Celebrating Warren Dorsey’s 95th Birthday, in Sykesville
On Saturday, December 5, from 1 to 4 p.m., we’re holding a 95th birthday party for Warren Dorsey at Sykesville’s Historic Colored Schoolhouse. You might think that’s exciting, or you might think, who the heck is Warren Dorsey?
Before I answer that, just let me mention that the party is open to the public and that there will be cake, that Warren will sing and tell stories, both of which he does really well, and that Warren’s grandmom was a slave. Warren is basically, a living bit of American history, and we’ll be singing happy birthday to him.
So Who Is Warren Dorsey?
First off, although I haven’t confirmed it, there’s a good chance Warren is the oldest person alive who was born and raised in Sykesville. He’s certainly the oldest black person alive who was born here.
He was born on November 17 of 1920. Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered a stroke and was basically an invalid in the White House, was living out the last days of his administration, and Warren G. Harding, would soon become president. The first World War had only recently ended. The town of Sykesville looked amazingly much like it looks today, and a man named Wade Warfield was at the peak of his power and influence. You’ve probably seen his name on two of the town’s most interesting and impressive buildings.
Warren’s family did not travel in the same circles as Wade Warfield. Warfield had several homes. Warfield had cows worth thousands of dollars apiece, and a chauffeur. Warren’s family lived up Oklahoma Hill with the rest of the town’s black people. Most of them lived in shacks. Warren’s family owned the best of the shacks and had some 40 acres of land.
But they didn’t have electricity yet or running water or much in the way of heat. They didn’t have access to a doctor, either, and Warren was born in the kitchen, expertly guided into the world by his grandmother, a skilled midwife known to everyone as Aunt Kitty.
Aunt Kitty was born in 1847. She was born a slave on the slave compound of a slave dealer in Marriottsville. The slave dealer was Isaac Anderson. They referred to the area where Kitty grew up as “Little Africa,” and from his compound in Little Africa, Anderson sold slaves.
He may have sold them locally. The Freedom Area, where Sykesville is situated, despite its name, had more slaves than anyplace else in Carroll County, by far, and local agriculture depended on their labor. But it’s likely he sold most of them down further south where slaves were expensive and always in demand.
When Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1863, Aunt Kitty did not go free. The proclamation only applied to those states in active rebellion against the United States. Maryland was a slave state, but had not rebelled, and thus, as part of the union, Maryland was not compelled to free its slaves.
It was 1864, when Aunt Kitty finally went free. She married a man named John Dorsey and settled with other black families recently freed in some scrub land called Bush Park in Howard County, Maryland.
Together, she and John raised 12 children. The ninth of those children was named Carrie, and someday Carrie would have 12 children of her own, and the ninth of them would be named Warren.
I should also mention that Aunt Kitty appeared to be a white woman and could easily have passed for one. That’s because Isaac Anderson, who owned her and owned her mother, was Aunt Kitty’s father.
Professor Lee Names the Baby
After Warren was born, Kitty and Carrie prayed over him, but they didn’t have much hope he would make it. He was small and not breathing very well. Kitty had delivered all of Carrie’s previous children, and they had all survived and grown up fine, but this time it looked like their luck had run out.
They didn’t name the baby, but despite his slim chances and without any medical care, the baby persisted. Persistence was a trait he would exhibit for another 95 years.
There was a man named Professor Lee who had come to visit. Professor Lee is a mysterious and somewhat mystical character whom Warren refers to as the Black Jesus. No one knew much about him, where he came from, what his real name was, how he had learned all the things that he knew. One day he just wandered into the collection of former slaves trying to scrape out a living in Bush Park and decided to stay and educate them. He could read. He knew math. He could teach. And so he did. He taught Carrie. He taught Warren’s father, Ed.
And one day in November of 1920, he paid Carrie and Ed a visit in Sykesville and saw the baby lying there without a name and asked if he could provide one. And so he did. He named Warren after the new President, Warren Gamaliel Harding. Harding would die in office and go down in history as a terrible President, but the baby named after him would survive and grow up to be a fine and successful man.
After naming Warren, Professor Lee said his goodbyes and left Sykesville. They never saw him again.
Top of the Class
Warren attended school at the same schoolhouse where we’ll be holding his birthday party. Only it wasn’t nearly as nice as the renovated version that stands up that hill in Sykesville today. It was dark and cold and dusty, and all the books and desks were leftovers from white kids. The teacher rode the train in from Baltimore every day and made the long hike up that high hill, and although she was popular with the kids and the parents, she wasn’t really all that qualified. Warren didn’t learn very much. In fact, after a few years in the schoolhouse in Sykesville, he couldn’t read.
But in fifth grade, Warren was transferred to a school in Johnsville a few miles up the road and found himself with a new teacher. Her name was Miss Bell. He didn’t like Miss Bell. She was big, tough and domineering. He considered her an ogre. But she made him learn. She taught him to read, and now he credits her with maybe saving his life, or at least setting him on a path to success that he might not have traveled otherwise.
He took the next step toward that success in 1933 by attempting something no one in his family, or his neighborhood, had ever attempted. He attended Robert Moton High School in Westminster. He rode back and forth in a terribly rickety old bus that was freezing in winter and gathered up black kids from all over Carroll County and hauled them out to Westminster.
Warren graduated at the top of his class.
And because he’d graduated at the top of his class, the state of Maryland gave him a $50 scholarship to the college of his choice. Well, not exactly. It had to be a black college of his choice, and there weren’t many to choose from. He chose Morgan.
Even in those days $50 wasn’t enough to pay for college. It wasn’t even half enough. So Warren set about earning the money. He worked on farms all that summer. He was 16 and weighed 140 pounds. He followed threshing machines from farm to farm and put in endless days of manual labor for ten or fifteen cents an hour, which came to a dollar or a dollar and fifty cents a day.
At the end of one long day late that summer, he found himself alone on a hay field with an old farmer in overalls and a straw hat. And Warren told the farmer he was quitting. He told the farmer he was going to college and thought he might like to become a teacher.
The farmer squinted under his straw hat, looked into Warren’s eyes, and offered some advice. He said, “Boy you know a nigger ain’t got sense enough to teach.”
The Rest of the Story
I wrote a book about Warren. It’s called In Carrie’s Footprints, in honor of his mother, who was an amazing character in her own right. And if you want to know the rest of the story, you can read the book, or you can read the first chapters for free. But here are a few spoilers for you.
Warren got into Morgan. Unfortunately, about the same time that Warren started college, Adolph Hitler started invading countries. And then some sort of foreign germ invaded Warren’s lungs and made him so sick he could barely get out of bed, let alone attend classes. Warren’s potentially smooth path through college was waylaid by war and disease.
But Warren would make it eventually. He would make it through college. He would join the army and make it through the war. He would sing in an army glee club. He would meet another singer, a beautiful young woman from Virginia, in an all-black NCO club outside Fort Lee. He would marry her after the war and they would start a life together in Frederick, Maryland.
Eventually he would become a microbiologist and work a long successful career as a scientist at Fort Detrick in Frederick. And after that, at 50, he would retire from Fort Detrick and start another career.
He would become a teacher. He would become a principal. He would prove that farmer wrong.
So come out to the schoolhouse on Saturday, and ask Warren how he did it. He’ll be happy to tell, and you’ll probably have a good time. I know we did last year, when we discussed everything from the secret Dorsey family fruitcake recipe to Warren’s homemade feed-sack underwear. He’s got 95 years worth of stories to share. And tell me, how often do you get to meet the grandson of a slave and hear him sing like no one you’ve ever heard before?