Overcoming barriers to learning Teacher: Segregation forced Thelma Jackson onto an obstacle-strewn path to her goals as an educator, but she succeeded -- and she has served as an instructor and role model to countless others.


THELMA Dorsey Jackson learned about "cooperative learning" and "peer tutoring" back in 1916. That was the year she entered public school in Sykesville at the tender age of 5.

Kids didn't start school that young in 1916, but Thelma, from a family of 12 children, had older brothers who could take her under their wings. Children from seven grades gathered around a stove in the one-room "colored" school. By necessity, older children taught younger children.

Textbooks were hand-me-downs from the nearby white school, but Jackson says, "We really didn't know the difference. We thought that was a way of living, though we knew it was wrong."

It was decades before that wrong was righted, decades in which Jackson, who turns 87 Sunday, learned the meaning of sacrifice for education.

No black high schools were located west of the city, so Jackson commuted by train to Baltimore. "We got off at Camden Station and met some kids who came in on another train from Elkridge," Jackson remembers. "Then we walked up to Douglass" High School, located then at Baker and Carey streets, just south of Druid Hill Park. Her school days lasted 13 hours, including the commute.

Jackson graduated from Douglass in 1928 and from Coppin State, then a two-year school, in 1930. That year, she began a 43-year career in the city schools, the last 17 years as a principal. "There were two possibilities for college," Jackson says, "Morgan and Coppin. The trouble was Morgan cost money, and I didn't have any."

A few years later, Jackson sacrificed again, this time to earn a master's degree. To avoid racial mixing at the University of Maryland, taxpayers spent millions of dollars to send blacks out of state for advanced and professional study. Ironically, many of them attended the best schools in the nation -- Oberlin, the University of Chicago and New York University among them.

Jackson would get on a train after school Friday, travel to New York and stay in a hotel while taking weekend courses at NYU. When she and the others returned to Maryland with master's degrees, they became part of the education elite. When the color barriers were smashed in the mid-1950s, they moved with ease into the city's desegregated schools.

Along the way, Jackson influenced thousands of students, including her daughter, Edna Greer, now principal of Leith Walk Elementary School.

"She taught me how to teach," says Greer. "She also taught me how to live."

A good many of Jackson's 100 or so nieces and nephews -- she says she hasn't counted recently -- have become teachers.

"She is the master teacher," says Samuel Jackson, 88, a retired government worker and Thelma's husband for 65 years.

Does she remember how she was taught to read?

"Do I! We took slates to school," she recalls. "You learned the ABC's first, then it was right into phonics. We had a half-hour of phonics every morning before we started the reading period."

What about discipline? "You had to be firm and insist on vTC standards. I used to walk 'em home if they didn't behave. That's a good way of getting to know your [students'] families. I also told students you act the way you look. And the teachers should be models. Women teachers never used to wear pants to school."

Does she have an education philosophy?

"Every child can learn. If a child isn't learning, it's usually the teacher's fault. Most of our problems these days are [from] poorly prepared teachers. They've just stopped doing a good job at that. We used to be so well prepared at Coppin that you could tell a Coppin graduate by looking at her penmanship. Can you imagine -- part of the curriculum was handwriting!"

Jackson says her mother, the daughter of slaves who had no formal schooling, told her, "If you make a dime, save a nickel and then give it to those who need it."

To that end, she's trying to give her kin some of the opportunities that she took. She's paid -- or is paying -- the college tuition of 18 relatives, including her three grandchildren.

Her granddaughter, Rachel, 19, is at Morgan State University, a few blocks from the Jackson home on East Cold Spring Lane. Rachel visits her grandmother every Thursday. One of her grandsons, Danny, 23, is at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

And Rachel's twin, David, is an engineering student at the University of Maryland, the school that once turned the cold shoulder of segregation to his grandmother. Does Jackson see irony there? Maybe a touch, but mostly she's a proud grandmother. For Jackson and others of her generation, the time for bitterness is past.

"Segregation was bad," she says, "but we did a lot of things. That's one reason black teachers have always been good nurturers."

Flag event will be more of a history lesson

Tomorrow, 3,600 schoolchildren will form the 15th annual "Living American Flag" at Fort McHenry.

Reacting to criticism that it's more of a photo opportunity than educational, organizers have worked hard to make this year's event a living history lesson.

A dozen historic characters will visit the assembled school buses, while Uncle Sam, Francis Bellamy and Francis Scott Key will lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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