Lessons from the past echo throughout school's walls
Oct. 4, 2000
Sean Sedam
Staff Writer

Brian Lewis/The Gazette

Former students of the Boyds Negro School will join community members Saturday for Remembrance Day.

Remembrance Day honors former Boyds Negro School students

When Ella Louise Smith recalls her childhood as a student at the segregated Boyds Negro School, she lists commonplace features of modern schools that her school's one-room schoolhouse did not have: electricity, running water, indoor toilets, a gymnasium or a cafeteria.

But, while the school lacked amenities, it had two features important to any school: a strong sense of community and a great teacher, said Smith, who will be honored along with 17 other former students at a Remembrance Day and gospel festival Saturday.

The event, presented by Concerts in the Country and The Boyds Historical Society, will feature a ceremony honoring former students of the school and an oral history session at the schoolhouse on White Ground Road. A gospel festival afterward will raise money to fund a documentary video about the school.

The Boyds Negro School opened to African-American children in first through eighth grades from 1896 to 1935. In 1989, the Boyds/Clarksburg Historical Society sought to preserve the school's history, restoring the schoolhouse to how it might have looked in 1900, complete with a blackboard, desks, a wood-burning stove and a portrait of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Now the historical society hopes to capture that history in words and pictures as part of a documentary video.

"I think [the documentary]'s a wonderful idea," said Smith, who attended the school from 1927 to 1932. "It's something for our heritage and our children."

Rick Wagner is the producer for the documentary called "Boyds Negro School: Historic Lives." Wagner, who is also the co-director for Concerts in the Country, worked on a 1993 documentary for the centennial celebration at nearby St. Mark's United Methodist Church, which included a brief mention of the Boyds Negro School. Wagner has friends who attended the school or whose parents attended the school.

The school presents an important aspect of life in African-American communities during the late 19th and early 20th century that reflects many similar communities, Wagner said.

"It's special and unique, but what's more important is that it's very typical," he said. "There were about two dozen segregated schools in Montgomery County and if it's in Montgomery County, it must be typical of similar schools throughout the segregated south."

Smith, 80, hopes that the documentary will show today's students what going to school meant for past generations of students.

"They don't know what it was like for us to go to school," she said. "They have a school bus today to take them to school -- we walked for miles to go to school."

Those who attend Remembrance Day can view a newly refurbished exhibit at the schoolhouse featuring a photographic history of the lives of each of the 18 former students who will appear in the documentary.

Remembrance Day events will serve the dual purpose of honoring former students and providing interviews and footage for the documentary. The oral history session will allow members of the community to ask questions of the former students and will provide the documentary team with a basis for interviews that they will conduct individually with former students throughout the fall.

One figure who former students will surely talk about is their former teacher, Lillian Giles. Giles led students in reciting The Lord's Prayer and reading Bible verses each morning, Smith said.

"She was a very wonderful, religious teacher," Smith said. "When she was teaching, you learned from her. She made you know it by heart."

The Boyds Historical Society hopes to use the documentary as part of the exhibit at the schoolhouse. It also would like to distribute it to area schools and possibly broadcast it on the county's cable station or public television.

"It's a good story in terms of drama and the sense of struggle and of overcoming that struggle," Wagner said.

Following the oral history session, those in attendance will march down White Ground Road to Boyds Presbyterian Church's Kerr Hall for the gospel festival. The former students will travel the route they walked to school numerous times in their youth, but this time they will do it by limousine.

The festival will include gospel music, poetry and a reenactment presented by a youth group from nearby St. Mark's United Methodist Church called "A Normal Day." Some of the children in the reenactment are related to the former students, Wagner said.

"I'm hoping that some of the young people ... can see just what we did and how we dressed and acted," Smith said.