The Amazing Dorseys and Sykesville's Old Colored Schoolhouse
I originally wrote this story in March of 2012.
It's this story that led to my collaboration with Warren Dorsey on a book about him and his mom and family. A lot has changed since then. For one, Warren's 100 years old now, his sister Mae and his wife Carolyn have died, as has his prom date, Minnie. And his other sister, Rosie, the baby of the family, is somewhere in her mid nineties.
I'm updating the story based on what I've learned since, but it's pretty much still the same story.
Warren's doing well. I visit him a couple times a month on Zoom. Of course, with the virus, he's hardly been out at all. But he is vaccinated, and he's still the same guy he's always been, just a little slower, and looking forward to baseball season. And so am I.
The Amazing Dorseys Revisited
Maybe you think it sounds boring. Sykesville’s Old Colored School House. What the heck is it? And who cares anyway? Isn’t it just some shack up a hill where no one goes?
It might have been a shack once. In fact it was, and Sykesville’s mayors routinely promised to it tear down. But to Warren Dorsey, a young black kid, who would eventually walk some 10,000 miles to complete his education, the old shack was his first glimmer of hope.
The school had one room for grades one through seven and looked down over Sykesville at a time when white and black people didn't mix much, or well.
One House, 14 Dorseys
Warren has lived a long full life. His story is inspiring, but no more so than those 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 on the hill meant to them.
They lived up there. Twelve in all, if you don’t count Carrie, their mother, and Ed Dorsey, their father. Fourteen Americans of African descent, 12 grandchildren of slaves, living in a house without running water that wouldn’t have electricity till 1930.
I knew the school was up there, but had no idea it might be important to anyone, or that some of those who learned there are still with us.
The schoolhouse is an interesting bit of Sykesville’s hidden history. American history, too. But it wouldn’t be half as interesting if the Dorseys weren’t here to tell the story.
They were sort of lucky in a way. The school was the only one for miles around. Kids from 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 couple minutes.
From Slavery to Oklahoma Hill
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 where mostly black people live in a couple rows of government-built housing constructed during the seventies and converted to townhomes in recent times.
The school opened in 1904.
For 200 years before the Civil War, Maryland had been a slave state and serious about it. For a time it was even illegal to set your slaves free, 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.
Before the war, there were more than 87,000 slaves in Maryland. Once there'd been more than 100,000. The people who you could say founded Sykesville, James Sykes, George Patterson, the Brown family, had all owned slaves. The wealthy Pattersons, with their huge Springfield plantation, depended on slavery and had about 40 of all ages from the old to young babies.
The slave population declined slowly through the first half of the nineteenth century, and by the time of the war, many whites in the area had freed their slaves. After the war, the freed blacks formed a community down near the river at the southern edge of town, or just above it on the Howard County side. They lived in a rundown settlement up where route 32 is today. The white people called it "Factory Row," probably because the dwellings were originally the homes of workers in the cotton factory that James Sykes built.
But eventually, a more permanent and slightly better-off community of African Americans grew up that hill where Warren's family lived, and the buildings that made up Factory Row were torn down earlier in the 20th century. When Warren was a child, there was only one left.
Meeting the Dorseys
I learned much of this on a sunny February Sunday in the schoolhouse, when the three remaining Dorseys came home to talk. (Mae has since passed away.) Rosie Dorsey Hutchinson spoke first. She lives in 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. (It seems likely that Catherine suffered from autism, but no one understood that at the time.)
Ten years later, Rosie got into a school early again, this time to Bowie State College in Bowie, Maryland. She was 15.
As she tells her story, she throws her arms about and smiles. Her voice is high pitched and excited. 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 those days, 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 giant mustache that nearly defies description and owned a lot of houses.
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 teachers usually came in by train from Baltimore each day, getting up early, leaving late, trudging up and down between the hill and the station. The teacher during Warren's days sometimes fell asleep during class. Which Warren liked. The students came from miles around, some crossing the Patapsco from Howard County, others coming from Gaither, just outside Sykesville,o.
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 missing pages torn out by the white kids who’d owned them first. He remembers all the neighborhood kids from six to twelve crammed into a room with one underpaid, tired, and probably insufficiently trained teacher.
There were no bathrooms. They passed around a dipper shared water collected from a nearby stream. There was no electricity. They got their heat from a coal stove in the middle of the room that darkened the windows with 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 with clean windows and electric lights, an actual bathroom with running water, and Warren stands in the light before a big blackboard and gives us a history lesson.
His grandmother was a slave. She lived in Marriottsville in a place the locals called "Little Africa." 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, which 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.
Warren’s grandmother lived on the compound of a slave dealer named Isaac Anderson. She remained a slave until late 1864, when Maryland enacted a new constitution that in article 24 outlawed slavery. Former slaveowner James Sykes represented Howard County at that convention.
Warren teaches us about the Dred Scott Decision and Plessy v. Ferguson and 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.”
The Bare Minimum
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 schools nearby, but these were for whites only, and although the school on the hill addressed this unfairness to some extent, Warren views the intent behind opening the school with a degree of disdain.
“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 state decided to consolidate the schools in 1929 and after fourth grade Warren was forced to go elsewhere. It was supposed to be a good thing, but Warren says it wasn’t because “what they didn’t do was provide any transportation.”
He had to either give up or go to Johnsville, beyond Eldersburg, more than four miles away, where there was another small African American enclave. He walked. No matter the weather. Four miles in each direction, eight miles every day.
Until 1928, 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 army barracks from WWI and called it Robert Moton High School in Westminster. They assigned two teachers to teach four levels of high school.
So once again, there was a school, but no way to get there. The county provided nothing. So did the state. The principal of the school decided he would buy a bus himself, but he didn't have enough money.
Warren says, “The community threw fundraisers.” They found other ways to pull together money. “They got enough together to buy an old rickety bus. In order to pay for gasoline, each kid was responsible for 50 cents a week, which my parents didn’t have.”
So his first year of high school, it didn't look like he could go, 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 teacher who didn't get paid for driving the bus. He drove a circuitous route through the county, picking up black kids along the way, eventually making it to Eldersburg, where he picked up the Dorseys.
To get to Eldersburg each day, they walked.
“I’ve estimated by the time I left high school, my sister and I had walked over 10,000 miles.”
Chasing a Dream
At first, he says, “There was never any idea of going to college, because 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 he finished number one in his class at Robert Moton and won 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, usually for 15 cents an hour, starting at 7 in the morning.
Once he got into Morgan, he often earned free tuition for a semester by making straight As.
When he set off for college in Baltimore that first day, with all his belongings packed in a small bag, a white man named Henry Forsyth, who owned a grocery store in Sykesville, gave him a ride.
“He was going to Baltimore to buy groceries and supplies for his store. I was chasing a dream.”
Whatever the dream might have been, it evolved over the years, and he kept moving, kept chasing. Initially he thought he might be a teacher, but eventually he settled on biology.
Twice he got sick and had to leave school. It took him six years to finally 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. Warren's a very good singer, but he says Carolyn was even better.
After the war, he became a microbiologist. He worked at Fort Detrick for 25 years. Eventually, at 50, he went back to school and picked up a Master’s in Education at Goucher College. In fact, he was the first African American ever to receive an advanced degree there.
Then he began a long second career as a teacher in Frederick County, eventually becoming a principal, before finally retiring in 1981, completing his journey from a one-room shack of a school in Sykesville to the head of a school in another county in another era. It was an elementary school and nearly all the children were white.
Rosie would also teach. She looks at us 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?”
She was smart, too, and just as determined as Warren. She’d always wanted to be a teacher, and became one, but 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. “My mother held us very close. 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 wanted to go to college, but she was a year too young.
“I don’t know what happened, but the principal and the president of the college got together one day. I was 15 one minute and then I was16.”
So she went to college, 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 started teaching at 19. She taught for seven years in Frederick and another 27 in Baltimore.
A Small Restoration in Sykesville’s Great Restoration
The history of the old school itself is less inspiring than that of the Dorseys, but it’s not a bad story. It serves as a tribute to the town’s enlightened leadership during its great restoration in the nineties and into the twenty-first century, when Jon Herman was mayor, Matt Candland was his right-hand, the town council was firmly behind them, and slowly they restored a town that for a long time had been on the brink of dying.
It's also the story of another retired teacher, Pat Greenwald, who took on the job of overseeing the restoration of the schoolhouse. It’s Greenwald who rings the old school bell and introduces the Dorseys to us. It’s Greenwald who went on eBay and then to Pittsburgh, and brought back desks from an old school where young black girls studied in 1904.
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 musicians. It all started in a shack with sooty windows where a bell rang at 9 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 in one way or another.
You can read more about Sykesville's black community in this story about the Sykesville Giants.
On his 95th birthday, Warren came back to the Gate House for a party. Here's a funny exchange between Warren and Rosie about the family fruitcake recipe.