One by one they walked to the front of the ballroom, all of them recipients of awards for doing good deeds.
There was Johnny Calhoun, senior pastor of Mount Olive A.M.E. Church in Annapolis, who helped raise more than $250,000 for his church. And there was Clayton Greene Jr., the local lawyer who in January was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to the Maryland Court of Appeals, making him one of two black judges among the high court's seven jurists.
There was Cynthia Abney Carter, the Annapolis alderwoman who has worked tirelessly to improve public housing in the city. And then there was Alverta E. Darden, who was barred from Arnold Elementary School 57 years ago because of her race and went on to become the school's first African American teacher in 1967.
The four Anne Arundel residents were among 21 people who were recognized last week at the third annual dinner and awards ceremony at La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie. The event was hosted by Annapolis-based RESPECT Inc., an organization made up of several African American social, political and civic groups whose members work to promote issues facing blacks.
The dinner and awards ceremony were headlined by keynote speaker Dorothy I. Height, the legendary civil rights leader and author of "Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir," who has spent nearly a lifetime trying to make a better way for blacks.
Like Height, Darden, 63, made her way through quiet battles -- first by becoming a teacher and working to get other African Americans involved in education and then by ensuring that black students were given the same academic opportunities as their white counterparts.
"When I first started in education, a lot of jobs were held by men, and women were sort of overlooked," said Darden, who helped integrate Arnold Elementary School after the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ordered that all the nation's schools be desegregated. "We had to really prove ourselves not just as blacks, but as women."
It wasn't an easy task.
Darden, a native of Arnold, started her education in a 1947 in a one-room schoolhouse behind Mount Calvary United Methodist Church, known then as "the school for Arnold's Negro children." At the time, Arnold Elementary, which was less than a mile from her home, was off limits to black children. When the schoolhouse became too crowded, Darden was bused to Skidmore Elementary, more than 10 miles from her house.
Darden went on to attend the now-closed Bates High School in Annapolis, which was the only secondary school open to blacks in the county.
After high school, Darden studied nursing briefly at the University of Maryland. She left college to work at the University of Maryland University Hospital. In 1966, she earned a degree from what is now Bowie State University. In 1967, she was offered a teaching position at the all-white Arnold Elementary School. She jumped at the chance to teach at the school that once barred her from attending.
"I didn't know what school they were going to offer me when I interviewed for the job," recalled Darden, who is retired and lives in Severna Park. "But when they said Arnold Elementary, I said, 'Yes! I would love to integrate that school.' "
Darden loved the job.
In addition to teaching, she encouraged the interaction of black and white students. She made sure gifted black students were put in more challenging classes.
Clemon H. Wesley, co-founder of RESPECT, said the kind of work that Darden did was and is key to the development of black students in the county.
"If you look at the lower-level classes, they were [and are] mainly populated by African-American students," said Wesley, adding that the situation has nothing to do with the level of black students. "It has to do with the expectations from the teachers. With more African American teachers, our students will perform better."