Thelma Dorsey Jackson presided over the 50th Dorsey family reunion last Labor Day, wearing a red baseball cap stamped "Peace, Love, Harmony," greeting dozens of relatives and receiving the key to the town from the mayor of Sykesville.
The 89-year-old retired Baltimore teacher and principal died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
The granddaughter of slaves, Thelma Dorsey began her education at age 5 in a one-room "colored" school near Sykesville. It was 1916, and the children read textbooks discarded by a nearby white school and did their first writing on slates.
She and her 11 brothers and sisters had to travel by train to Baltimore after the seventh grade because there were no black high schools west of Baltimore.
"We got off at Camden Station and met some kids who came in on another train from Elkridge," Mrs. Jackson recalled in a 1998 interview. "Then we walked to Douglass" High School, then at Baker and Carey streets, just south of Druid Hill Park. Her school days, she said, lasted 13 hours.
Mrs. Jackson graduated from Douglass in 1928 and from Coppin State College, then a two-year school, in 1930. That year, she began a 42-year career in city schools, the last 17 as a principal. She retired as principal of Cecil Elementary School in 1972.
Mrs. Jackson also had to commute to receive a master's degree. In a state program designed to prevent racial mixing at the University of Maryland, she would get on a train after school Friday, travel to New York and take weekend courses at racially integrated New York University. All expenses were paid by Maryland taxpayers.
"Mother taught me how to teach. She also taught me how to live," said Mrs. Jackson's daughter, Edna Jackson Greer, principal of Leith Walk Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore.
"I can remember when I was little, maybe 5 years old, she would take me to school with her. She gave me a word box and showed me how to use it."
Mrs. Jackson was a frequent visitor to her daughter's school, where students recently voted her one of the "Living Legends" and posted her photo in a "Hall of Fame." Said Phoebe Shorter, a Leith Walk assistant principal: "She was a woman of dignity and grace. She never saw a cloud. In even the worst people, she always found something good."
Each week, Mrs. Jackson wrote a letter to each of her three grandchildren. "She always put education first," said Mrs. Greer. "She would write things like 'Keep you eyes on the prize' or 'Don't let the young ladies turn your head. There'll be time for that after you get your education.'"
Her grandchildren -- and a dozen nieces and nephews -- also benefited from Mrs. Jackson's love of education. Instead of putting her money in a bank, said her daughter, Mrs. Jackson invested in college scholarships for family members, putting several of them through school.
The Dorsey family reunions began with bag lunches in 1949 on the Sykesville lawn of Mrs. Jackson's parents, Carrie E. and Edward M. Dorsey. In a half-century, they've become more elaborate, drawing more than 100 Dorsey descendants last year. Traditionally, the affair starts with prayer and a reading of the updated family history, then shifts to games and a talent show, accompanied by abundant food. Mrs. Jackson said in the 1998 interview that she had long since lost track of the number of Dorsey relatives.
Mrs. Greer said Samuel Jackson, now a retired government worker, began courting her mother 70 years ago, "but they'd only been married for 67 years." Mr. Jackson survives his wife.
Mrs. Jackson was a long-time member of St. James Episcopal Church, where she was a Sunday school teacher and superintendent of the lower school. She was also a member of the Harbel Association and of improvement associations in Lauraville and Morgan Park.
At Mrs. Jackson's request, there will be no services.
In addition to her husband, daughter and grandchildren, Mrs. Jackson is survived by two brothers, Chester E. Dorsey of Sykesville and Warren G. Dorsey of Frederick; and three sisters, Mae D. Whiten, Rosie D. Hutchinson and Catherine Dorsey, all of Baltimore.