Worcester High School Display ‘A Labor Of Love For Us’

Worcester High School Display ‘A Labor Of Love For Us’
Worcester High graduates, surrounding French teacher Hattie Carey (seated, center), cheer following unveiling of a new display recognizing the African American high school that closed in 1970. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

NEWARK –  Dozens of Worcester High School graduates gathered this week as the school system paid homage to its former African American high school.

Worcester County Public Schools hosted a ribbon cutting of a new historical display honoring Worcester High School in the lobby of the school system’s central office. The building was Worcester High School from 1953 to 1970.

“We are all so excited to have so many of you here with us today to commemorate the history and the heritage of this building,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said.

In an effort to recognize the building’s history, school system staff have spent the past several months collecting artifacts and memorabilia from Worcester High School to display in the lobby of the central office. With the help of students from Worcester Technical High School’s hospitality program, as well as contributions from other students and former students, the artifacts now line the wall of the lobby. Visitors are also greeted with new furniture and flooring as they step into the building.

“I know our county commissioners are here today and some of them are going to say ‘Lou where’d you get the money to take care of this,’” Taylor said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Let me tell you, 90 percent of this was donated by our community. We know the Harrison Group out of Ocean City, they donated all this furniture. Lowes of Pocomoke donated this flooring to put down here.”

Taylor expressed appreciation for everyone who helped bring the project to fruition.

“This has been a labor of love for us,” he said. “Many, many people have contributed.”

He said there had been an outpouring of support from former Worcester High students willing to provide memorabilia for the display.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say thank you to all those that contacted us to donate artifacts to make this display truly come to life,” he said.

Taylor said officials were unveiling the display in February as a way to mark Black History Month as the school system was in the midst of its 150th year.

Gregory Purnell, a 1967 Worcester grad, shared his memories of the school that so many of the county’s residents attended. He pointed out that it was the only school African Americans in Worcester County could attend after sixth-grade and the only school in Worcester County where African American teachers could teach.

“It was them that came and instilled into us the need for education,” Purnell said. “They themselves, coming from meager beginnings—some of them were the first to even attend high school or graduate and then to go on to college—they wanted us to have a taste of that.  So they took time with each of us, we being like they, to let us know this is the place where you get the key. The key to that house, the key to that car, the key to the world itself—and that would be in education.”

Purnell said the camaraderie among the students at Worcester was what he remembered most.

Worcester High B

The ribbon was cut Tuesday on the permanent display remembering Worcester High School.

“We still think about it when we go by this building,” he said. “It’s just something that was a part of your life. Today, anyone over 65, we know that they had something to do with this school. Who’s your family? Didn’t they go to Worcester? What year did they graduate?”

Purnell thanked the school system for honoring the building and its history as well as for taking the time to host a ribbon cutting to highlight the display.

“I fashion myself as one of the ‘Mr. Worcesters’ but each class had their own,” Purnell said. “We just have so many memories and we’re just happy to be here today.”

Purnell, invoking Dr. Martin Luther King’s message to be the best of whatever you are, said Worcester’s graduates had gone on to do just that.

“The Worcester High spirit continues to live in them and travel,” he said. “That’s why so many have come out this morning to be here for this occasion. I applaud each of you for taking the time to come here and remember old Worcester High. You can still hear the echoes in the aisleways and alcoves of this place. I don’t hear the lockers clanging but still there’s that memory that comes back.”

Teola Brittingham, a 1968 Worcester grad, led those in attendance — many of whom sported black and gold “Worcester  High Alumni” shirts — in singing the school song.

“This is a prideful day for us,” she said. “I know that when we sing this song everybody’s going to join in and sing it with us. Worcester High you will live on through all of us.”

Jimmy Purnell—the county’s first African American elected official—was another Worcester grad in attendance Tuesday.

“As I walked in this building this morning it still brings back memories,” he said. “I graduated in 1955.”

He offered his thanks to Jon Andes, former superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools, for his assistance in preserving the building.

“That was a time they were talking about doing away with this building,” he said. “I came to Dr. Andes with the advice of some other people. He sat down with some of the board members. They voted to save our school. My thanks and heart goes out to those that took the time and had the initiative in their heart to save this school.”

He said graduates were willing to work with county officials to make sure the building was preserved going forward.

Worcester graduates are also doing their part to support today’s students. Hattie Beckwith, organizer of the Worcester Junior Senior High School Joint Alumni Association, said the group was in its 28th year of providing scholarships to local high school students.

“Our legacy runs on through the scholarships that we give,” she said.

This week’s ribbon cutting ceremony closed with a special signing event featuring Maya Batson, the first educator offered a teaching position through the schools system’s new “Grow Our Own” program. The program identifies minority high school students with aptitude and interest in pursuing a career in education and offers them support through high school and college.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.