Douglass grads salute past, fret about today Alumni celebrate school's 110 years of achievement

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The big band wailed. Old-timers crooned "Hail Douglass" with all the heart and vigor of a half-century ago. And generations of Douglass Ducks danced, sang, laughed, hugged, prayed and remembered together.

Frederick Douglass High alumni threw the school huge bashes Friday and Saturday nights, then capped its 110th anniversary celebration yesterday with services at churches throughout the city.

All weekend, as more than 2,500 alumni marked the occasion, former principals and teachers and coaches and absent friends received tributes befitting the closest of family.

So did a custodian, years after his death. Older alumni kept talking about the ever-present Mr. Gillis, the man they called "Sir" and loved like a favorite uncle.

From sometime before the Depression -- nobody could say precisely when -- until the mid-1950s, Ellis Gillis patrolled the halls of Douglass High. He wore a suit every day and kept the place spotless. But more than that, he left an indelible mark that his charges still talk about a half-century later.

"He was the custodian, but at Douglass back then, he played as much a part in our education as the teachers," said June Thorne, who attended Douglass in the 1940s, before its move in 1954 from Calhoun and Baker streets to its present three-story brick home on Gwynns Falls Parkway in Northwest Baltimore.

"He knew everybody's name and he let you know it, too, "Mrs. Thorne added. "He would say, 'June, you know your parents don't want you to act like that. Lower your voice.' "

Enforcer, confidante, mentor and friend. Call Mr. Gillis all of these and call him a teacher, too, a few said. Call him family, said another.

Everybody did, and it proved fitting at what felt like gigantic family reunions Friday night at the Fifth Regiment Armory and a formal dinner and ceremony Saturday at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Somehow, as much as anyone else, Mr. Gillis seemed to embody all that helped shape Douglass students at the only Baltimore high school blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two until 1954.

The Douglass honor roll is headed by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was honored posthumously Saturday, and includes some of Baltimore's most-renowned citizens.

One is Clarence Mitchell Jr., who forever recalled the horror of covering a lynching as a reporter for the Afro-American and went on to become a civil rights leader remembered nationwide as the "101st senator."

A small sampling of other Douglass alumni: Dr. Elijah Saunders, a highly regarded heart specialist; Rep. Kweisi Mfume and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell; Ethel Ennis and Cab Calloway, the entertainers; Milton Allen and Robert Watts, former judges; Alice Pinderhughes, the former city schools superintendent; George L. Russell Jr., former city solicitor; former city Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods; State Sen. Clarence Blount; and Raymond Chester, former Baltimore Colts tight end.

Alumni recalled a school and a community where everybody -- the custodian, teachers, parents, extended family, principals, clergymen, coaches, neighbors, merchants -- did their part to teach the children how to live and how to learn.

In a segregated city where black children read cast-off textbooks from the white schools and often lived in poverty, at a time when most jobs remained out of their parents' reach, Douglass prided itself on teaching its own to overcome.

"The teachers would tell us we had to be super-dooper, that we could never be less," said Mr. Watts, a 1943 graduate who became the first black judge on the old Municipal Court, the forerunner to the city's District Court. "Because of segregation, they made it very clear to us that we would have to be better as a result, that we would have to do better than white people to become anything."

Douglass' most famous native son, Justice Marshall, Class of '25, learned that lesson well and spent a lifetime bucking the odds. Douglass honored the former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who died in January, with its distinguished alumni award Saturday night and dedicated the weekend celebration to him.

One of the justice's two sons, keynote speaker John William Marshall, told of his father's anger at having to take a bus across town because he couldn't use a whites'-only bathroom in a then-segregated city.

"He saw the wounds because he experienced them growing up here in Baltimore," said Mr. Marshall, a Virginia state trooper and one of several members of the late justice's family who attended.

As a civil rights lawyer, Mr. Marshall succeeded in breaking down the barriers. His son recalled his hurt and anger at being barred from the University of Maryland's law school in his hometown because of the color of his skin.

The justice, his son said, later recalled deciding before starting Howard University Law School: "I'm gonna make the University of Maryland pay." Two years after he finished at Howard, the young attorney won a case forcing UM's law school to admit blacks. Today, the law school library is named for him.

Long before that battle, and long before Mr. Marshall's greatest legal triumph in Brown vs. Board of Education, Louise Grooms Turks took the early steps toward those victories. In 1929, Mrs. Turks, one of 10 children, became the first on her block to graduate from high school. Saturday, she stood by a table filled with Depression-era Douglass alumni, most of them related, and relived the elation.

Douglass High, she said, made her a celebrity in the neighborhood around her West Baltimore house on Park Avenue.

"Everybody stopped me on the street and wanted to shake my hand," she said. "In those days, everybody talked education. You'd always hear, 'Get an education,' 'cause if you get an education, people felt we might be accepted by white society some day."

Such success begot more of the same. Kids in Northwest Baltimore saw their brothers and sisters graduate and couldn't wait to get into the school, said Cleveland Brister, a football and ,, basketball star who graduated in 1955.

"Everybody wanted to go to Douglass," said Mr. Brister. "When we were kids, we thought it was like heaven. We figured if you died, you went to a place like Douglass."

But if Douglass seemed heaven then, he lamented, there's trouble in paradise today.

The demise of desegregation and major victories in other civil rights battles notwithstanding, problems facing young inner-city blacks have worsened considerably over the decades, and today's Douglass is certainly not what it was.

The 1,300-student school is plagued by poor attendance, high dropout rates and low scores on standardized tests.

Alumni laid much of the blame for the decline on the world outside, where the close-knit community they knew disappeared after the flight of the black middle class. Today, it is replaced by a culture rife with poor single-parent households in neighborhoods beset by rampant violence, drug dealing and poverty.

It's all a bit much to fathom for graduates who remember a different Douglass and a different era. How much different? In the 1950s, judges and police officers showed up for assemblies and delivered lengthy sermons. They illustrated the evils of crime by telling stories of a man who stole 63 cents worth of cookies and a would-be mail thief who got his arm stuck in a mailbox.

"We never had to contend with anything like what kids see now, the drugs, the violence, the promiscuity," said Mrs. Thorne, a former teacher who now is an actress who has appeared in commercials and corporate training films and landed small parts in movies. Her next part is in the TV series, "Homicide," to air early next year. She plays a woman who witnessed a murder. It's real life, true stuff, of course, too real for too many children, she said.

"I feel so sorry for them, I pray for them every day," said Mrs. Thorne. "Growing up, we really had no idea we were segregated, that we lived in a segregated world and didn't have what others had. We had parents and teachers and a neighborhood that nurtured us and insulated us."

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