Warren Dorsey

Warren started going to school in 1926 and left school in 1930. He talks about consolidation of schools and shares his experience of being a colored student during these times.


INTERVIEWER 1: Hello. What’s your name?

WARREN DORSEY: Warren Dorsey.

INTERVIEWER 1: When did you attend this school?

WARREN DORSEY: I started the school here in September of 1926.

INTERVIEWER 1: When did you leave the school?

WARREN DORSEY: I left the school in 1930. The county was engaged in what they then were calling consolidation of schools. But actually, what they were doing was reducing cost of providing an education for children of color. See, every little enclave– in those days, every little enclave of African American students have a teacher. Sometimes, it’s just a handful; maybe half a dozen or so teacher of dubious training to be a teacher. But the county decided, well, it is cheaper to operate it by consolidating.

And we were the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades were pulled out of this school and were placed at Johnsville, which is a small, at that time, African American enclave just northwest of Eldersburg, about a mile, mile and a half.

INTERVIEWER 1: So this school went from kindergarten to seventh grade?

WARREN DORSEY: No. No kindergarten at all in schools until very recently. Uh, first through seventh.

INTERVIEWER 1: First through seventh?


INTERVIEWER 1: OK. So when were you born exactly?

WARREN DORSEY: I was born November the 17th, 1920.

INTERVIEWER 1: OK. So what was a typical school day like here?

WARREN DORSEY: I suppose uh, in principle, not too much different than today, except that there were seven grades here, a single teacher, and she attempted to meet the needs of them in the basics, mostly reading, writing, and, and calculating. And the school was divided into– the school room was divided in grades. We were grouped by year. And the teacher assigned uh, instructional materials to one group while she went to another to provide individual attention. And this is how the day went.

INTERVIEWER 1: How did you get to school? Did you walk?

WARREN DORSEY: Yeah. We didn’t live far from here. I lived up on the hill here about a quarter of a mile away.


WARREN DORSEY: It was different for the women. Moved us from here to Johnsville. One of the peculiarities that it may seem to you, the county’s way of providing education for children of color, the basic principle in those days was that there was no need to provide us an education really. They weren’t going to do anything anyway except work in service kinds of jobs for them.

So they put us out in Johnsville, but the county provided no transportation. It did for white kids, but not for children of color.


WARREN DORSEY: So we were left to our own designs. Fortunately, the gentleman who had the franchise for hauling the kids, white kids into Sykesville School, which was right at the entrance of what is now, was even then, Springfield State Hospital. The school was at, right at there, right at the entrance there. And they hauled white kids in. If we got there at a time that he happened to be there, he would take us out to Eldersburg, because he lived in Winfield, and he used to drive his bus back home.

And if we happened to be there, he would take us out that far. And then we walked the rest of the distance in. If we weren’t able to catch a ride, we were faced with walking, which is, I don’t know, about 4.5 miles altogether, I guess, to the Johnsville school.

INTERVIEWER 1: So what content were you taught here? What subjects did you learn?

WARREN DORSEY: Reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, civics, you know, the usual stuff– geography. Uh–

INTERVIEWER 1: Which one was your favorite?

WARREN DORSEY: My favorite has always been mathematics. I’ve always been good in math. Uh, my weakest was spelling. I– and to this day, I’m still weak in spelling. Although, I’ve been to many schools over the years.

INTERVIEWER 1: So how, how did society treat you generally, as a colored person? Were you treated different tan white people?

WARREN DORSEY: Uh, Sykesville was no different in principle in how uh, people of color were treated than the stories you’ve heard about Mississippi and Alabama. This was an rigidly segregated society here. Only contact between the races was incidental, except uh, well, it was still incidental. The whites operated the commerce, the stores and all. We used go to the stores when it was necessary.

Uh, the work– work was provided, like maids, housemates, cooks, cleaning ladies, uh, yard work for men. And in the summertime, especially during the crop season, they worked on farms. Some few had year round jobs working on the farms. But no social contact. One exception which puzzles uh, anybody, it puzzled me, although, I didn’t give it much thought to it at the time. Out across, oh, about maybe a half mile from here, Patapsco River runs through Sykesville. There was a swimming hole called The Rocks.

Uh, you could swim there in the nude. Only boys were– would swim there. But kids from our community and kids from the white community, boys– all boys– swam there.

INTERVIEWER 1: So that was basically the–

WARREN DORSEY: Nobody ever objected to that.

INTERVIEWER 1: That was like the only time you met each other?

WARREN DORSEY: Yeah. I never understood why. We got along fine The town accepted the fact that this was the swimming hole, and we all swam there. But that was the– that was the absolute limit of any contact.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. What sort of training did your teachers have? Did they go to college or go to a special school?

WARREN DORSEY: I honestly don’t know in the days when I started. Later on, when my youngest sister went here, they did have a teacher who was training, at a teach– teacher college, the teacher, when this school was established in 1904, uh, it opened. Teachers were recruited from communities outside of the county, because– and I guess even– well, outside the county certainly. The state did not train uh, uh, African American teachers. They had no school for training them.

The only place I know of in those days that trained teachers for African American students was more from a city. It operated a school uh, called No– the Coppin Normal School uh, two year school above high school that trained teachers for the Baltimore School System. The teacher I had came out of Baltimore. I don’t know that she went to Coppin. She may not have had much more education than what a seventh grader would have even here. But uh, she was our teacher.

INTERVIEWER 1: Were there uh, school rules here that you had to follow?



WARREN DORSEY: The rules were whatever the teacher decided they were going to be. And uh, she had her own enforcement method. Today, I guess they would call it corporal punishment. I guess you know what that means. You could be spanked for any reason that the teacher deemed uh, appropriate. And with my mother, if you got a spanking in school, you got a spanking when you got home also, because uh, she accepted the principle that a teacher wouldn’t be punishing you, unless you had done something that was not acceptable. And she insisted that we behave in school.

She insisted that we did as much as we could to learn as much as we could, and to behave.

INTERVIEWER 1: So what are some of the rules the teacher usually came up with that you needed to follow?

WARREN DORSEY: We were restricted uh, in talking, except that recess times. We were restricted in manner of play if you were on the playground. We were re– required to be on time. We were required to be courteous to each other and also, uh, which, wasn’t really necessary. We were required to be courteous to her, because we were reared be courteous to our elders, to be respectful of our elders.

INTERVIEWER 1: Was there like, a particular rule you had trouble following?

WARREN DORSEY: No. We were well trained by my mother. But you– there was no problem.

INTERVIEWER 1: Um, how has society changed since you left the school?

WARREN DORSEY: Oh, gracious. Uh, there has been a greater access to education. There has been uh, a breakdown of the barrier in public accommodations. There has been uh, innovations at just, at most levels for job opportunities, or, for decent housing, uh, for con– conduct of one’s daily life, whether it be social life or economic life. Tremendous changes.

INTERVIEWER 1: Mhm. What was life like outside of school for you?

WARREN DORSEY: We lived uh, up on top of the hill here. We had a bit of acreage. Uh, most of our summers, particularly, were spent in raising food. We raised a lot of garden crops. We also raised crops for feeding animals. We had a horse. We had a cow. We raised pigs, chickens.

We– most of the food to maintain our livestock was rai– we raised. Most of the food we ate, we raised. Uh, money was scarce. Uh, often, we had to do without. Uh, but one– typical example, my mother used to spend the summers cooking, canning, preserving. And she made a lot of jelly. It takes a lot of sugar to make jelly. At times when there wasn’t money to buy uh, sugar to make jelly, she would can the juice of fruits and berries.

And later on maybe, sometime later on, if money became available where she could buy sugar, she would open the jars of juice and make it into jelly. So we spent most of our time raising food, uh, gathering wood, uh, things that were necessary for survival.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. How many siblings did you have that went to this school with you?

WARREN DORSEY: There were 12 in our family. That means I had 12– 11 uh, brothers and sisters. All of them went to this school.

INTERVIEWER 1: All of them?


INTERVIEWER 1: Were you– were you the oldest?

WARREN DORSEY: No. I’m the ninth child.

INTERVIEWER 1: Did you have homework when you went here?

WARREN DORSEY: Oh, yes. And what was the rule at our house, if you came home without any uh, declared homework, that means that you admit to, my mother made sure that she found something for you to do. There was studying every night. School was a sacred mission for us, because my mother said, as long as we accepted the status quo, we would never rise above the way that– that– the way that we lived in this community. She said, if you ever going to break, break out of this, get away from here, you’ve got to get an education.

So you did all you could to learn as much as you could.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. Um, what did you bring to school with you when you came from your house?

WARREN DORSEY: Most of the– occasionally, we brought our lunch. But most of the time, we went home during lunch period. We had our school books. We had a, a cup. We used to have little collapsible uh, uh drinking cups, metal cups. There was no running water here. Well, I say no running water. We did have running water.

The teacher gave you a pale, then run up to the spring to get the water. And we had a common bucket for drinking water. If you had a cup, you could use the dipper and pull your water in the cup and drink from it. Those and others could make fashion cups from paper, sheets of paper. And on other occasions, the kids drank out of the dipper that also well rested in the bucket.

Uh, today, it would be considered unsanitary. That was not an issue when I was a youngster.

INTERVIEWER 1: How did the teacher differentiate instructions between the different grade levels?

WARREN DORSEY: We had school material that was supposed to be grade appropriate. And she uh, functioned in that fashion. But uh, since all grade levels were instructed in this one room, uh, there was a lot of cross teaching, cross grade teaching by the teacher, and also, by the students themselves. We learned from each other.

INTERVIEWER 1: How did you eat lunch here? I think you mentioned earlier that you usually went home?

WARREN DORSEY: Yes. Usually, we went home. When you, when you came to school, which if you had your lunch, you stuck in your desk until lunch time. There was no refrigeration or anything. And you pulled it out when it was time to eat. And uh, and devoured whatever you were– whatever you had brought from home. Usually, it wasn’t anything fancy with us.

We used to have syrup sandwiches. I don’t know if you– you know what uh– syrup that you use on pancakes, and spread that on bread. All the bread we ever had was homemade bread. And there was no uh, like lunch meat. That was nonexistent. That was your lunch. So you ate that, and drank a little water, and that was your lunch.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. What were some chores that you had at the beginning of the school day?

WARREN DORSEY: What, here?


WARREN DORSEY: Or at home? Well, at home, we always had to make sure there was wood in the house for my mother. We had a cook stove which supplied means of preparing food, and also, the heat. We gathered our own wood from– a lot of the land we had was woodland, where we cut wood. We were– we were– had to make sure there was enough wood in the house.

Water had to be carried from the spring. Uh, we had to make sure that there was water that my mother would need during the day. And on the particular days, like on wash day, a lot of the water had to be carried to make sure. We uh, had to make sure that there’s water for the chickens. The horse and the cow were pastured in the field. There’s also the spring was within the confines, and they could find their own water.

But for the pigs and the chickens, uh, water had to be uh, carried for them. And uh, ordinary uh, chores for cleaning and that sort of thing had to be taken care of. Before we went to school, at lunch time, when we went home, and after school.

INTERVIEWER 1: OK. What was your favorite recess game that you could play here?

WARREN DORSEY: I don’t know. We used to play dodgeball. I used to love dodgeball. Uh, recently, catch a lot. There was not much room for like, a baseball or softball, so we played catch. We played horseshoes. We shot marbles. Uh, the girls played jacks, and uh ring games, things of that sort.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. What segregation laws affected you when you went to school here?

WARREN DORSEY: Well, the most obvious one is uh, that you went to a segregated school. Uh, segregation was mandated by law, even in the state of Maryland. Segregation was on– transportation was mandated by law. Although, we rarely ever went any place anyway– uh, had no car. And it was almost any place you went, you walked. Occasionally, we hooked a horse up to the wagon, and that was the means of transportation.

But all of the opportunities that are now provided in jobs, education, housing, public accommodations were strictly segregated.

INTERVIEWER 1: So what is life like for you now? What did you do after you left school?

WARREN DORSEY: After I left school? You’re missing a whole lot of the interesting stuff, how I got to where I am now, and you don’t have time for that either. Uh, since I’ve been out of school and I’ve been through uh, even through graduate school, I have uh, been employed– retired from microbiology. I was a microbiologist for about 25 years with the Department of Defense in biological warfare research. I left that when uh, I– our President decided that we no longer should be investing in biological warfare research.

And I went back to school and got a master’s degree in elementary education. I taught elementary school for a couple years. I was an assistant principal for a few years. I was a principal at the latter stage of my working career, and I retired from that– been retired for some years. Since then, I live the life of a retired gentleman. That is do anything I want, wherever I want to.

INTERVIEWER 1: All right. One last question. How many students attended here regularly?

WARREN DORSEY: About 20– about half a dozen to uh, 30– 24 or 30.

INTERVIEWER 1: I see. And um, what? Um, I heard that you can sing very well.


WARREN DORSEY: I don’t know where you heard that.

INTERVIEWER 1: Well, um–

WARREN DORSEY: If you say, I heard you can sing, yeah. But other– the qualifier you used, that is subject to interpretation.

INTERVIEWER 1: So do you think you could sing us a song?


WARREN DORSEY: You don’t want to really hear me sing. If I sang at all, it’d be something simple about Sunday. I do sing. I sing a lot. I sing in a church. I’ve sung in high school, college. My best experience was in the service. In the army, we had a tremendously uh, gifted uh, glee club, and a very well trained director. And I sang in it. That was probably the most satisfying in singing, satisfying experience to sing at that, because we had a lot of people who were good singers who came from various walks of life, including Broadway plays who had been drafted into the service, ended up in the singing group in the army.

Since then, mostly, I sing on occasion in places when people ask me to. But I sing in church. I sing regularly in our church.

INTERVIEWER 1: Were the uh, was the armed service segregated when you were in it?

WARREN DORSEY: Yes. Very much so. And that presented a problem also, because uh, during– I was, I served in the Second World War. At that time, uh, the Army was uh, about getting as many people uh, in the fighting forces as it could. The problem– because we were losing a lot of people. We lost a lot of soldiers in north Africa and in Europe.

So there was demand– heavy demand for uh, recruits. The problem with recruiting uh, African Americans was a strict segregated army. Most of what the soldiers did prior to the Second World War, most of the jobs they had were service jobs. They were cooks. They were the bakers. They were the laundry men. They were the truck drivers, that sort of thing, and laborers.

But the army is faced now with drafting a– a fair number of African Americans who had college education. And it just didn’t seem to be right to put them with a pick and axe. I had uh, a, a classmate who had– by the time he was drafted into the army, he had degree in law and had passed his state bar for practicing law. He was drafted. The army had no place to put him. He ended up as a truck driver.

In the base where I served at Fort Lee in Virginia, they had a consolidated mess that was an eating facility for several different companies. They counted– they had head count as people entered and left the cafeteria– the mess hall. The person who the army appointed to do that was a young PhD from Harvard who mastered in mathematics. His job that the army gave him was counting how many people came in and out of the mess hall.

So yes, there was, there was a real problem.

INTERVIEWER 1: OK. Um, what is your family like now?

WARREN DORSEY: Of the 12 kids and my mother and father, there are only three of us still surviving. I have two sisters who ordinarily would be here. But I understand that they– well, I know they have a pressing commitment elsewhere. And it’s just the three of us left.

INTERVIEWER 1: That’s it.

INTERVIEWER 2: You can ask him to sing again.


WARREN DORSEY: I’ll sing. Well, when I was at Johnsville, I had a teacher, Miss Bell, who I considered to be an ogre. She was a dominating influence in the classroom. She ruled her classroom. We thought that she was awful. But before I went to Johnsville, I had very poor reading skills. In the first half year I was at Johnsville, Miss Bell, with all of her dominating ways of instruction, taught me how to read

And reading opened up a whole new world to me. And it does for anybody. You will go– most Of you who’ve come through a fairly decent education system uh, don’t realize what a remarkable thing it is to be able to read. See, no longer are you limited by your own little world which may not involve much beyond uh, the activities of your own family. But if you’re able to read, you– you can find out what kids do elsewhere. You can find out what places are outside of the community where you live, and even what other countries are like.

A marvelous revelation to a young man who couldn’t read before. So she taught me– taught me to read. But she used to sing with us. But she had her own interpretation of songs. She was determined that we understood that we were worthy people, and not necessarily what the majority of society tried to label us. But she taught us that this was our country, and we should be proud of it, that we were part of it. We helped to make it.

And she taught us a song uh, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” that it’s commonly called. Uh, a little differently than what you may know it. And I’ll sing one verse of that for you. It goes– you’ve heard. Some of you heard me before.


It goes– (SINGING) My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty from every mountainside let freedom ring. Let freedom ring, ring, ring, let freedom ring. Let freedom ring, ring, ring. Let freedom ring. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.


INTERVIEWER 2: That was good.

WARREN DORSEY: If you au– want me– want to hear me sing something that is a little more musical, come to my church Sunday morning. I’m going to sing. I’m going to sing a solo.