In Honor of Warren Dorsey's 102nd Birthday
Warren didn't make it. I thought for sure he would. He most certainly wanted to.
Jack White, Warren Dorsey, and Rosie Dorsey speaking about In Carrie's Footprints
Over the past couple years, we got together about twice a month on Zoom. We would talk, and I would record. I've got hours of video. In one of our last talks, he told me he was sad about all the hatred in the world. He had thought things would be better by now, but they seemed to be getting worse. It upset him terribly to see a Confederate flag inside our capital.
He said, "I just want to live long enough to see people get along, to choose love instead of hate."
I said, "Warren, you'll have to live another hundred years to see that."
He said, "If that's what I have to do, that's what I'll do."
Then he ran into a truck in the rain. He'd been to a funeral. His oldest son was driving. They were on 32 heading toward 70 and on to home in Frederick. They were 40 minutes away. The truck was pulled over on 32, and then it jerked out in front of them. They were near St. Luke's church where Warren used to sing, when he was kid, and then later, as a man in his nineties.
The car was totaled. Warren had a big bruise on his chest from the seatbelt. His son had a broken sternum. Warren had fractures, too, probably from the airbag, but he was okay. He was able to walk into his house a couple hours later.
Then, he got dizzy. They took him to a hospital in Frederick, and over the next three months, he slowly deteriorated. He died at home in bed. I may have spoken with him one last time over the phone, but he wasn't the Warren I knew anymore. He was frustrated, scared, and suffering.
His daughter Susan calls him "Poppi." She sent me a text one afternoon. "Poppi just passed away."
Warren and I have done many talks together since I wrote "In Carrie's Footprints, the Long Walk of Warren Dorsey," about him, his mother Carrie, his family, and life in Sykesville for a very poor black family in the first half of the 20th century.
A few years ago, when Ian Shaw was mayor, Chris True, a former town council member, read the book and suggested the town rename a park on the Warfield grounds after Warren’s mother. The vote went 6 to 1 in favor of naming the park. When Stacy Link became mayor, she finally pushed the project through to completion.
In July of 2021, Warren and I gave a public talk on the side lawn of the Gate House Museum. It was our first event since he turned 100, and the first since the virus forced him to hole up in his house. His sister, Rosie, came. Susan came. Several other family members came. There were over a hundred people in all. Warren sang “My Way.” Everyone had a great time.
Mayor Link had somehow procured a golf cart, and with Warren beside me, Rosie behind him, and several others back there with her, including Warren’s daughter (over 250 years’ worth of Dorseys in one golf cart), we all rode down to the park near the little pond on the Warfield complex that’s now Carrie Dorsey Park.
This all started with a story I wrote for Sykesville Online about the Dorseys and the old schoolhouse. I've created a new website (sykesvillestories, which is where you are) and put out a book called "Sykesville Stories, Volume 1, The Town that Refused to Die," and I included an updated version of my original story about Warren in it. I'll share it now in honor of Warren's birthday.
It’s mostly the same story, which means the ages of people and that sort of thing are what they were in 2012. I saw Warren's sister Rosie at the funeral. She's 95, or perhaps she's turned 96. I saw her at St. Paul's sitting up front with the family.
I sat beside her. I said, "You're the only one left."
She said, "Yes, the last one." Our eyes met and we smiled at one another. She's one of my favorite people.
Story by Jack White, 2012
Maybe you think it sounds boring. Most likely you’ve never been up there. Sykesville’s Old Colored School House. What is it? And who cares anyway? Isn’t it just some shack up a hill where no one goes? Well, no. At least not anymore.
The Modern Schoolhouse, picture by Jack White, 2012
A long time ago, after many years as a school, the building became home to members of the Norris family, and then, eventually, it did become an actual abandoned shack that Sykesville’s mayors routinely promised to tear down, but never quite got around to. To Warren Dorsey, though, a young, poor black kid, the old shack represented hope.
The old shack after the school closed and the Norris family moved out
Warren has lived a long, interesting life. His story is inspiring. So are the stories of his sisters Mae, 92, and Rosie, who will turn 87 this spring. And they all came back to Sykesville recently to talk about their lives and what the school meant to them.
There were 14 in all, the daughter of a slave, her husband, and 12 grandchildren of slaves, living in a house with four bedrooms and no running water or electricity. When they finally got electricity in 1930, there were no outlets, just lights, one bulb hanging from the ceiling in each room, turned on and off by pulling a string. It seemed like a miracle, and only Carrie, the mother of the family, was allowed to pull the string.
(I should clarify that they never all lived in the house at the same time. As older members moved out, newer members were born. Most likely, no more than eight lived in the house at the same time, but those who moved out typically moved right nearby.)
I knew the school was up there, but I had no idea it might be important to anyone, or that some of those who learned there were still with us. The Dorseys were lucky in a way. The school was the only one for miles around. Kids from over the border in Howard County and elsewhere in Carroll could go a long way to get there, but the Dorseys lived on the same hill, and getting to school only took a minute or two.
The hill with the school on it hovered above the town, but was really separate from it and sort of hidden away. Only black people lived up there. In fact, it’s still a place where mostly African Americans live in a couple rows of government-built housing constructed during the seventies and converted to townhomes in more recent times.
I learned about the school for the first time on a sunny February Sunday when the three remaining Dorseys came home to talk. Rosie Dorsey Hutchinson spoke first. She lives on West Lexington Street in Southwest Baltimore. She’s spry and silly and extremely likable. She’s the youngest of the Dorseys at 86.
She first entered the school over 80 years ago, at five, a year earlier than she should have and not as an official student. They let her in early so she could hang around and absorb it all, but mainly because her sister, Catherine, who was a year older than her, had problems learning and refused to go to school without Rosie. Catherine had fascinating, savant-like abilities. She had an amazing memory. She remembered the license plate number of every car she ever saw. She knew all the birds by name. She also had learning disabilities, and likely suffered from autism, but no one understood that at the time.
The four Dorsey sisters -- Mae, Rosie, Catherine, and Thelma
Ten years after starting school early so she could help her sister, Rosie got into a school early again, this time to Maryland State Teachers College at Bowie. She was 15.
I later learned from the school’s web site that, now a “comprehensive university” known as Bowie State University, it is the oldest of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities and a school of “humble beginnings,” great evolution, and many names. To name just a few, it originally opened after Emancipation in a Baltimore church as School #1, and it became Baltimore Normal School for Colored Teachers in 1867, when it moved into its own building. By 1963, it was offering a liberal arts education as Bowie State College.
As Rosie tells her story, she throws her arms about and smiles. Her voice is high pitched and excited. She wears a beret. She says, “The things you read about Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, we lived it. And you’re privileged to see us.
“Sykesville was a very segregated community, and we lived up on this hill and they lived down there, and the only time our paths crossed was when we went to the store. On Saturday, the black community from all around the area would come to Sykesville to purchase things, and they let us because they needed our pennies.”
In the early 20th century in Sykesville, if you were black, you didn’t go to school. You learned what you could from your parents, who hadn’t been to school, either. Their mother, Carrie, couldn’t read, and her kids would have suffered the same fate, if three local fathers hadn’t decided to do something about it.
They went to Westminster and asked the county board of education to build a school. Surprisingly, the board agreed and bought an acre of land from a man named Asa Hepner. Hepner owned a music store in town, served for many years as the town’s postmaster, and was Sykesville’s second mayor. He also had a lot of houses and an amazing mustache about the size of an overstuffed mouse.
The land where they built the school sloped down toward the river at a steep angle and wasn’t much good to Hepner, so he sold it for a few hundred dollars, and soon it was a school.
The teacher during Warren’s days was Gertrude Johnson, who came in by train from Baltimore each day, getting up early, leaving late, trudging up and down between the hill and the station. She sometimes fell asleep during class, which Warren liked.
A Light in the Darkness
Warren was born in 1920 and started school in 1926. He remembers the rough, unpainted walls, the old desks from a nearby white school, the old books with words scribbled inside and missing pages torn out by white kids who’d owned them first. He remembers all the neighborhood kids from six to twelve crammed into a room with poor, underpaid, tired, and barely trained Gertrude Johnson.
Young Warren in his homemade clothes with the old Dorsey house behind him
There were no bathrooms. For water they passed around a dipper and shared water they’d collected from a nearby stream. (Warren says that whenever they needed running water, they’d tell someone to run down to the stream and run back with a bucket of water.) There was no electricity. They got their heat from a coal stove in the middle of the room that darkened the windows with a light coating of soot. When the weather was warm, they opened the windows. The windows provided all their light, and often there was very little.
But Warren remembers it as a place of light and hope. And it is a bright place now, a nicely renovated museum and part-time schoolhouse with clean windows and electric lights, an actual bathroom with real running water that comes from a faucet instead of a stream.
Warren’s grandmother was a slave. Her father was a white man and a slave dealer, who took advantage of his slaves. He owned her. He owned her mother. They all lived together in Marriottsville in a place the locals called “Little Africa.”
For over 220 years, beginning in 1642, when the first African slaves arrived in St. Mary’s City, Maryland was a slave state. Two hundred and twenty years. It’s not some brief, insignificant stretch of time. That’s the equivalent of say 1800 to 2022. It’s generations. In fact, Maryland has been a slave state over 60 years longer than it’s been a free state.
During much of those 220 years, it was illegal to free your slaves, and once a slave, you were a slave for life. If you had a child, that child was instantly a slave, too, also for life. Warren’s grandmother was born directly into slavery. She looked like a white girl, and for all appearances, she was a white slave.
Before the Civil War, there were more than 87,000 slaves in Maryland. The people who you could say founded Sykesville, James Sykes, George Patterson, various Warfields, the Brown family, many of the surrounding farm families, had all owned slaves. In fact, the Freedom area, where about one in every four residents was held as property, had the most slaves in Carroll County. The Pattersons, with their huge Springfield plantation, depended on slavery and probably owned between 30 and 40 of all ages from the old to young babies.
When one of George Patterson’s slaves escaped, he ran a newspaper ad and offered a huge $500 reward, which in today’s dollars would probably be close to $20,000. The ad states: “Ran away from the subscriber…a NEGRO MAN named Lewis, about 5 feet 9 inches high; well built; copper colored; high forehead; bushy head; stammers in speech. The above reward will be paid for his return, or secured in jail, so that I can get him again.”
The slave population declined slowly through the first half of the nineteenth century, and by the time of the Civil War, many whites in the area had freed their slaves, a legal process called manumission. After the war, some of the freed blacks formed a small community on the other side of the river just outside Sykesville on land that once been part of the Hugg farm.
The white people called it “the Colored Row,” or “Factory Row,” possibly because the dwellings were originally the homes of workers who James Sykes imported from England to work in his cotton factory.
The Colored Row, which ran along West Friendship Road on the way toward the bridge into Sykesville, ended at Forsythe Road. It endured for many years, but eventually, a more permanent and slightly better-off community of African Americans grew on the hill where Warren’s family lived.
The buildings that made up the Colored Row were torn down, as reported in the June 17, 1910 edition of the Democratic Advocate of Westminster, which wrote that: “The row of dilapidated houses on the Hugg farm, commonly known as the Colored Row, has been torn down for sanitary purposes, and instead of ‘blackberries,’ the ground is expected to yield a large crop of potatoes.”
Apparently when rooting out the “blackberries” so they could grow potatoes, they missed one of the houses. When Warren was a child, a black man named Mack Brooks lived in that final house at the corner of West Friendship and Forsythe. (Brooks had a son, named Benjamin, who was a notorious and amazingly skilled petty thief. He once stole the belt off a man while sitting beside him on a bus, just for fun. When Benjamin got off the bus, he had the man’s belt in his hand. The man didn’t suspect a thing and probably never did till he got up and his pants fell down.)
When Lincoln proclaimed the slaves emancipated in 1863, that applied to the three million slaves in the Confederate states. It did not apply to the slave states such as Maryland that had not seceded from the Union. So, slavery was abolished in the south (at least theoretically) before it was abolished in the north, and despite Lincoln’s proclamation, nearly a million blacks in states within the Union remained slaves.
The man who owned Warren’s grandmother (he was also her father) was Isaac Anderson. He owned his daughter until late 1864, when Maryland enacted a new constitution that in article 24 outlawed slavery. Former slaveowner James Sykes represented Howard County at the convention to amend the state constitution.
Now, about 150 years after his grandmother went free, Warren stands in the light that streams through the windows before a big blackboard and teaches us about the Dred Scott Decision and Plessy v. Ferguson. He talks about W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. He speaks of the importance of citizenship and the different ways of coping with America’s enduring racial prejudice, from violence to peaceful activism to working within the system to working outside it.
He says, “My daddy never could put up with it for long. On any job he went on, he was forced to listen to derogatory names. But my daddy had an excellent mind, and he knew very well that he was smarter than most of the people who were his boss.
“But he couldn’t take the insults, and his method of dealing with it was withdrawal. He quit. He would sit at home, even though he had all these mouths to feed, and every penny was important.
“My mother accepted the dilemma of the segregated society in which she lived. She had 12 kids and she sacrificed for them. And she had to find a way, and she worked through the system to get what she needed. She was the most gallant woman I have ever seen.”
Rosie says, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it. We were poor, but we were able to raise all of our vegetables. We had chickens, pigs, cows. We had all of that. But we didn’t have any money, and in order for us to survive, we went down to Sykesville and we traded.”
Carrie would go into town with a basket full of eggs and see what she could get for them. She also did laundry for white women.
Of course, there were other schools nearby, but these were for whites only, and although the school on the hill addressed this unfairness to some extent, Warren describes the intent behind opening the school with derisive skepticism.
“It was a miserable effort to provide educational opportunities for African American children. It was only done to shut up these couple rabble-rousers in the community. If it had been their intention to educate us, they would have given us decent books. They didn’t. They would have supplied decent furniture. They didn’t. They gave us cast-offs, hand-me-downs.
“You would have thought, in your better moments, that this was shameful. But to us, who had nothing, this was the first glimmer of hope. This was the first evidence that the African American community had the hope of a better tomorrow. I refer to it as the ‘citadel on the hill.’ It was the soul of a people who struggled along this hill, living day to day on the edges of survival. Every day was a challenge. I suffered here. Rosie and Mae suffered here.”
The county decided to consolidate some of the schools in 1929 and after fourth grade Warren was forced to go elsewhere. It was supposed to be a good thing, but since the state didn’t provide any transportation, it was actually a hardship. He had to either give up or go to Johnsville, just beyond Eldersburg, more than four miles away, where there was another small, but slightly larger, African American enclave. He walked. No matter the weather. Four miles in each direction, eight miles every day for three years. (The school in Sykesville remained open for several more years for grades one through four.)
There was no high school for black kids in Carroll County. They found a way to get to Baltimore, or they didn’t go. Warren’s oldest sister, Thelma Dorsey Jackson, who died in 2000, told The Baltimore Sun, “We got off at Camden Station and met some kids who came in on another train from Elkridge. Then we walked to Douglass.”
Thelma’s school day lasted 13 hours. It was typically dark when she left and dark when she got home.
In 1928, the county slapped together some WWI army barracks in Westminster and called it Robert Moton High School. They hired two excellent teachers, George Crawford and Daisy Harris, and between the two, they taught every subject and every grade.
Once again, there was a school, but no way to get there. The county provided nothing. So did the state. George Crawford decided he would buy a bus himself, but he didn’t have enough money, so the African American community threw fundraisers and did whatever else they could to raise the money to carry the kids to Westminster.
“They got enough together to buy an old rickety bus,” Warren says. “In order to pay for gasoline, each kid was responsible for 50 cents a week, which my parents didn’t have.”
But then his sister Thelma, who lived in Baltimore, decided she could provide a dollar a week so that Warren and Mae could ride the bus from Eldersburg to Westminster.
The old rickety bus didn’t have air conditioning or heat. It broke down often. The driver was a man named Alonzo Lee, who taught grade school in Westminster and didn’t get paid for driving the bus. He drove through the county, starting at Cooksville, picking up small groups of mostly rural black kids along the way, before eventually making it to Eldersburg, where he picked up the Dorseys and headed up Route 32 to Westminster.
To get to Eldersburg each day, Warren walked, just as he walked in his last three years of grade school. He says, “I’ve estimated by the time I left high school, my sister Mae and I had each walked over 10,000 miles.”
Warren graduated at the top of his class and thought that would be the end of it.
“There was never any idea of going to college,” he says. My family, my parents never had the opportunity to go to school anywhere. That was not something that was internalized as a possibility by my parents.”
But finishing number one earned him a $50 scholarship to Morgan State College in Baltimore. Tuition was $126. He made up the difference by working 10-hour days on farms all summer, following threshing machines from farm to farm, then bagging the threshed wheat, usually for 15 cents an hour, starting at seven every morning.
When he set off for college in Baltimore that first day, in homemade clothes, in underpants made from feed sacks, and all his meager belongings packed in a small bag, a white man named Henry Forsythe, who owned a grocery store in Sykesville, gave him a ride. (Forsythe’s store would catch fire in 1937 and nearly take out all of Main Street.)
“He was going to Baltimore to buy groceries and supplies for his store,” Warren says. “I was chasing a dream.”
Whatever the dream might have been, it evolved over the years, and he kept moving and kept chasing. Initially he thought he might be a teacher, but eventually he settled on biology.
Twice he got sick with pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissues lining his lungs, and had to leave school. It took him six years to graduate.
It was 1943, just in time for the war. He served during WWII and was lucky enough to sing in the all-black glee club at Fort Lee, Virginia, where he met his wife, Carolyn, who also sang. His war years, as a singing drill sergeant, were easy by most standards, and certainly easier than those of his older brother Chester, who was sent to India, contracted a rare disease, and returned from the war paralyzed.
After the war, Warren became a microbiologist. He worked at Fort Detrick for 25 years. At 50, he went back to school for a Master’s in Education at Goucher College and began a long second career as a teacher in Frederick County, teaching at two schools, then eventually becoming principal at Carroll Manor Elementary in Adamstown with one black teacher and a handful of black students before retiring in 1981.
Rosie would also teach. She looks at the crowd of children in the room and says rather seriously, “You are sitting in this building where all my brothers and sisters sat.”
Then bursts out laughing. “So how many of you would like to sit in this building, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh grade, beside your brothers and sisters?”
Anne McBride White and Rosie Dorsey in her beret shortly after the release of the book. Anne transcribed all the interviews that I did with Warren. She died about four years ago, and as far as I know, never wore a beret, but could type like the wind.
Rosie was smart, too, and just as determined as Warren. She’d always wanted to be a teacher and became one. She gives much of the credit to her mother.
“My mother never kept us home, ever, when school was in session. She told us, do all you can to learn as much as you can while you have the opportunity. One teacher teaching seven grades. How would you like that? We never had any new furniture. I never saw a new book till I was in college. We had old books, but did that deter us from reading? No.”
The teacher alternated, teaching the first, third, fifth, and seventh grades one day, and the second, fourth, and sixth the next. On their off days, the kids taught each other.
The favorite part of Rosie’s day was recess. The favorite part of Warren’s was when the teacher fell asleep.
“My mother held us very close,” she says. “She never allowed us to go play with any other children in their homes. We were glad to have recess because that gave us a chance to play with some other people. You got tired of playing with your brother and sister all the time.”
Recess wasn’t just for play. Since there were no bathrooms in the school, they had to go outside, where there were two outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls.
She says, “In the outhouse, there were magazines and newspapers. But they weren’t there for reading.” Then laughs out loud.
For lunch, she went home.
“When we got home, mother had work for us to do. We had to get up in the morning and do some chores before we came here and then more at lunch.” Lunch was homemade bread and syrup sandwiches, and after school, “If the teachers didn’t give us homework, my mother gave us homework.”
Rosie skipped two grades. At 15, she was ready for college, but she was a year too young.
“I don’t know what happened,” she says. “But one day the principal and the president of the college got together. I was 15 one minute and then I was 16.”
So she went to college at Maryland State Teachers College at Bowie, secretly 15.
“There was no transportation. You had to catch a train, and so my mother said, ‘You can only come home Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.’ And I’m 15. Other children could go see their families. I was there on many weekends by myself. But I wanted to be a teacher. And my mother said, ‘If that’s what you want, you have to make a sacrifice.’”
She made the sacrifice and started teaching at 19. She taught for seven years in Frederick and another 27 in Baltimore.
Since 1949, up until recent times, the Dorseys gathered every Labor Day in Sykesville for a reunion. It’s a big successful family with doctors, lawyers, educators, computer experts, and lots of singers and excellent musicians. It all started in a shack with sooty windows where a bell rang at nine and 25 kids sat in desks that used to belong to white kids and dreamed of making it out of there. Most of them did one way or another.
Now they come each summer to Carrie Dorsey Park to celebrate. And each year, Rosie gets one number closer to passing Warren's record of 101. I guarantee you, she'll make it.
If you're interested in Sykesville's black community or the schoolhouse, the are several other stories in the book that you might enjoy.
The Day of the Giants is the tale of Sykesville's terrific African American baseball team from back in the twenties. Seventy years later, Warren Dorsey could still remember them perfectly. Their names. Their abilities. Their stories. I found a box score of one of their games in an old issue of the Baltimore Afro American. Warren had all the names and positions right. When they played, he was 7.
The Return of the Ring tells the amazing coincidence of how Pat Greenwald, who runs the schoolhouse, met the grandson of the man who made her grandmother's ring. It happened during her search for desks for the schoolhouse. It's such an amazing coincidence I can hardly believe it.
Green Meadows and an Old Pew, among other things, relates how a pew from the balcony of Springfield Presbyterian, where the black people used to sit, ended up at a kitchen table in Germany. It also paints vivid pictures of some of the black folks from the White Rock area, where there's another small church for African American citizens.
Hankie -- Living in the Schoolhouse tells the tale of Hankie Norris, who was born in the the old schoolhouse. After the school closed down, Hankie's father turned it into a house, and Hankie lived the first 26 years of his life there, and chopped an awful lot of wood.
You can get a copy of "Sykesville Stories, Volume I" at Debbie's bookstore, officially known as A Likely Story Bookstore, down on Main Street in Sykesville. Hurry, they're selling fast, and Debbie's store is the only one carrying them.
You can also buy it online.
You can buy "In Carrie's Footprints" at Amazon here.
You can learn more about Sykesville Here.
You can learn more about me here.