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"That's the way things were"

Ruth 0. Richards

Originally published in the Emmitsburg News-Journal

This is a story about Barbara. Well, not exactly about Barbara. It's a story about Emmitsburg, but not exactly about Emmitsburg either. It's really about all of us, everybody. But before I can tell this story I must go back long years ago, so many years that I scarcely know just where to begin..

In about the 15th Century the Portuguese explorers discovered that there was money to be made in the trafficking of black people of Africa. Other countries followed suit and soon most of the countries of Western Europe were transporting these people to the New Word to be sold as slaves.

Barbara's paternal great, great grandfather was descended from a Dutch Baron from Holland. When the Baron died, his widow and sons came to America and settled in Connecticut. One of these sons left Connecticut for Santa Cruz (St. Croix) in the Dutch West Indies. This son married a black woman, and a child of this interracial marriage was Barbara's grandfather. Just how and when her grandfather got to Emmitsburg is unknown. He did get here and this is where Barbara's story begins.

After the Civil War when it became legal for blacks to be educated, Maryland and nineteen other Southern states established segregated schools for black children. Frederick had schools for the blacks; Emmitsburg had only one public school, for whites only. St. Euphemia's parochial school of St. Joseph's Church, run by the Daughters of Charity, set aside one room in this school for the teaching of black children.

In 1940 circumstances made it necessary for Barbara to come from her home in Washington to live with her paternal grandmother in Emmitsburg. Her grandmother enrolled her in St. Euphemia's School where one sister was assigned to teach the black children, all of whom were taught in this one room.

All of the children of Barbara's grandmother had attended this school. Sister Beata, the teacher, was beloved by these 20 or so children. When Barbara was in school she was one of only three students, herself and cousins Kenny and Joe. These three were taught writing, reading, arithmetic and religion. Father Rogers was the priest at St. Joseph’s. Sister Josephine was the principal of the school and Sister Veronica was the teacher for the black children.

There were no privileges for the black children with the exception of being schooled. They were not allowed to play either in the school or on the playground with the white children. There was not an indoor bathroom for them either. Their "bathroom" was an outhouse in the back of the school. Neither were they allowed to use the drinking fountain. The black children had a separate playground and a separate entrance to the school. (We all can surely remember seeing pictures during the 60s where drinking fountains and restrooms were clearly marked "Whites only." The black children were Catholic, and were instructed in the Catholic faith, and when they went to church they were limited to the back pews of the church.

There were other restrictions for the black children in Emmitsburg. Barbara remembers that on August 5, 1945, the day Word War II ended, bells were rung all over Emmitsburg in celebration of victory. The old movie house, the Gem, was close to the fire hall and the white children on their way to the movies lined up for a turn at ringing the Fire Hall bell. Barbara and her cousins stood by hoping against hope that they, too, might have a tug in celebrating this victory. No one offered them the rope even though four members of her family were serving in the Armed Forces. Sad.

Barbara had completed 8 grades in four years at St. Euphemia's, but when at the age of 10 she returned to D.C. she was placed back in the 5th grade, the appropriate grade for her age.

When after high school, she wanted to enter the convent of the Daughters of Charity she was refused. The convent was open to white women only. After several other attempts she was accepted by the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement at Graymoor, Harrison, New York. She was with the Franciscans for 15 years, six of which she spent in Utah and four in Brazil.

Some years after leaving the Dominicans, she returned to Emmitsburg and was secretary to Presidents Wickenheiser and Houston. She is now involved in volunteer work with the Daughters of Charity at the Seton Center Outreach Program.

Barbara is a friend of mine and I have spoken with her several times about her experiences in Emmitsburg when she was young and at St. Euphemia's School. I asked her how she felt about the treatment she and the other black children had received. Her answer was, "That's the way things were."

I end here with a recent quote from Barbara: "I have no regrets about my early school experiences. The sisters, Veronica and Josephine, were very kind to their charges. In spite of the segregation the Sisters instilled in my heart a deep love for my faith and the Church, qualities that have helped me all through my life."

Please note: In the 40's when Sister Veronica died the Daughters of Charity made the decision to integrate the black students rather than assigning another Sister for them.

Read other articles by Ruth Richards

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