A hundred folks filled Grace Hall at Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster on Feb. 21 to hear a presentation by Jack White, about the life and times of Carroll County native son, Warren Gamaliel Dorsey.
Dorsey, the grandson of a slave, grew up poor in Sykesville during the 1920s and '30s, and overcame enormous obstacles during the Jim Crow era in Carroll County, to become an acclaimed author, scientist and teacher.
Inspired by a chance meeting with Dorsey and members of his family at the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse in 2011, White wrote the book, "In Carrie's Footprints: The Long Walk of Warren Dorsey," which was released in November 2014.
On Tuesday, White shared vignettes of Dorsey's life in an hour-long presentation for the longstanding "Box Lunch Talks" lecture series, produced by the Historical Society of Carroll County. Much of the life-history of Dorsey is the history of southern Carroll County. On Tuesday, White brought this history to life through slides and reading a number of passages from his book.
"I just wanted to tell you how Warren and I first got together — and started on this book, "In Carrie's Footprints," explained White at the beginning of his talk. Sykesville "has an old schoolhouse that was built in 1904, for the black community… Over the years, it just fell apart… But the town [of Sykesville] renovated it. And now they call it Sykesville's 'Old Colored Schoolhouse.'"
In 2011, White attended an event at the old schoolhouse. "Up on the slightly elevated platform, where the teachers used to stand were … Mae Dorsey Whiten, Warren Dorsey, and Rosie Dorsey Hutchinson, ages 93, 91 and 86. Their mom was the daughter of a slave, and they'd all attended school in this room a very long time ago."
"Warren's not a famous person," explained White, referring to a passage in his book. "His life is not a tragic one filled with dramatic events. Warren didn't change the world. What he did was survive, overcame some very tough odds, and dedicated his life to carrying out his mother's dream that someday her children would lead a better life than hers, that someday they would escape the farm in Sykesville, get educated and do good things. And they did. Her name was Carrie, and it's because of her that you're here today."
Dorsey's grandmother, Catherine, "who they would later call Aunt Kitty," was born in 1847. She was owned by a slave dealer named Isaac Anderson, who "bought slaves on the docks at Annapolis … then moved them up to the compound in Marriottsville … they called 'Little Africa.'" Catherine was not a purchased slave — she was the daughter of Anderson and a slave.
Dorsey's grandfather, John T. Dorsey, was a free man, born in 1837 — and 10 years older than Catherine, said White. "While Kitty was still a teenager, Anderson made a deal with Dorsey … Anderson agreed that in exchange for a certain amount of work over time, Dorsey could eventually purchase his wife, Kitty, and marry her."
Dorsey's father and mother, Ed and Carrie, got married sometime around 1903. Carrie was 16. The Dorseys lived on their farm up near the schoolhouse. They had 12 children.
White reported that Ed began working in the kitchen at Springfield Hospital around 1910. In June 1920, he bought a farm from A.C. Brown, a carpenter at Springfield, for $3,200. "It was a lot for a 36-year-old cook with eight kids [at the time] … He had $1,000. All he needed was $2,200 … No one in Sykesville would loan $2,200 to a black man. But Ed got [a loan] somehow in a town called Manchester."
Ed used the farm "animals to pay the mortgage. The interest on the loan was $40 per year. ... [Although he] didn't show up at the bank and shove a small cow through the teller's window. He sold the calf and used the money to satisfy the bank," according to a passage in the book.
Warren was born on Nov. 17, 1920. Today, "Warren is now 96 years old. This November he will be 97," said White at the presentation. Dorsey's mom, "Carrie could not read or write, and had no formal education, yet she maintained that the only way out of here — out of poverty —was to get educated…" Carrie was strict about the behavior of her children and insisted upon her children attending school and not missing classes.
"My book is all about education … Growing-up, Warren walked 10,000 miles back and forth to school," said White. Dorsey was not expected to live right after he was born. But he survived — and went on to lead a life of continuing to beat the odds, and achieving great things — by walking and traveling great distances to attend the segregated schools of Carroll County.
He started school in 1926 at the Sykesville Colored School. Five grades later, he had to walk 4 miles each way to a two-room schoolhouse in Johnsville. Buses were available to the white students, but not to children of color. By hard work, perseverance — and lots of walking, Dorsey continued his studies at the Robert Moton School in Westminster.
Dorsey went on to Morgan State College. "At Morgan his interest turned to microbiology… ." After graduating as the salutatorian of his class in 1942, Dorsey served in World War II in the U.S. Army. After the war, he started to work at Fort Detrick as a scientist.
In an interview after the presentation, White further explained that Dorsey worked at Fort Detrick until 1970 — and concurrently earned his master's degree in education at Goucher College. He began teaching fifth grade in 1970. Later he became an assistant principal at East Frederick and Middletown elementary schools, and was principal at Carroll Manor Elementary School before he retired in 1981.
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White then called attention to a passage in the back of his book. Reflecting back on a past family reunion, Dorsey had written in a family newsletter, "Every one of us who claims to be a Dorsey is one of Carrie's footprints. As footprints of this humble woman, all of us share in embracing her legacy … . We must never falter, forever seeking new challenges. Carrie lit the … torch; her footprints must keep the flame glowing."