NEWARK – Nearly 50 years after the last graduating class walked the halls of Worcester High School, the tradition of the black and gold lives on.
While the county’s all-black high school closed in 1970, memories made at the Newark facility remain vivid for those who call it their alma mater.
“I’ve got that ‘W’ on my chest forever,” Berlin resident Gregory Purnell said.
Though few modern-day students know it, the facility that serves as the central office for Worcester County Public Schools was originally Worcester High School. The small African American school that was originally in Snow Hill was moved to the new brick structure on Route 113 in 1953.
“It was a brand new facility,” Purnell said. “You had these hallways and alcoves. They were adding on even as we were there. We built a new state-of-the-art library and had new science equipment and so forth.”
Between 1953 and 1970, more than 1,200 students graduated from the school, which housed seventh through 12th grades. It was the county’s only high school for African American children.
“Students came from the Delaware line to the Virginia line,” said Teola Brittingham, a Berlin resident who graduated from Worcester in 1968. “We met a lot of people.”
Purnell, who’d attended elementary school on Flower Street in Berlin, said it was at Worcester that he met people from other parts of the county who went on to become lifelong friends.
“Pocomoke, Stockton — I didn’t even know where those places were until I went to Worcester,” he said. “being able to form relationships with all these children, There was a kinship that still applies, it was such a tight knit group.”
The fact that they were attending an all-black school was not something most Worcester students considered.
“We didn’t even really know we were in a segregated high school, just because that’s the way we grew up,” Purnell said. “I went to Flower Street (School) six years. We had no white teachers or any of that.”
Nevertheless, students were eager to attend seventh grade at Worcester, knowing they’d be joining students from across the county. Though they didn’t all know each other firsthand, many knew cousins and siblings of their fellow students and were able to make connections.
“Everybody knew everybody,” said Brittingham, who grew up in Snow Hill.
When it was time for her to attend Worcester, she wasn’t worried about being a seventh-grader among so many older students.
“We were all so glad to get in there so we could look at all the senior boys,” she said with a laugh.
Looking back on her time at Worcester, Brittingham said what strikes her is the discipline and respect evident in the hallways.
“We knew when we stepped through the doors that we were there for education,” she said. “When that bell rang the halls were clear. Our teachers were dressed in suits and ties every single day. The women, always heels and always nylons. We could not wear jeans unless it were a certain day. We all had to wear skirts and dresses. It was a disciplined school.”
Purnell says that’s because teachers there taught not three but four “r’s”—reading, writing, arithmetic and respect.
While he wasn’t at the top of his class academically, Purnell can still appreciate the quality of education offered at Worcester High.
“When I look back at it now it was kind of like an academy,” he said.
Because it was the only black school in the county, it was the only local option for African American teachers.
“All of the black teachers had to teach at Worcester,” he said.
The benefit to students is that they were taught by highly qualified graduates of places like Bowie State University and Morgan State University. Purnell credits Worcester High School Principal John McDowell with seeking out the best teachers for the school.
“He wanted the best,” he said. “He was a principal’s principal.”
Beyond their skill academically, teachers at Worcester were also known for their compassion.
“The teachers were wonderful,” Brittingham said. “They were concerned about your education, they were concerned about your life. A lot of times, kids who’d come from low income families—I was one—they’d find jobs for us to do to have a little money.”
Many are still remembered fondly, 50 years later. Brittingham says there’s not a Worcester student who wouldn’t remember music teacher Winifred Dutton.
“She still plays piano,” Brittingham said.
That, however, is not why Brittingham remembers her.
“She made everybody in music class sing a solo in front of the whole class,” Brittingham said. “We were doing everything we could not to laugh.”
The high school also featured a successful marching band. Purnell, who played French horn, still remembers being at marching practice one Friday in late November.
“We were out on that lane from the highway to the school, marching, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed,” Purnell said. “We were out there practicing, getting ready for the parades, and somebody came out and told us to bring all the students back.”
Purnell says if Worcester lacked in any way, its students weren’t aware of it. They looked to their teachers for a quality education and enjoyed extracurriculars like track, basketball, band and cheerleading. Purnell was one of the school’s first male cheerleaders.
“We didn’t know that we didn’t have what we didn’t have because we had so much of what we did have and that was each other,” he said.
When the school system moved to end segregation in 1965, few students wanted to leave Worcester, the facility they’d come to know and love. Some were even apprehensive about the potential for violence, as they’d seen what happened elsewhere throughout the country. Berlin Mayor Gee Williams was a student at Stephen Decatur High School when the integration process began.
“It was the winter before the African American kids were given the option to go to their local school (instead of Worcester),” he recalled. “It was voluntary that first year or two. Even with that transition there was concern by people in this county at the time that this might create a lot more than just tension. They were afraid there might be fights and violence when integration occurred. So they came up with an experiment.”
As a precursor to school integration, local educators decided to host a basketball game between Stephen Decatur, Williams’ team, and Worcester High School.
“It was precedent setting,” Williams said.
While it was held at Stephen Decatur, it was set for a Saturday and closed to the public. Williams recalls police stationed around the gym — the doors to which were locked — and board of education members sitting in the stands.
“Obviously they were expecting trouble,” Williams said.
When the teams emerged from the locker rooms, however, several opposing players called friendly greetings to each other. What the adults didn’t realize was that the teenage boys had been playing ball together unofficially for years.
“They were in shock,” Williams said.
He says both teams went on to enjoy the game, which Worcester won convincingly.
“The interesting thing is by half time the school was unlocked, the doors were open and most of the police had left, though some went into the stands to watch the game,” he said.
Williams says it just goes to show how important human relationships are.
“What really makes things better is when people have a chance to get to know each other,” he said. “It’s not just the official things that you do that define a community’s spirit. It’s how people treat each other.”
While no one disputes the success of that initial Decatur-Worcester game, Brittingham and Purnell, like the majority of Worcester students at that time, opted to stay at the school at which they’d started their high school careers.
“You knew the people here,” Purnell said.
Brittingham, who even today raves about the spaghetti and meatball lunches served at Worcester, agreed.
“It was a tight knit school,” she said.
She went on to meet her husband Elroy there.
“He says we probably wouldn’t be married if it weren’t for Worcester High School,” she said. “He’s right.”
Purnell, whose wife also attended Worcester — albeit only for one year before it closed — said the relationships he made at Worcester are ones he still values today. As Worcester graduates have passed on, the school song has become a popular refrain at their funerals.
“The spirit lives in us in that song,” Purnell said. “Usually before the ceremony’s over they will sing that school song — everybody in the whole church, because everybody is connected to somebody from Worcester.”
As Worcester County Public Schools celebrates its 150th anniversary, school system officials want to highlight the camaraderie and spirit of Worcester High School. School system officials are currently seeking memorabilia from the school to create a display for the building’s lobby.
“We’re hoping to get more alumni to connect with us,” said Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s coordinator of public relations and special programs. “We don’t want it to become a forgotten memory.”
Anyone with memorabilia they’d be willing to include in the display is asked to contact Sterrs at 410-632-5000. Students from Worcester Technical High School’s hospitality program are working on the display now and hope to have it completed by mid-February.