Bates High Reawakens

Vol. 9, No. 7
Feb. 15-21, 2001
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After a 20-year sleep, this 20th century African American landmark is waking up to a new senior class.
By Mark Burns

hwock! Ball and divot lob into the air, flailing in the gusts of an unseasonably spring-like late-winter morning. The golf ball eventually drops about 60 yards away, just shy of the woodline.

Fred Hawkins strolls over to the ball with 7-iron slung over his shoulder. He opts for a drop, giving room for a proper swing. Thwock. Again the ball sails, landing pretty close to where it started.

Good shot.

Hawkins now walks to the next ball, glancing up at the graffitied walls and boarded windows of Wiley H. Bates High School.

Retired from service in 1981, Hawkins' alma mater has since been abandoned and posted with "no trespassing - county property" signs. The athletic fields, once home turf for a formidable football team, are now his makeshift chipping range. Hawkins again turns his gaze on the ball. Thwock.

"We had family spirit, team spirit," says Hawkins, who comes here once or twice a week to practice his game. "It was really upbeat in this school. I have some real good memories." The 7-iron now serves as leaning stick while Hawkins reminisces. Bused to Annapolis from Harwood in Southern Anne Arundel County, he graduated in 1965, the second-to-the-last class before mandatory desegregation.

Hawkins leaves no doubt as to the Annapolis school's significance to local history. "Almost everybody that's black, that came through this county before integration, graduated from this high school," he says. "The mere fact that the school shut down, period, was sort of wrenching to me."

Since the school closed, Hawkins had hoped Bates might be recommissioned as a high school, though he now knows that won't happen.

"I think I read somewhere that they were gonna turn it into a senior citizen complex "

photo by Mark Burns

Bates Raised 'Giants'

"My greatest memories, of course, are from the time when we were the only high school for black children in the county," says retired teacher and vice principal Philip Brown, now 92. Author of four books on Annapolis' black heritage, Brown retired in 1970 after a long career - begun at the age of 19 - as an educator. His last job was 25 years as teacher and vice principal at Bates High.

"The children came all the way from up at the Baltimore city line all the way down to Calvert County," he says. "I had a chance to meet children and their parents from all over the county."

Many of the people Brown has seen grow up have since achieved distinction. John S. Chase is a nationally known architect with several churches, federal buildings and stadiums to his credentials; he graduated with the Class of '42 and lives in Texas. Alum James Johnson earned his Ph.D. at Howard University and is now dean of engineering there. Bates graduate Joseph Williams is a judge in New York City.

"I lived to see all of those people grow up," says Brown, relishing "the pleasure you get out of seeing your children grow up and see them making solid citizens of themselves."

Another Bates High solid citizen is Maryland District Court Judge Esson Ricks, from the Class of '64, who grew up just across the street from the school.

"I used to play on those grounds every day," Ricks says. "Right up until the time I graduated, there wasn't a day or even evening that I didn't spend in the building or on the property." In terms of proximity, Ricks was the exception. "They were driven past every other school and taken to Bates," he says of his classmates, some of whom trekked as long as two hours by school bus in the mornings to get to class.

Bates High wasn't the model of convenience, but it was far better than earlier black students had. Before Bates, African American communities made do with small schoolhouses that taught every grade; in Annapolis, this was Stanton.

Originally an elementary school, Stanton reached out in 1917 to include Annapolis' first public black high school. The expansion was spurred by a petition organized by local businessman and city alderman Wiley Bates. Vice principal Brown graduated from Stanton, returning to the very same classroom to take his first teaching job. But Stanton was overworked. Even the principal pulled double duty, teaching all four of the science classes as time allowed. "At the time we didn't realize how short-changed we were," says Brown of his student days at Stanton.

To get anything close to a fair education for its children, the African American community needed a true high school.

Again Wiley Bates stepped forward, this time putting $500 toward buying land for the school. For this, and his constant push for education for blacks, the new school was named for him. By 1931, the cornerstone for the original school was laid. Bates High was finished in 1932 and opened to the first students in 1933. Additions eventually followed, with large new wings in the '40s plus one last expansion in 1950.

From the very beginning, Wiley H. Bates High School was the only black high school in Anne Arundel County. At its peak, some 2,000 students collected there.

photo courtesy of Arundel Community Development Services

"When we did come together, it was like a community," says Ricks. "But when we did go home, it was all scattered to the four corners of Anne Arundel County."

Dedicated teachers made the migration worthwhile. "I don't know whether it was the school or the times," says Hawkins, "but the teachers were like parents."

Educators built close relationships with their students - Brown is still in touch with former pupils - even while struggling to provide them with "separate but equal" education.

The school board "usually provided better everything for the white schools," says Brown - meaning that the updated textbooks and modern amenities that were standard in white schools were an achievement in black.

"Almost nothing you could do academically or in the trades was not at Bates High," says Ricks, who credits the school for helping lay a sound foundation for his college education. Bates boasted a full academic schedule of humanities and sciences. Vocational programs abounded, with on-site metal shop, carpentry classes and the like. School pride shone through requisite high school elements like a powerful football team, the Little Giants; school band; cheering squad; and even a steel drum band, begun after a local businessman came back with gifts from his Caribbean vacation.

Bates High was a special institution. There young African Americans from all over Anne Arundel County gathered to create a common community. Its teachers reached beyond books to touch the lives of their students. Bates helped catapult many graduates into productive, prosperous lives. But in reflecting on some of the school's highlights, Brown starts his list with the basic amenities: a library, a cafeteria.

An adequate building.

Perhaps Bates was most special for one reason: It was a place where black students could finally enjoy the basic elements of high school life - gym dances, sports, science labs - that so many white students took for granted.

Surviving Integration

photo courtesy of Arundel Community Development Services

Bates High made the very best of segregation.

"Their parents, of course, had told them how it was," says Brown, for Bates parents insisted their children recognize opportunity when they had it. "They all loved that they had what they did." But with mandatory integration in 1966, Bates' community was to be scattered to the four corners of Anne Arundel one last time.

Former and would-be students of Bates no longer passed by the nearer schools, instead stepping into those unfamiliar territories. Bates' teachers were brought into the broader school system; some staying where they were, some assigned to other county schools, some moving on.

Integration was an enormous change, welcomed after decades of struggle for equality in separate African American education. During segregation, school years were 140 days long for blacks, 180 days long for whites. African American teachers had to lobby the public school system for their students to be given the same textbooks and modern resources as white schools. At one point, black teachers sued Anne Arundel County to be placed on the same pay scale as their white counterparts.

"We were in favor of integration," says Brown, "because we thought that the only way our children could get an equal education was to integrate."

But in the process, a self-defined culture was lost. In the first two years after integration, Bates was relegated to ninth and 10th grades and renamed Annapolis Middle High School. "There was opposition on the part of whites to having their children attend 'Bates High,' because that was well-known as a black school," explains Brown. During that same time, Maryland governor and vice president-elect Spiro T. Agnew had a daughter enrolled there. "She had the secret service escort her to school. That was an experience," he laughs.

Name erased and student body scattered, the pride that had sustained Bates waned. New classes of white students hadn't the same perspective on the school's heritage. The common ground turned alien, as blacks and whites sat on opposite sides of the cafeteria trying to figure each other out. "We just sort of had to get used to each other," says Brown. But he remembers it as a peaceful, if awkward, transition. "We didn't have any major problems. I don't remember even one that was racial."

Current New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who grew up at the Naval Academy, remembers a somewhat bumpier time of integrating the school, as told to Ron Borges in a September 10, 2000 Boston Globe interview: "When integration began, it was rough. I was sent there for the ninth and 10th grades, and because the neighborhoods were so different, there was a lot of beating up of kids and that kind of thing

"There would be three fire alarms a day, cherry bombs going off in the toilets. Things would calm down for a while, and then some incident would occur to stir people up. Somebody got beaten up, and there would be a retaliation."

Before long, says Brown, students started to mingle across the color barrier and adapt to their cohabitation. Wiley H. Bates' name returned to the school in 1968, when it became a junior high. But the community was never the same. The noble experiment of integration worked, effectively ending Annapolis' own scholastic version of the Harlem Renaissance - the price of social justice.

The school lived on another 13 years, until Anne Arundel County Public Schools decided that 48 years of history had taken too much toll on Bates. With plenty of other school space available, Bates was abandoned and its name granted to a new middle school on nearby Chase Street. Even as boards appeared over windows, debate over the old school's future was starting.

Finding a Future

For the better part of 20 years, Bates High decayed. The original 1932 wing's wood frame rotted, returning to woods, after the roof collapsed. Throughout the school, ceilings caved in and concrete crumbled. Floors fell out. Rainwater and birds invaded through shattered window panes. Graffiti artists emptied their spray cans inside and out.

Even so, hope for renewal was never lost.

Supporters knew full well Bates' unique historic value. For the half century of African American history it held - made up of all those students' and educators' personal histories - it was nominated in 1986 to the National Register of Historic Places. But while its past could easily be agreed upon, its future had to be created.

"Since the 1980s, there have been a number of efforts for developing the property," says Ricks, chairman of the Bates Advisory Committee. "But among them was the lack of ability to develop a consensus on the types of usage on the property."

Formed in 1993, the Bates Advisory Committee was assembled by then-county executive Robert Neall as a community forum for planning Bates' future. Traveling for public meetings around the Annapolis area, it culled suggestions and protests for the old Bates building's future uses. It was slow going at first, with ideas all over the map. After all, there are a lot of possibilities for 144,000 square feet of red brick and concrete sitting on 16 acres of rare open space in Annapolis. One unpopular proposal suggested the ballfields behind the school be developed for townhouses; the mere idea irked neighbors, who hated to think the open space might disappear.

"In that time when they were trying to decide to do with the school, we had a lot of festivals," says Brown. Though no clear future had been mapped, the festivals would make at least one thing clear - people cared about Bates and would work to see it preserved one way or another.

As reminder of that common commitment to preserve Bates High's heritage, portraits appeared on the plywood covering windows. "Some art-minded persons got the idea of putting those paintings up," says Brown. Most boards bear the likeness of some past principal or other Bates High notable, including Brown. Others were just art. One said simply, "Save Bates."

Finally, in 1994, Bates got both recognition on the historic register and a plan. Bates Advisory Committee concluded that the old school would be revamped for senior housing and community use. Ballfields would stay.

Plan in hand, Arundel Community Development Services - the privatized government agency whose mandate included Bates' renewal - won grants for the renovation from state and county coffers. By 1998 the project was awarded $6 million. On June 25, 1999, Bates' future began in the biggest festival yet, a renovation groundbreaking. The ceremony brought forth an outpouring of 200 supporters awash in purple and gold, celebrating to the music of former Bates High band members.

"This building has been through so much in the last 20 years," says Kathy Koch, executive director of Arundel Community Development Services, "People wanted it this way, others wanted it that way To have gotten to this point now and seeing the community rally behind it is great."

The future came just in time. Bates High was falling apart.

In a run of demolition and construction that stretched into the fall of 2000, $2.2 million - 43 percent of which went to minority contractors - was spent pulling the building together. Out with the old roof, some of which was more of a floor; up with a new one supported by steel decking. Collapsed or collapsing wooden-frame floors and walls were torn out, replaced with steel framing. Cafeteria and gymnasium were renewed with the pouring of fresh concrete floors and the erection of steel structural columns. Cleaning crews flushed out the debris of disintegrated school and washed down the walls. Safety crews purged hazards such as lead and asbestos.

In the rush of renewal, much of the old school was salvaged. Old brick was washed and repaired. Many original windows, doors, lockers, light fixtures and cabinets were preserved. Even the plywood portraits were kept for posterity, perhaps to be displayed inside a fully renovated Bates.

Bates' Old Dream Comes True

"This is what you call divine cause, okay?," says Hayes-Williams, historical consultant for the renewal project's planned memorial to Bates. "There's no such thing as coincidence."

She's speaking to the heart of Bates High's new life: old lives. As many as 81 new residential units for low-income senior citizens are set to occupy the largest share of the 140,000-square-foot structure. In addition there will be a full senior center, sized 13,600 to 17,600 square feet, to serve not only residents but the community at large.

The divine cause stems from the fact that, unbeknownst to planners, they'd done just as school namesake Wiley H. Bates had wished. In researching Bates' life for a planned memorial at the school, Hayes-Williams discovered that, in his will, Bates sought to establish the "Bates Old Peoples Home" as a "refuge for old colored people regardless of sect."

The new apartments will be open to people of all skin color as well as all sects, but the spirit of the project is much the same as Bates had desired.

"I do think we were being divinely guided," says Koch, remembering her reaction to the news. "I got goose bumps. It made me feel like we are doing this right."

It's also right for the county. A study by Arundel Community Development Services estimates that as of 2001 there are 1,420 seniors with annual incomes below $24,999 in the Annapolis region, and that number will grow in coming years.

There is still more to this renewal. The entire project has a rough projected cost of $11,438,000 to $12,563,000 - depending on which of five proposed building plans is eventually chosen - to be raised in public and private funding. Some space will be devoted to the younger set.

Bates will reemerge as a center for learning with a space lab for science students across the county. The Challenger Center for Space Education, a non-profit educational foundation established in memory of the Challenger shuttle tragedy, will devote 5,000 to 8,000 square feet to a space station area, mission control facilities and more. To be built at Bates because of its central location within the county and proximity to the United States Naval Academy, it will be integrated with Anne Arundel County Public Schools' science programs.

The gymnasium may one day bounce with basketball clinics, league games and an open, supervised court. The ballfields out back are to be preserved for public play. Inside, some space will go to the Bates Foundation, a non-profit group devoted to preserving the high school's heritage and supporting the community.

Memorials to Bates and graduates of the school will greet visitors at every entrance. Hayes-Williams says she wants there to be "a reminder of Wiley Bates everywhere you look." Memorabilia likely will include a portrait of the man plus a bust or statue yet to be commissioned.

Now Bates High is awakening to a new era, and its allies are focused on preserving one school's legacy. "As a historical and cultural focal point for every student that's ever gone there, it's absolutely critical," says Ricks. "It stands as a monument to every black kid that ever went to that school."

And, at the very least, Hawkins will still have an open field for chipping practice.


Wiley H. Bates: The Man Behind the School

"They said he was always dapper when he'd sit out on his porch on the corner of South and Cathedral streets," says historian Janice Hayes-Williams. "You could see him sitting in his chair and he'd be dressed like this with his brass spittoon, spitting his tobacco."

She speaks of a portrait, a blurry old photo, of Wiley H. Bates, prominent African American Annapolis citizen and namesake of Bates High School. As historical consultant on the memorial portion of the Bates High renewal project, she's been digging into the life of great-great 'Uncle Wiley,' the man who married two of her great-great aunts. (Widowed to one in 1884, he wed the other in 1889.)

It's a family connection she's discovered only recently - and has been enraptured by. Her research has turned up a fascinating man - plus that ninth item in his will, which has renovation planners feeling pretty darn good about themselves.

Born in 1859 in North Carolina, Bates moved to Annapolis with his mother as a young boy to be with family after his father died. He went to work early; at age nine he was working on the C&O Canal. As a teen he worked the fall shucking oysters, then waited tables at ritzy restaurants from Pennsylvania to Point Comfort during the off season.

With a few dollars and coal for sale, Bates started a grocery store that grew into a thriving business. He soon found his way into the social clubs, becoming a 33-Degree Mason, Oddfellow and member of several other community groups. In 1897, he was voted in as Republican alderman for the third ward; in office he pushed for the fair treatment of the black community, whether in street improvements or education.

With only two days of school in his whole life, Bates was the unlikely champion of education for black Annapolis. He founded what may be Annapolis' first kindergarten in 1899, a classroom on the back of his house. His influence helped bring high school classes to Stanton elementary in 1917, and his $500 helped buy land for what became Bates High. In between, he was a constant mentor to young black men, encouraging them to get a proper education.

Bates' pursuit of African American equality didn't end in the classroom. "My mom and my aunt used to go down to the house, and they'd have their baby dolls with them, and Wiley Bates would say, 'Don't bring those white baby dolls in my house!' Okay? I mean this is true stuff, right! My mom said the first time they ever had a colored baby doll, it was because he bought them."

He also encouraged the sophistication of ladies. "In the summer he would take all the children and send them to a friend's farm down in South County. And all the women he'd put on a train and send them to New York and send them shopping so that they could come back and set some standards for what black women in Annapolis should look like. I mean, is this not a man ahead of his time?"

Bates lived long enough to see Wiley H. Bates High School finished and bearing his name; he died in 1938.

Hayes-Williams is not done yet. She has more information and is currently digging deeper into Bates' past. Already she has enough gathered to write a play.

Building on last year's success of Four Women of Annapolis, Hayes-Williams is rolling out The Annapolis Five, a fact-based historical play on five notable men including Wiley Bates, due out this May. Another one-character play on the life and times of Bates is planned for October. She hopes to raise $10,000 toward paying for a bust or statue of Bates as a focal point to the school's new memorial.

And you'd better believe she's driven. "I am really, totally involved in this thing, because he was definitely a man before his time."

-Mark Burns

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly