Along the side of Route 301, stucco has chipped off the side of an old building, shingles have fallen from the roof and glass is shattered in windows that aren't boarded up. Over the door it says BEL _LTON, the "A" long gone.
But now the school, built in 1938 for black students and closed in 1965 after integration came to Charles County, will be restored. Workers started overhauling the decaying building a few weeks ago, after a decade of fundraising brought in about $3 million in government grants, loans and private donations.
Tomorrow marks 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that broke down segregation and changed American culture by rejecting the notion that "separate but equal" could ever mean equal education.
Today, the students who left Bel Alton High School to go to La Plata High School remember what it was like to walk away from the past.
"I think that was my first experience in what others might say was the real world," said Jean Stewart, then Jean Wills, who had had little contact with white people. "It wasn't the real world for me, but the door opening on someone else's world."
She left behind a close-knit, challenging, nurturing school, where black students learned archery, etiquette and drama along with their academic, business or vocational classes. The Bel Alton school had wide hallways, tall windows, a strict dress code and a fierce football rivalry with the African American high school in Pomonkey.
Bel Alton students knew they didn't have what white students had -- their buses were old, the textbooks worn. But teachers would pull down a screen in the auditorium to show films, said Shirley Bush, an active member of the Bel Alton High School Alumni Association Community Development Corp., so students would not have to sit in the back of local movie theaters.
Stewart asked to go to La Plata High School after her sophomore year. She remembers sitting down with her mother to explain that she wanted the best education she could possibly get. She was not the first black student to attend, but she was one of the first, and the only one in her class.
"It was harder than I thought it would be," she said recently. "It was traumatic."
She was terrified to get on the bus. "Like if my knees were made of glass, they would have shattered. . . . My stomach was in knots." She kept her eyes straight ahead. She ignored the insults and ugly words she heard.
"It was like I had blinders on," she said. "I focused on that narrow range. I found my spot [on the bus], sat and looked straight ahead till I got to the school. . . . But never, never ever, ever drop my head and look down. I was fearful, I was afraid, but I was so stubborn. I was not going to drop my head because I had seen too much of that."
If she could have crept in a side door at the school she would have, she said, "so as not to go through that long, long tunnel." It was really just a short hallway, she said, but it felt endless walking through it alone.
No one would sit with her at lunch, she said, so she would sometimes eat in the bathroom, even closing the door of a stall so that no one would know. Girls shunned her, and some of the boys were mean -- she felt the sting of a water balloon breaking on her face one day in the hall, soaking her clothes, and heard students laughing. One boy put his knee on her back while she was leaning on the grass one afternoon to watch a basketball game, she said, then stepped on her hands, leaving her crying out in pain but unable to free her hands.
Looking back on it now, she said she should have asked for help -- from an adult at her church, or 4-H club, or something. But she did not want to bother her mother; her father had died, and her mother was working all the time to support 13 children. She did not even tell her best friend, Cecelia Spinks (then Cecelia Short), at home in Spring Hill.
She never thought about going back, as much as she missed Bel Alton. "As hard as it was, I could not go back and say, 'Look, I couldn't handle it.' " First, just for herself, she said. And second because she knew that everyone at Bel Alton would be disappointed. "Once I walked through that door, I knew nothing would take me back."
But as time went on, things became a little easier. She earned some respect by keeping up with the lessons and some curiosity from girls about her sense of style, which was very different from theirs. "I think when the girls saw I had answers to the questions and I knew how to think . . . they thought: 'Well, maybe she is worth talking to. Maybe she is worth listening to.' "
She began to see them in a different light, too, in a more realistic way.
Then some new students came to the school, and one was friendly to her.
"God knows how to put people in place for you," Stewart said. "I think he put Nancy there to break the ice for some of the other girls." Since her new friend was musical, Stewart felt comfortable joining the choir.
The teachers were very good at Bel Alton, she said, but the materials were far better at La Plata High. "The chemistry classes -- oh my goodness. It was like the difference between a Mercedes-Benz and an old Ford pickup. . . . The books were always new . . . and we had an actual Frenchman for a French teacher."
The next year, 1964, her friends from Bel Alton joined her at La Plata.
Spinks had a completely different experience at La Plata. When she came there were about a dozen black students in their La Plata High School class. "I had a great year," she said.
Spinks joined band to play her flute, just as she had done at Bel Alton, and made friends.
"When the other kids came up, the integration really started to jell," Stewart said. "There were a few rough spots and even some fights, but it just seemed like things turned around. I think they met [integration] with some resistance, but once they got over the first hurdle, they said let's make the best of it."
Some teachers reached out to black students, then, and many students were friendly and accepting.
"I began to understand," Stewart said. "People hate you for what they've been taught -- sometimes they hate you for what they see. If they take that away, they have to confront you for what's inside."
Today, Stewart manages the office at her family's business; Spinks is a social studies teacher.
By next spring, the old Bel Alton school will be completely renovated -- except for the gym, which will take another round of fundraising. The building will become a center for the whole community. Head Start classes will be held there, said Joan Jones, president of the Bel Alton group, and day care, adult education, technology and other career training.
"It was our school," Jones said, "and we got a good education there." Now it's for everyone.