The limitless range of young voices and the sage wisdom of experience combined to delight the audience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Black History Month event on Feb. 3.
The Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy School Choir, comprised of kindergartners to fifth-graders from UMB’s West Baltimore neighborhood, set the tone by performing “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.”
Then keynote speaker Robert M. Bell, JD, former chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state’s highest court, began his remarks with lyrics from the same song, which he called the “Negro National Anthem.”
In a wide-ranging, 25-minute speech, Bell, the first African-American to be named the state’s chief jurist, gave a history lesson, constitutional overview, and civics tutorial to those assembled at the School of Medicine’s Medical School Teaching Facility.
He spoke of how some question the need for Black History Month since it is really American history. But he pointed out it was celebrations like these that as a child taught him about inventors like Charles Drew, intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, scientists like George Washington Carver, and athletes like Joe Louis.
“It was during these weeks that I also learned of the hardships they endured,” said Bell, a Baltimorean who attended Dunbar High School and Morgan State College before earning his law degree at Harvard.
While at Dunbar in 1960, Bell joined in a protest against segregation that proved historic when the group sat down at Hooper’s restaurant and was denied service and arrested. “Who would ever have thought 27 years after being acquitted of trespassing by the Court of Appeals that I would be sitting on the very same court that originally upheld my conviction,” said a smiling Bell, who in 1975 began his nearly four decades of service on the Maryland bench at the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, and the Court of Appeals of Maryland.
Bell v. Maryland, which grew out of the Hooper’s incident, wasn’t the only case he discussed. He cited Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 as the most important legal decision of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. He added, “No longer was it just voices denouncing segregation. It was voices backed by the highest court in the land.”
But with rights come responsibilities, Bell reminded the UMB audience.
“The civic engagement of the people is essential to the vitality and health and continuation of our democracy. That requires some effort. There has to be a commitment to remaining informed.”
He also stressed upholding and honoring the U.S. Constitution. “If Dr. King was the drum major for peace, he would have required us to be drum majors for justice. Dr. King’s work is not done. It continues so long as African-Americans, people of color, women, the disabled — anyone facing discrimination continue to pursue justice and civil parity.”
His closing thought? “Build a bridge.”
University President Jay A. Perman, MD, who began the assembly by saying “diversity is our strength, equality is our aim, and service is our obligation,” thanked Bell with a donation to the Access to Justice Commission. A sharp dresser, Bell also received a UMB bow tie, which he deftly tied and wore to the crowd’s delight.
Then he joined Perman in giving out UMB’s MLK Diversity Awards, which included:
Outstanding UMB Faculty Award: Tanya L. Sharpe, PhD, MSW
As the School of Social Work’s senior-most African-American female faculty member, she has led countless efforts to advance equality and social justice. She stepped up during the unrest in Baltimore last spring to guide the University’s “Conversation About Race” and is among a handful of scholars nationwide focusing on African-American survivors of the homicide epidemic. Said Perman: “In her research, teaching, and advocacy, Dr. Sharpe is what we — as an institution — strive, every day, to be.”
Outstanding UMB Staff Award: Brian Sturdivant, MSW
Called “the mayor of West Baltimore” by Perman, Sturdivant, a 2000 alumnus of the School of Social Work, is director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships at UMB. Said Perman, “There is no one at UMB who can claim more responsibility than he for assembling the platform on which we’ve built our community engagement efforts.” That includes programs such as Club UMB, which last year saw students from the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, under Sturdivant’s guidance, medal in the Maryland Science Olympiad.
Outstanding UMB Student Award: Hispanic Dental Association (HDA)
HDA students conduct exams for oral cancer and dental disease, while providing oral health education, basic preventive services, and access to follow-up care to Hispanic community members. For instance, the group has logged the number of students at Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore who require follow-up treatment with a dentist —“a number that’s dropped by an incredible 75 percent since 2008,” Perman said.
There also was a special recognition award given to Carey School of Law faculty members who, after April’s protests, led efforts to design an eight-week course — Freddie Gray's Baltimore: Past, Present and Moving Forward — that explored the causes of, and possible solutions for, the unrest and ways in which students could become engaged. After a summer of intense planning and preparation with partners at the School of Social Work, the eight-week course was offered in fall 2015 and now is being repeated at both UMB and the University of Maryland, College Park.
Said Perman: “Its success is a testament to what we can do — and the speed with which we can do it — when we harness the passion, the dedication, and the commitment of this UMB community.”
Then it was time to give the Black History Month program back to the children. Dating back to his inauguration in 2010, Perman, a pediatric gastroenterologist, has often featured children at his events. The Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy is one of the neighboring schools UMB reaches out to with its Promise Heights initiative. Its self-supported choir, formed five years ago when the charter school lost its music program, is renowned, having performed at places like Disney World in Orlando and The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with a date next summer at the famed Harlem Children’s Zone School.
Its choir, under the direction of Kristine Rose, LCSW (a field instructor at the School of Social Work who is aided by parent volunteers), filled the UMB stage and belted out “Oh Happy Day” with soloist Marquel Russell and “The Greatest Love of All” to close the program on a high note.
“I thank all of you for sharing in our celebration today,” Perman told the crowd. “For honoring the memory of Dr. King and the humane principles to which he dedicated his life.”