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At 100, Warren Dorsey reminisces about growing up African American in Sykesville, is honored by park’s naming after mother

Warren Dorsey stared at the crowd as children and adults listened attentively for the tales of a Sykesville they never knew. As the breeze chilled the warm Sunday afternoon, his baritone voice fell back effortlessly to the past, bringing to life a century worth of stories.

He is not just a storyteller. He is living history.

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The Gate House Museum of Sykesville hosted the Sunday porch talk, in which the museum curator Jack White interviewed 100-year-old Dorsey, the oldest living person born in Sykesville. What Dorsey didn’t know is that a long-waited memorial was finally standing at the entrance of what once was Warfield Park — and what is now, officially, the Carrie Dorsey Park.

In 2018, the Sykesville mayor and town council passed a resolution changing the name of Warfield Park to honor Dorsey’s mother, Carrie Dorsey, an African American woman who raised her 12 children in Sykesville during the 1920s.

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But it wasn’t until Sunday that a monument and plaque, a staple in all the city’s parks, was complete.

“The African American community is an important part of history that has not been told in Sykesville,” said former town council member Christopher True, who originally suggested renaming the park.

At the porch talk, Dorsey reminisced about his upbringings, telling the audience about his father, Ed, a brilliant man who could do anything he put his mind to, and his mother, Carrie, who was a “wonderful woman.”

Carrie Dorsey fits the description of a modern strong woman, Sykesville Mayor Stacy Link said at the event. Carrie Dorsey would also likely be a matriarch, not just of her family but of an entire community.

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“We are certainly proud and honored to call [it] ‘Carrie Dorsey Park.’ [People] will know a little bit about your history and our history,” Link said.

“That’s just wonderful,” Warren Dorsey said.

Born just two generations out of slavery, Dorsey was the ninth of 12 children. His mother, Carrie, more than anything, wanted them to succeed and face a fate different than hers, he said. She valued their education.

For many years, there was no school for Black people in Sykesville, until people in the community began to push back and successfully opened one in 1904. That’s the school Dorsey went to until fifth grade.

After that, Dorsey began sixth grade at a school several miles away from his home in Sykesville. No transportation was provided for students and their families. They had to come up with a solution on their own. And for the Dorseys, that meant traveling by foot.

Every day, as Dorsey and his siblings prepared to walk to school, their mother told them: “Children, there will be a better day tomorrow.”

Dorsey calculates he must have walked 10,000 miles by the time he graduated high school. He has walked a long, long way in this life, he said, chasing his mother’s dream.

“And it’s come true to a large extent,” he said. “My mother never had the chance to go to formal school. And I have a master’s degree in education.”

After graduating first in his class and winning a scholarship, he decided to attend college. He threshed grain and pitched hay, earning 50 cents per hour, to be able to afford the next step of his education.

When the day came for him to leave his family’s 40-acre farm to go to college, his father could barely breathe. With asthma attacking him, he was taking every heavy breath as if it were his last.

Dorsey was the only male left at home to tend to the farm; he started to wonder if he should pursue his education later, sacrificing his opportunities for the well-being of his family. It was his mother who pushed him to go on to college.

The lives of the Dorseys revolved around three institutions in Sykesville: home, church and school. But music also has been an integral part of his life, Dorsey said.

It was at church, with the teaching of a choirmaster who was illiterate but could read music, that then-toddler Dorsey learned to sing. And he hasn’t stopped since.

His wife, Carolyn, who died in 2019 at the age of 96, sang, too, with her “beautiful soprano voice.” They met when he was stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia, during World War II through her choir director, who conducted a glee club that Dorsey sang in while in the Army.

The two moved to Maryland and married, by then both with college degrees. A microbiologist, Dorsey went on to work at Fort Detrick, the center of U.S. biological defense program, and settled in Frederick.

The land where Dorsey’s 64-year-old house stands used to be part of an apple orchard, he said. The orchard’s owner was going out of business, he said, and sold the acres primarily to Black families. They built a community there.

Now, it’s hard to find African Americans in the area, he said.

In 1970, Dorsey went back to school to get his master’s in education. It was one of the few professional occupations Black people could get, he said.

He became an elementary school teacher in Sykesville and eventually rose the ranks to principal until he retired in 1981. In his years of teaching, his focus was to get kids to be good readers — the most important skill they could have, he said. Getting them to make sense of a printed page were some of his most rewarding years.

Dorsey also took an active role in his community, nicknaming himself and others as part of the “P.U.G”: political umbrella group.

“We will be a solid umbrella for those who are dedicated to changing the community for the better,” he said.

Mostly, that meant keeping local politicians accountable, pressuring them into “getting off their fannies” and fulfilling the promises they made, especially when it came to the desegregation of schools in Frederick.

Dorsey has seen some systemic changes in his lifetime. But when it comes to racism and white supremacy in the United States, it is still a trying situation, he said. The public school system is not, in his view, yet integrated.

“It’s integrated when everybody has an equal shot at the opportunities to serve and the opportunity to participate,” he said.

After the round of stories, Dorsey serenaded the crowd with “You Raise Me Up” and “My Way,” his voice reaching beyond the grounds of the Gate House museum.

In one song, the crowd joined him, some reading the music sheets they were given, others just staring straight ahead. A soft choir velveted his singing:

“Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies

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Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

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