‘Someone to love me, a safe place to go’

MD-Maces Lane renovation_3x

Dorchester Banner/Crosby & Associates
An artists rendering of the re-purposed Mace’s Lane School was presented at the County Council meeting by Tim Crosby, of Crosby and Associates. The new community center will use only a portion of the old existing building.

CAMBRIDGE — It was full house time in Cambridge this week, as both the Cambridge City Council and the Dorchester County Council faced overflow crowds. At the City Council, the draw was the future of Sailwinds; at the County Council it was the future of the Old Mace’s Lane school, the African-American high school opened in 1953 and desegregated in 1969.

People left the County Council meeting satisfied and smiling because unanimously, the Council had approved the renovation of the historic school. Now they could anticipate life breathed into the crumbling building as it became a welcoming community center for all the children of Cambridge.

The council also erased the last hurdle, the removal of a fuel tank under the front of the school. (County officials have already gone ahead with preparations to do that necessary job.) Forthcoming state permits, written confirmation of donor pledges and some paperwork is all that is left to get going on building permits for preliminary work.

Last Saturday, a polling desk sat on the side of the old Mace’s Lane School where community activists sought signatures and support. Their goal? To prove to the council that the will of the community supported the renovation of the Old Mace’s Lane School into a community center for the young people, black, white, rich or poor, a center that will reflect the portrait of Dorchester County. The adults have been watching the gradual crumbling of a derelict building and their own history.

The tightly run school served a segregated population of African-American students. Now the effort for renewal is a truly collaborative effort of The Mace’s Lane Alumni Association, the Bond Servants of Dorchester County, and the Choptank Charge Church that has enabled the building to be tax-free.

The Bond Servants will be the guarantors of the project, and have oral agreements from donors to cover the 1.8 million dollar cost of construction. At the Saturday event, the Rev. Joe Kelly, executive director of the Bond Servants, explained, “We are a Christian group formed to help individuals or groups who need the Bond Servants’ carpentry skills, organizational experience, and communication with private investors.” Over a period of time, they surveyed youngsters and teenagers in the district, asking what they wanted. He says, “Their reply was consistently simple and moving: “Someone to love me, a safe place to go.”

Tim Crosby of Crosby Associates, the architect working on the safe place to go, presented the plans, with pictures, to the County Commissioners. The plans include restoring the gym, building a community kitchen, installing new windows and all new utilities, a large multipurpose room and three classrooms. “One thing we will save is the cafeteria fireplace that holds memories for former students. It will be part of an outdoor activity area.”

President of the Council Ricky Travers added a surprise. After desegregation, he too attended Mace’s Lane and remembers the fireplace gatherings with affection. He calls the project, “A leap of faith.”

Many graduates of the segregated school came to the council meeting and Marion Fisher was their official voice. Not only was she a graduate of the high school (class of ‘60) but she later returned as the principal. Last Saturday she said with resolve, “The only option is to renovate and maintain the building. It is a historic piece for us, the only black High School in Dorchester County.” At the council session, she told the commissioners, “We have 569 signatures in favor. Yes I want it! Do it now!”

At the Saturday event, Herschel Johnson (Class of ’58) walked the ruined basketball floor, remembering how no student in street shoes would ever step on the smooth wooden floor. He continued, “We are a very active group of graduates who include doctors, educators, and other professionals. We are very loyal to Mace’s Lane and the principal, Edythe M. Jolley. We want to see this happen.” Lorraine Henry (class of ’54) says, “The old Cambridge High School is now the YMCA, the old Middle School is now the Board of Education. Our school,with its unique history should also be given a new purpose.” Where Herschel Johnson sees kids playing basketball, Ms. Henry, a former teacher, sees tutoring and art.

So where’s the money? Who’s paying? The collaborators say this project is expected to cost 1.8 million dollars with no cost to the Cambridge taxpayer. The Rev. Pam Bockart has been holding church services in the building as a strategy to retain a tax-exempt status. The Bond Servants have the pledges of altruistic private investors who don’t count their return on the investment in dollars. Councilman William Nichols asks about maintenance costs once the center is operative. “The answer” say organizers, “is that many promising alternatives are being explored.”

And what do the children think? Besides enjoying the Saturday rally’s hamburgers and hotdogs, 11-year-old Cameron Waters is straining at the bit. “When can we get in? I can’t wait to come here and play basketball.” Nine-year-old Laila Stafford laughs and states the obvious, “It would be coo-oo-l!”

So, as the voice in the movie said, “Build it, they will come.” The councilmen of Dorchester County unanimously agreed.

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