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Area's Black Schoolhouses Still Have a Lesson to Teach

By Joshua Partlow and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page SM03

Even if he wanted to, Clarence Smith can't forget the Drayden School.

More than six decades ago, Smith walked past corn and tobacco fields to attend the one-room wood-frame schoolhouse for black children in St. Mary's County. Like the other students, he toted water from a nearby spring, used an outhouse in the woods and warmed himself by a potbellied stove. They read old books with torn-out pages and sat in desks missing legs.

The 20-by-20-foot Drayden schoolhouse in St. Mary's County has been restored. The county plans to furnish it with desks and artifacts.

"You got the castoffs from the white school, if you got anything at all," said Smith, 72, who went on to run an auto and small engine repair shop for 36 years before passing it on to his son. "Some of the young people now see it as just a little building sitting there. They don't realize what you had to go through then to write your name and count."

But throughout Southern Maryland, people are working to remember. The tin-roofed Drayden School, built in the late 19th century and closed in 1944, is just one of several area schools for blacks that have been restored or memorialized in recent years. In Calvert, a local group is working to restore the Wallville School, the oldest one-room black school in the county. And in Charles County, Bel Alton High School is being restored to serve as an economic and community development center for low-income residents.

Several black residents who lived through those segregated years said that although many difficult memories endure, it is crucial to keep their shared history alive.

"Segregation was not a system we developed. It was developed for us. I guess we made the best of it," said Joan Jones, president of the Bel Alton High School Alumni Association Community Development Corp. The school closed in 1965 after integration came to Charles County. "The saving grace was that we had excellent teachers, and we feel we got a very good education despite the fact that our facilities were not on the level of white students."

In Calvert, the Wallville School had been all but forgotten. In 1994, a local builder thought it was an old gray shack and filed a permit to demolish the school. Kirsti Uunila, the county's historic preservation specialist, recognized the St. Leonard structure as a cultural landmark and rallied the community to support its preservation.

A group called Friends of the Old Wallville School formed in the 1990s to save the site. But Uunila said fundraising efforts were unsuccessful, and the group's efforts eventually stalled. The school, which was built around 1880, continued to decay, and recently some feared that it would not survive this winter.

"It was in danger of collapse," said Harry Wedewer, chairman of the revived Friends of the Old Wallville School. "I realized that something was going to have to be done quickly, or there was going to be nothing to save."

In December, the group spent $1,000 to help stabilize the school until the spring, when Wedewer hopes it will be moved to property in Prince Frederick owned by the Calvert County Board of Education. The goal is to transform the shack into an exhibit that will teach students about segregation in the county. The estimated cost of the entire project is more than $50,000.

Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert) and Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) are sponsoring a bill in the General Assembly that would provide a $25,000 grant to support the school. The Friends of the Old Wallville School will need to match that amount with private contributions.

Edith Gray, 99, attended Wallville when she was a girl, then dropped out to care for her 13 brothers and sisters. She still lives next door to the school and said it would be a miracle if the structure can be saved.

"I'm not sure how they can fix it," she said. "The school is old."

Out on Cherryfield Road in St. Mary's, the Drayden School is so small, just a 20-by-20-foot room, it could hardly be called a "facility." To keep the dust down during classes, the students spread linseed oil on the floor; at playtime, they rolled tires in the dirt yard. One teacher taught every grade, first through seventh. Most black children then went to work on a farm or out on the river with their families. It wasn't until 1937 that black students could go to Banneker High School in St. Mary's. Before that, the nearest high school for blacks was Pomonkey High School in Charles.

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