BERLIN — One of the Berlin’s most influential and inspirational African-American community leaders passed away this week at the age of 90.
Constance Sturgis, who was lovingly called Miss Connie by many in the community, was known and will be celebrated in the coming days and weeks as a lifelong teacher of the youth, a brilliant storyteller, a beloved historian and a local treasure.
“She will be so missed,” said Reverend Betty Smith, who was a former student of Sturgis’ and is the current pastor of Tyree AME Church in Berlin. “It will be impossible to duplicate what she gave to all of us in the community.”
During an interview with Sturgis last February, the former teacher at the then all-black Berlin Middle School spoke about her humble upbringings as a young African-American girl in Mardela Springs driven by a yearning to become educated and make a difference in the lives of young people as a teacher.
“These kids today are crying out for our help,” Sturgis said. “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.”
Sturgis later became a passionate community leader as well, serving as president of the local chapter of the NAACP and vehemently fighting to ensure that African-American history was taught in the newly integrated Worcester County Public Schools.
“She served on countless boards and committees in her life,” said Smith. “She wasn’t just a passionate voice, but she taught everyone the importance of being an informed voice in the community and that’s what can empower change.”
Smith and many others in the community recall Sturgis asking a lot from her students. She taught them to be strong, yet kind; willing to speak up, but also knowing when to be silent in order to listen.
“She believed that we all could learn to love one another,” said Smith. “She was a very proud woman and she loved her African-American history and culture. But even more so, she was so creative and just loved to pass it on to the kids.”
Even in her later years, as her health was starting to fail her, Sturgis would put together children’s groups to help the African-American kids in the community understand not only their heritage, but to work through some of the struggles they faced in their lives today.
“She would write plays and poetry to help these kids understand where they came from and to be proud of whom they are,” said Smith. “Our congregation and our whole community are just so sad and shocked by her passing, because there was just something about her that made it seem like she would always be here with us.”
Smith says plans are still in the works for a “grand celebration” of Miss Connie’s life, as her impact on literal generations of locals, both white and black, is vast.
“We are in the process of making arrangements because we aren’t sure what facility is going to be big enough for all the people who want to pay their respects and celebrate the life of Sister Connie,” said Smith.
Smith says Sturgis was slated to move from “the little house in Berlin with all the pretty bird feeders” that she’s lived in since she came to the area in the ‘60’s to a nearby assisted living facility.
“She died on moving day,” said Smith. “I guess she was just ready to move to her mansion in the sky and be with her Lord and Savior. That’s just like Sister Connie, she was feisty right until the end.”
To read full story from February, click over to https://mdcoastdispatch.com/2016/02/11/miss-connies-lifetime-passion-for-teaching-kids-endures-2/
(The following represents some personal reflections from the reporter.)
Remembering Miss Connie
I first met Miss Connie in 2014 as I was preparing a public radio story on Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, who was a Berlin native and often called the “Grandfather of Gospel Music.” She invited me to her home, and we sat and talked for hours in her living room about history, gospel music and her amazing life as an educator. Her home was like a museum of artifacts of local and global African-American history. I asked her why she kept all of it for all these years, and she said, “if no one tells the stories, the stories will die, and we can’t forget to tell our stories to the young people. They need to hear these stories if they are going to write their own.”
I remember being very moved when leaving the house, and over the years, I would talk to Miss Connie a few times as I tried to get a documentary film about Tindley’s life off the ground. She was always encouraging and told me that I had to keep going to tell that story so it didn’t get lost to history. Last February, during Black History Month, I returned to her “little house with the pretty birdfeeders” again and we talked for hours again about her life and her concern over the awful racial tensions, incidents and tragedies that are happening in our world. I got the feeling that she was trying to get everything she still had on her chest, off of it. Perhaps it was one of those last ditch efforts to teach future generations the importance of not forgetting to tell the story of your past and to strive to make a better one for your future.
Miss Connie will always be one of my favorite interviews, and her profound impact on me, a 38-year-old white guy, is proof positive that while some may pass her death off as merely a loss for the African-American community. Her death is a loss for our entire community. She was special. She knew the importance of what the stories could teach us, she understood the importance to the ‘greater good’ of our world by telling those stories, and she deeply loved her audience, especially the kids.