Before the Civil War, it was a crime in some states for an enslaved person to read, write or attend school.
The restored Stanley Institute seeks to capture the initiative black communities took then to establish their own schools, despite the hazards.
The institute, a yellow, wooden one-room schoolhouse at the corner of Church Creek and Bayly roads just southwest of Cambridge, was built in 1865 to serve what had been a free black community before the Civil War. Now, it’s one of the stops on the Harriet Tubman Byway.
The byway, a self-guided driving tour, winds 125 miles through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Tubman was born and labored before she fled, then returned to lead other escaped slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. It’s part of efforts by the National Park Service and the Maryland Park Service to honor Tubman, who also served as a nurse and a spy during the Civil War.
The Stanley Institute operated for more than 100 years as a segregated institution, despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed “separate but equal” schools. It finally closed in 1966. But Dorchester County schools remained essentially segregated until the seventies when a federally-approved desegregation plan was put in place.
Now, desks that look just like the ones the students sat in when they attended the institute are carefully lined up in the tiny school room. There are textbooks from the 1950s, a blackboard, archival photographs of children working inside the tiny school and a big, pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room.
Herschel Johnson, retired postmaster of Federalsburg, and others lead tours of the school.
“As I mentioned, there was no running water,” he told one recent group. “Children had to go across the road to the open wells dig down to get water out of a bucket, bring it back: one dipper. All the children drank out of one dipper.”
Johnson grew up in Dorchester County in the days of segregation and attended a school much like the Stanley Institute. A single teacher instructed several grades.
These days Johnson lives nearby and is a member of the Friends of the Stanley Institute, which took over the building and began overseeing renovations and maintenance after a former teacher had been caring for it for years.
"It was in pretty good shape to be sitting here all these years not active and we didn't start the restoration until the late 90’s," Johnson said. "So there was a lot of work to be done."
Now, Johnson says, children who take his tours are incredulous at the conditions of the era, asking ab0ut the outhouse and the lack of a cafeteria.
"I think they are amazed this is how education used to be," he said. "And I’m hoping that when they leave here they will value education a lot more."
A few graduates of the school came by one recent morning to talk about their experiences. Shirley Ferguson Green and Barbara Lake graduated three years apart, Lake in 1956, Green in 1959.
"And even in the high school we had books from the whites and furniture from the white schools," recalled Lake. "They got new and we get used. But it didn’t stop us from learning because the facts as you knew, they were in those books."
"Even though those books were used and passed down to us. We put covers on them," remembered Johnson.
"Brown paper bags and made covers for the books," added Green.