From left, Mildred Lee of Cumberland, Bernard Wynder of Frostburg State University and Souls Won Ministry Pastor Shannon Watkins talk during the third annual Freedom Fund dinner, held by the Allegany County Branch of the NAACP, at the Holiday Inn in Cumberland on Sunday evening.

CUMBERLAND - Longtime teacher Gloria Lawleh believes education is a key feature in the quest for freedom. Tracing her own educational background from childhood, Lawleh encourages black parents today to help their children not just graduate from high school, but to graduate from college.

"You know my first love is education. I was an old public school teacher for many years," the secretary with the Maryland Department of Aging said.

Lawleh told a packed house at the NAACP's Allegany Branch Freedom Fund Dinner 2008 that schools simply didn't exist in South Carolina where she grew up. Schools "were places of respect, acceptance, love, hope and excellent training" from teachers, but only where schools existed, Lawleh said.

"The first half of last century, schools were not there," she said, adding that corn and tobacco fields stood where schools would later be built. "There were no high schools," Lawleh said, telling how her own mother received a high school diploma at Benedict College. Most blacks living in rural areas didn't go beyond the eighth grade then, she added.

A positive change occurred in May 1951 when Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, took a train from Baltimore to Somerton, S.C. "We had heard that he was coming," she said, adding that the black community was "anxious, excited, prayerful and fearful ... because we knew something bigger than life was about to happen."

And so it was. "This man's arrival in our state would begin the onslaught to dismantle the state and federal Supreme Court-backed system of segregation of public education in America. It was the second coming of Christ for us," Lawleh said.

Lawleh came from a family who stressed education, which was common during that generation - and which exemplified this year's Freedom Fund Dinner theme: "Youth Matters! Lift them! Lead them! Love them!"

"Our grandparents and parents sacrificed everything to advance us. No big fancy car, no big houses, no fancy clothes and no entertainment ... They were keenly aware that we were an oppressed people of great talent and wisdom who were far-flung from our origins and never to return. They believed, no, they knew, that education of each succeeding generation is the key factor in our quest for real equality, respect and acceptance. They fought relentlessly for these principles: Lift them, lead them, love them."

When the landmark decision of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education occurred in 1954, education for blacks was forever changed: "It was the single most import legislative act since the emancipation," Lawleh said.

But since then, changes in what blacks value have led to changes in education - and how black youths themselves view it.

"Our challenges today are not with the denial of access to education or for jobs or positions. It's the misguided values many of our young people bring to the decision-making process when they're faced with life's choices. One of the greatest decision is whether to stay in school and complete their education," Lawleh said. "What a strange decision, after we've worked so hard to get these schools, to get everything in place."

Churches, schools, homes and the NAACP need to form a partnership, and support choices for this and future generations. Calling it a "daunting challenge and huge responsibility," Lawleh said young people can't make the choice to be, or not to be, educated by themselves.

"We want them to stay in school ... it is the single most important choice they will ever make, that we can help them to make," she said.

That is what is required, Lawleh concluded, for this year's Freedom Fund Dinner theme to be realized.

Contact Daleen Berry at

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