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Volunteer keeps school's legacy alive

The Baltimore Sun

From 1904 to 1939, the one-room Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse provided a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic to residents such as the 12 children in the Dorsey family. But after the school closed, it became a residence, and then began a long slide toward disrepair.

By the time volunteer Patricia Greenwald began restoring the building in 2004, it was a wreck. With donations of time, services and money, she gradually converted the historic building to a town-owned museum. The roof was repaired, the windows were replaced, and a chalkboard and stage were once again placed in the front of the room. Modern touches such as indoor plumbing, lighting and air conditioning were added.

When the work was done, the school looked very different than it had in the early 20th century. Yet when several former students returned to dedicate the building in August last year, one of the first things they noticed was the light.

"Every single one of them," said Greenwald, the schoolhouse coordinator. "I thought they'd comment on the indoor plumbing or the air conditioning, but every single one said, 'It's so bright.'"

One reason is that the building is now illuminated by electric lights. Another is that the school once was heated by coal, which kept the windows covered in soot year-round.

Those kinds of memories are valuable to Greenwald, who is collecting stories from a small group of people who attended the school.

These students include William Fossett, who now lives in Baltimore; Warren Dorsey of Frederick; Minnie Bond Dorsey, who lives in Sykesville; and Rosie Dorsey Hutchinson of Baltimore.

Since the restored building opened last year, these former students have been meeting with school and Scout groups to talk about their experiences as students there.

"The most powerful message that we have is just having the kids interact with these people," Greenwald said.

Some of these stories have been videotaped, and Greenwald hopes to continue the work of gathering oral histories. "We're always getting information out of the oral histories," she said.

Warren Dorsey, born in Sykesville, attended the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse starting in 1926. He was one of 12 Dorsey siblings who went to the school, and he remembers that it had one teacher and one classroom for grades one through seven.

"It was just a basic, very basic program for the black kids -- just reading, writing and arithmetic," he said.

The desks were hand-me-downs from the white schools, Dorsey said, but at age 6 he wasn't particularly bothered by that.

"Anything was better than nothing," said Dorsey, 86, speaking by phone from Frederick.

"That family just really believed in education," said Greenwald. "Before that, their options were very limited." As Warren Dorsey told her, she said, "It's the difference between ignorance and enlightenment."

For Dorsey, like so many others, the school represented opportunity. "It was a start," he said. "It was the first opportunity for formal education for children of color of that community."

When it became part of the Johnsville School, about five miles away, Dorsey and the other students walked there if they couldn't get a bus, he said. Dorsey went on to a segregated high school in Westminster, then earned a biology degree from what is now Morgan State University. After serving in World War II, he worked at Fort Detrick for 25 years, then earned a master's degree in elementary education from Goucher College.

He was a teacher and principal in Frederick County, retiring 25 years ago. Meanwhile, his old school wasn't faring as well. By the time Greenwald got involved in 1998, it was a shambles, with no windows, a sagging roof and other structural problems.

Greenwald, who retired as a Howard County teacher in 2002, had previously worked with students at Hammond Middle School to restore a former slave quarters, called Pfeiffer's Corner Schoolhouse, in Howard County.

She offered to turn the school building into an educational facility and won donations of goods and services to help her do the job. Structural damage was repaired, windows were installed and 10 layers of wallpaper were removed.

Greenwald said she would like to return a garden to the site. In the restored schoolhouse, a section of the original wall is framed as it was, to show what it looked like before restoration. Photographs on one wall show the school at various times in its history.

"When I first walked in -- the place now has new, smooth walls, which it didn't have then," Dorsey said. "It has inside plumbing, it has a bathroom inside, it's heated, it has lights. It's like a palace compared to when I started there."

Greenwald has put together several lessons that can be taught in conjunction with field trips to the school. For example, students can learn about old-fashioned games, such as pickup sticks and marbles, or examine primary sources to learn more about segregated education.

The most popular lesson seems to be the stories told by the people who were there. Dorsey said museum visitors are always fascinated.

"A lot of kids are very curious about things that they have maybe not heard very much at all about," he said.

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