Walkers, runners, bicyclists, fam-ilies and children all participated in the 14th annual Walk to Dorchester on Saturday to re-enact the historic 9.2-mile walk to Dorchester Academy that many African-American students once made regularly in order to attain a high-school education.
The walk took most participants about three hours to complete, starting at the Briar Bay Park in Riceboro. A few attendees ran the course, while others rode their bikes or walked with strollers and dogs.
The yearly event is meant to commemorate the students’ sacrifices and historic struggles in their quest to attend school and protect their rights decades ago. In addition, those who come out enjoy the exercise benefits of trekking nearly 10 miles.
“The idea for event was inspired by my grandmother, who attended the Academy and had to walk from Riceboro where she lived,” said Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin, who also serves as the Dorchester Improvement Association president. “My grandmother and many other students walked that distance for an education … and we need to remember their struggle.”
The academy has been hosting the Walk to Dorchester since 2000. On average, it raises $30,000 each year, which goes to fund property restorations. Specifically, money raised at past walks was used to repair floors, interior dormitory rooms and fix the foundation.
“We’ve done a lot of work so far,” Austin said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Austin believes the restoration is about 60 percent complete. The association has completed repairs on all major structural issues, such as the floor and the roof.
“The roof is what really caused a lot of the deterioration of the interior structure,” Austin said. “Now we have a new, lifetime roof on the structure.”
They also replaced the plumbing system, updated the kitchen and began restoring interior walls. The high-priority items have been checked off the to-do list, and now the Dorchester Improvement Association plans to use funds raised for additional preservation and restoration. The money from Saturday’s walk will go toward adding a handicap-accessible bathroom in the hall.
“That will cost about $13,000,” Austin said. “We will focus on that project next.”
Because of its historic influences, Dorchester Academy was named a national landmark in 2006, and in September 2009, it was added to a list of the 11 most-endangered historic sites in the nation.
The American Missionary Association founded the academy in 1868 to educate newly emancipated African Americans. It was one of the only schools in the South where African Americans could earn a high-school diploma.
“There were schools that taught African-Americans up to the eighth grade, but that was it,” Austin said.
After the school closed in 1947, it functioned as a service center. The community used it as a nursing center, voter-education and registration facility, farmers union and a gathering place for events.
During the 1960s, Dr. Andrew Young, a member of the congregation church, started using the academy for his citizenship-education classes.
“This program was designed to teach the community how to become a full-fledged citizen and work out issues that were keeping them from voting and participating in the mainstream services in the county,” Austin said. “They had to overcome a lot … these were very brave people.”
The Walk to Dorchester keeps their memories alive.
“It is very important to remember what we had to go through during that time,” said Deborah Robinson, who moved to Midway in the 1950s, after the school shut down. She worked at the academy when it was being used as a service center. She also attended college with Young for a year in New Orleans.
“He was a great man and did a lot of good during his time at Dorchester,” she said. “This academy has a lot of history, and we need to keep it alive.”