Douglass troubles cloud anniversary Alumni recall past glories, offer help to students


If you chattered in class or stepped out of line in the hallway or failed to turn in your homework, you heard about it all the way home from Frederick Douglass High School.

The principal would call your parents, who would tell the neighbors, who would be waiting for you when you passed their stoops. That was before your parents and your grandparents and your aunts and uncles got to you, says Twilah Scarborough, a 1944 graduate.

" 'Why were you acting up today? You know better than that, Twilah,' they'd all say," recalls Mrs. Scarborough. "Boy, did that set you straight."

Mrs. Scarborough's grandparents and her parents and her 10 brothers and sisters and some of their children would identify with the story. They all graduated from Douglass.

This weekend, about 3,000 Douglass alumni are expected to gather to celebrate the school's 110th anniversary, its rich heritage as one of the premier black schools in Baltimore -- the only city high school blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two until 1954.

Proud Douglass, where teachers accepted no excuses for less than your best and where generations of young Baltimore blacks learned that neither Jim Crow nor poverty nor the color of their skin could hold them back.

Through the decades, the school named for the one-time slave )) shaped its students, permeating them with its spirit, imparting wisdom that guided them through life. They had a saying: "Don't just go through Douglass; let Douglass go through you."

Douglass, proud Douglass, went through many of Baltimore's most-renowned citizens: Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who will be honored posthumously; former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and Rep. Kweisi Mfume; Cab Calloway, the entertainer; Ethel Ennis, the singer; George Russell Jr., Baltimore's first black city solicitor; Alice G. Pinderhughes, the former schools superintendent; Clarence H. "Du" Burns, the city's first black mayor.

The Douglass honor roll goes on and on. But for old-timers, the celebration is tempered by the realization that their alma mater's troubled present clashes with its glorious past.

* Today, teachers, the targets of profanity and physical threats, fear for their safety and demanded that classes be canceled for two days so that they could be trained to stave off violence. Three teachers have missed school this year after being assaulted by students.

* Over a period of a month, school police confiscated four weapons, including a sawed-off rifle, inside the school.

* Some teachers tell of stopping class 10 or 15 times an hour to deal with disruptive students. That detracts from any real education, as performance measures attest: Students' scores average among the lowest in the city on standardized test scores, 1 in 4 students drop out each year, only 7 of 10 students show up each day.

Outside the three-story brick school, sure as the sun sets, a good many streets in the surrounding neighborhoods become war zones at night. Drug dealers take control of the corners, and the sound of gunfire no longer surprises anybody.

Sometimes, the ways of the streets come dangerously close to the campus. Two weeks into the school year, rival neighborhood gangs feuded across the street in a Mondawmin Mall parking lot with steel poles, wood slabs and knives just after dismissal. Parents, clergy and community leaders worried that violence would spill over into the school.

Douglass is in no small part a victim of its surroundings, struggling to cope with more than its share of the scourges of urban America -- rampant unemployment, poverty, despair, violence, drug trafficking, single-parent households supported with welfare checks. The school's story -- of triumphs and tribulation, of glory and frustration, of remarkable success and dismal failure -- reflects the ups and downs of those streets and those neighborhoods.

Hannibal Mickens walked them -- 40 minutes every school day -- when he attended Douglass from 1954 to 1957. Last week, he made the journey again, from the rowhouse where he lived on West Saratoga Street to the school at 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Driving through the Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods, he points to the homes where he stopped each morning to pick up a dozen classmates, the buildings that housed a movie theater and a gas station and markets and a big bakery.

He hardly recognizes the old neighborhood. On corners, young men and women amble aimlessly. Drunks sip from bottles, while drug dealers work the streets. Boarded-up houses are disturbingly common. Vacant storefronts far outnumber successful businesses. A bail bondsmen and a funeral home and a liquor store thrive.

"It pains me because these are the streets I walked to school and everyplace else," says Mr. Mickens, a hearing examiner for the state Insurance Commission.

A place where everybody knew everybody else, where you got to school on time for the prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance each morning and you arrived back home by the time the Art Linkletter show ended at 3 -- or else.

Youngsters studied hard, forever conscious of the weighty burden of making Douglass proud.

Teachers laid down the law and enforced it -- right down to the students' silent, regimented two-column procession on the right side of the hall between classes -- and went out of their way to help students. Indeed, more than a few teachers showed up at students' homes to help them after school, at night, even on weekends. Sometimes, teachers invited troubled youngsters over for a weekend to try to talk some sense into them.

"Now, when school gets out, the teachers and everyone else want to get away from here as soon as possible," says Mr. Mickens. "They fear the area. It's a dangerous place."

Once bastions of the black middle class, third- and fourth-generation Baltimore families that worked hard and taught their children to do the same, the neighborhoods surrounding Douglass began their downward spiral with the flight of the black middle class.

Today, just outside the doors of the school, in the Mondawmin community, the median household income is $17,588, and 40 percent of the children live in poverty, U.S. Census figures show. Single-parent households far outnumber two-parent households, and adult dropouts outnumber high school graduates. A third of of youths ages 16 to 19 are high school dropouts.

Teachers confront almost insurmountable odds, too often without the support of parents at a 1,300-student school that has no PTA, says Mr. Russell, a 1946 Douglass graduate who became the first black on the city's supreme bench, then the first black city solicitor.

"They get kids who come to school hungry, angry, under the influence of drugs and alcohol without any standard of accountability," he says. His generation fought hard to break down barriers at a time when blacks stayed within the boundaries of segregated Baltimore and read cast-off textbooks handed down from the white schools. But the fruits of the battles -- waged by Justice Marshall and generations of Mitchells, among countless others -- seem hollow today.

"When you see what is happening in the community now," he says, "the history is very meaningless. Martin Luther King said we would have a lost generation. Well, we have three or four lost generations."

But it's still Douglass, proud Douglass, the school where teachers taught teen-agers to overcome, where you learned to view adversity as the wellspring of growth, where nobody would let you give up on yourself.

Essie Hughes' students heard those lessons all the time, mixed in with the Latin, French and Spanish she taught from 1934 to 1954. Mrs. Hughes, class of 1925, still inspires fond memories among former students, who recall a tough, but kindly teacher who dispensed the same simple wisdom she learned from her teachers at Douglass: "Your best is what you give if you want to be remembered. If you reach your ceiling in life, it's too low. You must carry it up higher."

She had little patience for shenanigans. She learned as a child horseplay could quickly land you in the basement, scribbling parts of the U.S. Constitution.

One of her classmates, a practical joker and a voracious reader who wowed everybody with his speaking and debating ability but was less than religious about turning in his notebooks every week, received that punishment more times than he could count. By the time he graduated, Justice Marshall would say later, he had memorized the Constitution in its entirety.

Now Mrs. Hughes gasps at the unthinkable: high school students assaulting teachers, bringing guns to school, reading at the fourth-grade level, dropping out of school, dropping out of mainstream society for good, perpetuating the sad cycle. She doesn't blame the teachers, the school or the school system, but she pities the children.

"They're squandering the opportunities," she says. "So many have been enslaved by their own doing, and they don't even realize it.

"We need to come back to the essential values. These units of society -- home, church, school -- must have the same frame of reference they did. I just feel America is going too far in the other direction. When you had this moral decadence, Rome burned."

The school and its alumni, a sort of extended family fiercely loyal to their alma mater, are striving to restore Douglass to its former grandeur.

Among the efforts: forums for girls only and boys only; regular visits from successful blacks; partnerships with colleges, which provide mentors, tutors and job preparation; a job apprentice program at Mondawmin Mall; alternative career fairs; coupons good for discounts at the mall for students who excel.

Tuesday, a few hundred male students gathered at the school for a "Men's Only Forum."

On the stage sat a clergyman who graduated from Douglass in 1968, a reformed ex-convict who for years dealt drugs and robbed people, a school police officer, a city councilman, a successful businessman. The men spoke of the rich Douglass tradition and told the students that they are its rightful heirs and its hope. Educate yourselves, the men said, or you'll face a life of poverty or prison time -- or die way too soon.

The teen-agers talked and talked about living in violent neighborhoods, where drug dealers seem the most successful, and sometimes the only successful, people, about poverty and hopelessness, about a lack of jobs, about parents who never knew success.

A sampling of student sentiment: "They won't give us a job, so what else do we have to do but sell drugs?"

"In my neighborhood where I live, you can't really do nothing about the crime 'cause that's really all there is."

"Can't nobody start a business 'cause we don't have any money, we get it the easiest way we can."

Ricky Davis, a member of the Breakthrough Team, a crisis-intervention group working in a handful of city schools, arranged last week's forum, along with Principal Shirley T. Hill, to try to reach the youngsters.

"When the young people grow up in these neighborhoods, they grow up with the message that if you live here, nobody really cares what happens to you," says Mr. Davis. "They look around, and they conclude they're not going to make it out of here, so how relevant can school be to them?

"More than anything, they need people to listen to them and show them a way out."

The young men in Deuce Phi Deuce found their way out and desperately want others to follow.

The dozen seniors started their fraternity this year, and none of them just went through Douglass. Douglass, proud Douglass, certainly went through these future leaders, surgeons, lawyers, businessmen, who have excelled against some tough odds.

In a second-floor classroom, they rap and do a funky dance. They cut up and laugh uproariously like Douglass High youngsters of generations ago, but their words and their stories of life in big-city America in 1993 belie their easy manner.

Between them, Deuces have known dozens of former schoolmates who have been killed over drugs and money and girls and jackets. Deuces know of former classmates who now run small drug empires on the streets, and many more who have dropped out and disappeared. Deuces know what it means to live in poverty or with one parent. Deuces know the pain of ridicule from many other students who deride the successful ones for "trying to be white."

Still, Deuces overcame. For three years, they've passed the imposing bronze bust of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, his intent gaze fixed on all who enter the main office. The symbolism is not lost on the Deuces.

Quest Smith, a 17-year-old Deuce with the words "Lord Quest" hanging from a gold chain around his neck, speaks reverently of Frederick Douglass, Dr. King and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He thinks of them often, of their hard-fought battles and victories, of his gratitude and sense of duty -- and of wasted lives.

"It should be a crime if we're not grateful that they opened doors for us and if we don't make the best of the opportunities they won for us and keep opening doors and show more brothers through," says Quest, who plans to attend Howard University, then law school.

His buddy, Lorenzo Cooper, a 16-year-old trombone player and science whiz who wants to be a neurosurgeon, listens, nodding.

"How do we reach all these children?" he asks. "Maybe they look at me and say, 'That boy right there is gonna be something.'

"You become that light, and everybody's gonna want some of their own. That's the only way we're gonna be able to steer them away from all this rebelliousness. Education," he says, "education's the only light we have."


Thurgood Marshall, late Supreme Court justice

Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., civil rights leader

Juanita Jackson Mitchell, civil rights leader

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, civil rights leader

Cab Calloway, entertainer

Chick Webb, jazzman

Ethel Ennis, singer

Verda Welcome, former state senator

Kweisi Mfume, congressman

Parren J. Mitchell, congressman

Robert Watts, judge

Harry Cole, former state senator, judge

George Russell, attorney; former city solicitor, judge

Veronica Tyler, opera star

Clarence Du Burns, former Baltimore mayor

Carl Murphy, Afro-American founder

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad