Former all-black school abuzz on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 16, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Richard Stephens, left, and Stefani Pierson listen to Leonard Harris, right, talk about the history of the Sumner-Ramer Memorial School during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the former schoolhouse in Martinsburg, W.Va.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Monday's open house at the Sumner-Ramer Memorial School building in Martinsburg meant a lot to 75-year-old Leonard R. Harris.

The school, a surviving symbol of the segregation of blacks and whites in the community and now home to a museum dedicated to preserving the building’s history, was abuzz with activities held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Having attended the all-black school along West Martin Street and living through King’s time, Harris said he’s seen a lot, but doesn’t talk to many people about it.

“It’s like flashbacks to me,” Harris said in an interview in the school’s museum.

While he hasn’t forgotten the marches and enduring blatant discrimination at businesses where he worked but still couldn’t use the bathroom, Harris hasn’t dwelled on it.

“You just kind of push it with the wave and let it roll on by,” said Harris, who is president of Sumner-Ramer Heritage Inc.

“If these young kids have any idea of what the older people have been through and what they have seen ... they would appreciate today.”

The museum open house, along with several activities for children, was held in collaboration with United Way of the Eastern Panhandle’s Promise Neighborhood Initiative and Shepherd University.

Sixty-one Shepherd University students who took part in the college’s Day On, Not A Day Off community service program in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day finished their day at the historic school, which was completed in 1917 under the leadership of Principal Fred R. Ramer.

The students, along with 11 university staff, helped with a wide range of service projects in the Martinsburg area for seven agencies, including Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle, Berkeley Senior Services and the Boys & Girls Club in Martinsburg, coordinator Rachel Crum said.

“I think they’ll go home tired,” Crum said.
Harris said he hoped the open house will spark an interest among younger people, since so many who are now involved in preserving the heritage of the school are getting older and are increasingly unable to attend meetings.

Harris said the organization’s activity has slowed since it was formed in 1990, but hopes to get some “new blood” involved in continuing preservation efforts.

“It’s really nice to really let the young people know how things have changed,” Harris said.

Judy Joseph, who worked with Berkeley County Schools for 34 years, recalled walking to Sumner-Ramer school, regardless of the weather.

She had to go home for lunch because her parents couldn’t afford to pay for what was then home-style cooking.

“The meals here were excellent,” said Joseph, 64.

Students took turns helping in the kitchen and on that particular day were able to eat at school for free, she said. At Christmas, the school provided students with a turkey dinner, Joseph said.

“There was so much love here because the teachers here — they really loved to teach, they really took an interest in us,” Joseph said.

Among dozens of photographs and other memorabilia on display in the school museum Monday, Joseph pointed to a black-and-white group picture of the school band donning uniforms.

Standing tall in the center is Joseph, who said the uniforms were blue with gold trim.

She played the cymbals and the clarinet, and learned how to play trumpet and glockenspiel.

Joseph said her science and band teacher, Mr. Spencer, was one of her favorites.

“He would show you important how life itself was,” Joseph said.

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