idea of the history that’s here,” said Charles Harrison, of Westminster. “There is so much here in Carroll County that the average citizen moving from somewhere else, doesn’t know. There’s a series of families here … the Dorseys, the Greens; those are historical families that have a deep rooted tradition here.”
Mary and Gary Honeman we also both impressed with the tour, something that had been looking forward to.
“I had never been to the school house but I knew that it existed,” Mary said. “My husband and I were saying, we really think that should be part of the curriculum for all of Carroll students, to get to that school house. What a history.”
A history that is still alive, quite literally, and witnessing change.
At the church, Dorsey held up a copy of a newspaper reporting on a decision made by the Sykesville Mayor and Town Council on Tuesday to rename Warfield Park to Carrie Dorsey Park, after Warren’s mother.
“I have wondered many times why I am still on this earth; I thought I would be gone long ago,” he said. “Now I know why. What happened there in Sykesville is at last, the recognition that, yes indeed, we were a presence there. We were an honorable presence there and this old man was kept around to tell about it.”