Rumor forces Maryland school to dig into its racial history


TOWSON, Md. (AP) – While it may not have been widely known among students and faculty at the prominent Jesuit boys school on a lush campus in Towson, an apocryphal story about its history survived for decades just under the surface.

It goes like this: When Loyola Blakefield High School outgrew its city campus, it received a gift from the Blake family that would allow the Jesuits to build a new school to the north on Charles Street, but the gift was conditional on a pledge they would not accept Black students.

Confronted with calls for action by Black alumni, Loyola launched an internal examination of its history this summer to try to determine whether the school had made a racist deal in the 1930s. The board of trustees and the president pledged to change the name of the school if they turned up proof.

“We are trying to get at the truth and we are trying to do it in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” said Brian Hartman, the board of trustees chairman.

An investigation that went on for two months turned up no written evidence, school leaders said, and they issued a statement recently to the school community.

But activist and Black alum Ralph Moore isn’t accepting the premise that the truth has been uncovered yet.

“I think it is a really good (public relations) piece from their standpoint,” he said of the investigation and statement. He didn’t expect written records to outline the deal because he believes there would have been a verbal understanding, passed down over the decades, that wouldn’t have needed to be written down.

In the past few months, nearly every private and parochial school in the region has confronted voices of anger from Black alumni and calls for their schools to reckon with racist pasts. In dozens of social media posts, Black students and alums have asked their institutions to make more than an acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter and attempt to correct current perceptions in their majority white, elite institutions of privilege.

At Loyola, a Jesuit, all-boys school of 940 students whose stone and brick buildings can be seen across green lawns from Charles Street in Towson, school leaders decided to answer a summer call by Moore, when he gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition asking the school to change its name.

Moore points out that the school denied admittance to two African American students in 1945 and 1953. The civil rights leader Clarence Mitchell Jr. wrote to the school asking that his son Clarence III be admitted.

Michael Mitchell remembers his father reading the rejection letter at the Sunday dinner table. To admit Clarence would “cause riots and financial ruination,” the letter said, according to Mitchell. The denial was particularly stinging, he said, given that the Mitchell family says it was descended from offspring of a slave raped by Charles Carroll, a prominent Maryland Catholic, slave owner and signer of the Declaration of Independence who helped build churches in the city.

“Given its history to deny my brother … That is the kind of scar that will take time to heal,” Mitchell said.

Clarence Mitchell went to Gonzaga College High School in Washington instead, making the trip from the Mt. Royal station to the school every day. He died in 2012.

Loyola Blakefield started by delving into the property deeds, board meeting minutes and documents from the time of the donation. And they called Sara Foranciari, the great-granddaughter of George Blake, who gave $214,000 to buy the land and begin building the school which was moving from downtown Baltimore.

“I was in a state of shock because of the allegations and assertions,” said Foranciari. She points out that Loyola hadn’t enrolled a Black student before the gift was made. “I want the truth, but I want us all to put it in context. I don’t think the Blakes were responsible.”

She also pointed out that her family had been generous in its support of Black institutions and pointed to a bequest her aunt had made to an orphanage for Black children.

They also talked to the Rev. William J. Watters, a legend in the Baltimore Jesuit community who has helped start three schools, including Ignatius Loyola Academy, a middle school, and Cristo Rey, a Fells Point High School, both for low-income students. Watters taught at Loyola Blakefield from 1969 to 1975, created a Black Student Union at the school, and helped push the school’s leadership to adapt a strict dress code in the late 1960s so that Black students could wear Afros and have facial hair.

Watters does not remember hearing that the gift was tied to racist policies. But Watters said he does recall a faculty member telling him that when Loyola accepted its first African American student in 1954, the president and the registrar visited the oldest Blake family member to tell her that the school was going to accept its first Black student. Watters was told she responded that she thought that would happen.

In a September letter from the school’s president and board chairman to the school community, the leaders said, “The decision to eliminate ‘Blake’ from the name of our school must be based on credible evidence related to the central allegation that the family’s generosity some 90 years ago was conditioned on the requirement that administrators of the time not accept Black students. We have been unable to uncover any such evidence.”

Hartman, the board chair, said the research indicates that the gifts were made without restrictions, including the family’s largest gift – which was made after Loyola Blakefield began admitting Black students.

“We do realize we have a lot of work to do. The board is committed to achieving that goal of equality for everybody,” Hartman said.

Kenneth Montague, the first Black student who was admitted in 1956, remained the only student of color throughout his time there. In middle school, he wanted to go to Loyola, he said, “because I was kind of worried about what I was going to do with my mind. It was kind of active. All the people I knew wound up being a janitor or a servant. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen to me.”

He had little apprehension, he said, and doesn’t remember being treated differently by his classmates, although he remembers feeling lonely sometimes. Because of his long commute from home to school, he said, he had little time to do more than homework and sports.

Over the years, a story was passed down that Black students were hidden in the back row when a member of the Blake family came for assemblies or special events. But Montague said he never experienced that. “People came up with this fact about me being hidden from people,” Montague said. “I sat where I wanted to sit. Those things I don’t have any recollection of.” But he said his father was confronted with racist attitudes of fellow parents at a school event. “They were concerned that I was going to try to marry one of their daughters,” he said.

Montague became a lawyer, a Maryland state delegate and state secretary of Juvenile Services.

He said discrimination against Black people was clear in the 1950s and he is well aware of the experience of racism for Black students today all over the country, as well as at Loyola. In 2017, the school was closed for a day after a series of incidents that led up to racial slurs being written on bathroom stalls.

“I think it could be that times have changed and people are getting more overt in their racism,” Montague said.

Moore, on the other hand, said he remembers being told to “duck down” when ladies in stoles appeared for Masses. “Faculty would say to me, duck down Ralph, duck down.”

Moore believes the school should have decided to change its name, but he said at least it can begin to acknowledge the roles of prominent Black alumni who first integrated the school. Why can’t a building be named after Montague, he asks. No artwork or photographs document the history of Black alumni from the school, he said.

“The school is perceived internally and externally as a rich, white boys school,” he said. “And they are comfortable with that.”

School leaders acknowledge racist attitudes exist at the school and say they have committed to evaluate its culture and policies so they can root out forms of inequity. That includes ensuring the curriculum reflects a diversity of opinions, recruiting a diverse faculty, and using scholarship money to attract more students of color. The school’s student body is now 12 percent African American.

Anthony Day, the president of the school, said the events of the summer have left him more reflective and understanding that he must be “the voice that will denounce racism in every way” and support equality and justice.

“As a white man,” Day said, “I have learned the power of listening and processing and providing everyone a seat at the table.”

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