Oral Histories Give Voice to Relentless Pursuits

CSM President Dr. Bradley Gottfried accepts more than 60 oral histories and associated documentation from Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC) President Janice Walthour. The UCAS donated the oral histories to the Southern Maryland Studies Center (SMSC)

UCAC Donates Histories to Southern Maryland Studies Center

Imagine the voices of your neighbors telling you their stories. One shares how his parents could not afford to send all their children to school, so they had to pick one—or maybe two—who could attend as long as the yearly crop was good. Imagine another neighbor’s voice growing shaky as she relates how her teacher brought beans for lunch to cook for the students to have a hot meal. Another may share how a fellow student broke an already worn pencil in half to share so he could complete his assignment and get the education that would change his life.

These stories and more can be found among more than 60 oral histories and associated documentation that the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC) has donated to the Southern Maryland Studies Center (SMSC), housed at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata Campus. The UCAC oral histories highlight the contributions of African Americans to the history and development of St. Mary’s County and are the basis for the UCAC’s 2006 book, “In Relentless Pursuit of an Education. “

The oral histories include original cassette tapes, digital files, interview logs, release forms and biographies of the interviewees. According to Janice Walthour, UCAC president and a member of CSM’s board of trustees, the donation was made because “CSM has shown its commitment to encouraging diversity in the community, and the UCAC wanted to house the collection in a location that would make the histories accessible to the greatest number of libraries and historical societies in the region.”

“The Southern Maryland Studies Center is honored to be entrusted with this body of work that documents some of the struggles Southern Maryland’s African American community faced. It is my hope that everyone who uses this material will be inspired by how previous generations endured hardships and sacrifice in order to receive an education, and that it may help them to value the opportunities they have,” said Patricia McGarry, coordinator for the SMSC. McGarry noted that the SMSC has already received a fourth of the UCAC oral history collection and that the rest will be turned over in installments.

“These tapes are about people’s lives,” said Walthour, who noted that UCAC started collecting oral histories 10 years ago with the help of Iris Ford, a professor from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and Michael and Carrie Kline, directors of the Southern Maryland Folklife Project at St. Mary’s College of Maryland from 2001-05.

“The histories cover a broad range of topics including health and home remedies, local traditions, religion and regional events, but their main focus is on education and what it was like for African Americans who were seeking an education in a county that had segregated schools until 1967,” Walthour said. She added that school segregation in St. Mary’s County ended 13 years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling which deemed segregation inherently unequal and nine years after the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth District ordered St. Mary’s County Public Schools to enroll Joan Groves to the then all-white Great Mills High School.

“These oral histories really talk about the challenges that people faced as a result of racism, segregation and poverty. But our hope is that people will read these stories and compare them to their own lives and realize that people had the same hopes, fears and dreams even though they lived separately. Things like obtaining an education was important whether you were black or white, and is still important to everyone,” said Walthour, who noted that while there are more opportunities available to minority students in the county, there are still some disparities in how minority students are educated.

“Only six out of 100 teachers in St. Mary’s County are minorities compared to a student population in which 20 percent are minorities. We need more minority teachers because students only see a career field as an opportunity when they see people like themselves in those positions,” said Walthour. “We have more science, engineering and math and programs available to our students (like those offered at the James A. Forrest Technology Center and CSM) that are pulling our students up but it can’t be just a few people participating. Everyone has to contribute if we are truly going to have a diverse community. Our diversity is our strength.”

The UCAC hosts several events throughout the year including the annual Juneteenth Celebration in which members and the community honor pioneering African Americans and history makers in the community. At last year’s celebration, 2,100 participants enjoyed demonstrations and lectures by Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, an essay contest, gospel fest and a dance demonstration. The fifth annual Juneteenth Celebration, co-sponsored by St. Mary’s County Government, will be held from noon to 8 p.m., June 21, at the African American monument at Route 235 and Tulagi Place, Lexington Park. Admission is free. For information on Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions, visit http://www.ucaconline.org/

For information on the UCAC oral history or any of the holdings at the Southern Maryland Studies Center at CSM call 301-934-7606 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7606 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7606 for St. Mary’s County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7606 for Calvert County or visit http://www.csmd.edu/library/smsc/.

Sidebar One

Voices From the Past

Poverty, segregation and integration were just some of the obstacles facing African American students in St. Mary’s County. But while the list may have been long, it didn’t squash the students’ desires to change their lives and those of their families.

Excerpts from the UCAC oral histories as recorded in “In Relentless Pursuit of an Education.“

“Very seldom did I get up to the school. I had to work with him [daddy] when he had jobs out on the farm and stuff like that and I had to work with him down at the creek. He was a farmer, waterman, stuff like that. I had a chance to get to school now and then.

You had to buy your own paper. Very seldom you got any at school. They might have had some in there though, ‘cause I remember some of the old pages, whatever it was made out of, now and then you’d find a splinter of wood in it.”

Frank Leroy Dyson (b. 1926)

“The black schools were pitiful because we got all of the cast-offs, the junk, the broken-down desks…books with pages tore out…You know, the only thing new there was if you brought a tablet or a pencil of your own. Everything else was hand-me-downs and stuff that a lot of it should have been thrown in the dump. But here again, it was better than what we had because without that we had nothing. That, to me, is a hell of a way to have to try to get an education, but you done what you had to do.”

Clarence Carroll Smith (b.1932)

“See, we’ve done a lot of things that’ve not been recorded – a lot of inventions. And I think we need to know that and that gives you a pride in your race. Look, there’s a man just like you, same color, same features and everything, and look what he’s done; he’s made progress in life. Instead of being a nobody, he becomes somebody.”

James Alexander Forrest Sr. (b. 1911), talking about Victor Daniel from Tuskegee, Alabama coming in to talk to him and other students at Cardinal Gibbons Institute

“In African American schools, teachers were relentless. They did not let up on you because they knew what you had to do to make it in the world, you know. And once integration came, they were still relentless. Integration didn’t change their philosophy at all.”

Alonzo Gaskin (b. 1951)

Sidebar Two

UCAC President Janice Walthour noted that there are still more things to discover about Southern Maryland’s African American population. “Most people don’t know that Southern Maryland was the birth place of three medal of honor winners and that two of those winners were African Americans who fought in the Civil War on behalf of the Union Army,” she said. “Sergeant James H. Harris (of Great Mills) was a member of Company B, as part of the 38th U.S. Colored Troops. His ancestors live in Park Hall, Md. Private William H. Barnes (of St. Mary’s) was a member of Company C, also as part of the 38th,” said Walthour, who noted that the UCAC is only in the beginning phases of researching Harris and Barnes. “I would like to see something done to honor these virtually unknown soldiers and the impact they had on the future of our region,” Walthour added.