BERLIN — When 90-year-old Constance Sturgis talks, people have a tendency to stop and listen closely.
Sturgis, a retired schoolteacher and African-American community leader, has dedicated her life to educating children, and she has continued that work long since leaving the classroom. In recent years, she’s invited kids to her Berlin home once a month for a group called “Just Us Girls,” where she would talk with young people about history and the challenges they face as African American females in the world today. Yet, as the years have passed, her health has vastly diminished her once abundant community work.
“I move a little slower now, but my mind is still very sharp,” said Sturgis. “These kids today are crying out for our help. Our youth want to escape from using drugs, alcohol, gangs, and they really need boundaries within their lives that provide structure and safety. They are entering into adulthood unprepared and failing at alarming rates because of violence or a lack of resources.”
During her long career as a teacher in Berlin, first at the all-black Berlin Middle School, Sturgis was known as a deeply passionate educator who demanded the most out of her students while fighting to ensure that African-American history was taught in public schools once schools were integrated.
“I met her in the early stages of my teaching career and I was so taken with how remarkable a lady she was,” said Lou Taylor, Chief Operating Officer for the Worcester County Public Schools. “Her ability to recollect history and information was so impressive, but even more so, was the fact that she was always thinking about kids and how to improve their lives through education.”
Throughout the community, and especially in the African-American community, certain words are often used to describe “Miss Connie” as she’s often called. Words like “local treasure”, “beloved historian” and “brilliant storyteller.”
Local historian Gabe Purnell calls her a bold and well respected leader.
“She was definitely one of the first teachers to push to get African American history taught in the public school system here in Worcester County”, said Purnell, “Miss Connie is an amazing storyteller and her work with kids has always been at the forefront of what she is known for, but she also did amazing work as president of the local chapter of the NAACP. She helped find African-Americans jobs in the community at a time when the region was still very segregated in a lot of ways. She’s the type of leader that we still need very much today, maybe more than ever.”
The Love Of Learning
That love of learning sparked early on for Sturgis, who grew up as a child of the Depression in Mardela Springs and a desire to teach quickly followed.
“I think I was 6 or 7,” recalls Sturgis. “There was a first grade teacher named Miss Agnus Venezuela Franklin. I’ll never forget her because she made me want to be a teacher.”
Opportunities for young African-American girls were limited in the early 30’s, but Sturgis’ father stressed the importance of reading and writing, although he had to spend much of his time working to support the family, landing a civil works administration job created by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was a short lived job creation program post the Great Depression as part of the “New Deal.”
“He would work in all kinds of weather,” remembers Sturgis. “Some nights he would come home with his feet so frostbitten that he would go out in the fields and put his feet in cow manure to warm them up. But, I never heard him complain. He was so thankful for that job.”
Sturgis’ mother died when she was a toddler and learning quickly became the thing that she not only loved to do the most, but also provided the way to improve her socio-economic standing.
“I didn’t know we were poor, because I didn’t know anything else,” said Sturgis.
Sturgis first came to the Eastern Shore in the early 60’s and worked in a chicken factory before finishing college and landing a teaching job in Berlin. Sturgis and her late husband Arthur moved into a quaint house in Berlin that she still lives in today. The couple raised one adopted son, Archie, but Sturgis says she’s helped raise six or seven kids over the years, and considers all of them to be “her kids.”
“My mom is the strongest woman I know,” said Archie Sturgis, now 48. “She beat breast cancer twice, and she did so much work in the community and the church that she has never limited herself to just one thing. There were always kids around this house growing up because she just has this aura around her where people want to listen to her stories and learn lessons from her. She has a special and kind heart.”
Still Thinking About Youth
If you sit with Constance Sturgis in her house, you will almost feel the history and the hardship of the family that’s lived here almost as strongly as the inviting aromas of comfort food that fill the air. There are stacks of historical documents on the old piano, a makeshift map of Africa taped to a wooden bulletin board and black children’s books that date back more than 100 years that she still loves to read from time to time.
For a lady that overcame much struggle in her life, and then dedicated the rest of it to inspiring and teaching generations of young people, you’d think that she might be content to look back on her life’s work and rest easy.
But on most days, Constance Sturgis is still thinking about the young people of today, and those struggles that they will have to endure and the vital importance that education will play in their lives.
“I think kids today lack manners, and they don’t understand the importance of a good vocabulary and hard work,” she said. “Yes, February is Black History Month, but I wonder if kids today realize what that means? I’m proud of who I am, and they should be too. We aren’t just African-Americans during the month of February. We have to be the best representation of our families, our community and our culture every day of the year.”