Dorchester Academy in Midway appears aristocratic from a distance. If you take a closer look, the building shows signs of aging. As one of the earliest schools for freed slaves, founded in 1871, Dorchester is recognized as one of the state’s most significant sites for its civil rights history.
Riceboro native and civil rights leader Mary L. Baggs, 99, graduated from Dorchester Academy in 1932. "My lifelong dream has come true,"
Baggs said. "We as people, black and white, are much more loving towards each other now than 50 years ago."
The academy closed in the 1940s when Liberty County built a consolidated public school for black students. In 1968, the Liberty County school board integrated the white and black schools. This was at the behest of the black community at Dorchester.
In the early 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights workers convened at Dorchester. For several years King traveled to the school to plan the civil rights movement. Baggs said it was a retreat for King. "It was a haven, a place Dr. King felt safe and protected. This is where it all started."
King and his instructors used the center to train thousands of teachers and students in voter education and non-violent social change.
Today, a boys dormitory is the main structure on the Dorchester Academy site. A museum opened on the grounds in 2004. Deborah Robinson, 81, of Midway, serves as the academy’s museum director. "Dorchester through the years has played an important part in the movement in Liberty County," she said.
Freedom to vote, hold office and school integration were just a few of the academy’s original objectives, Robinson said.
King’s non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over Liberty County. Beverly Gross, 64, of Midway was a student at Liberty Country’s black high school when King visited. Gross’ parents were both teachers at the high school and also helped prepare food at Dorchester.
"I loved it over there. We used to form a circle and sing freedom songs at night," Gross remembers. "I played softball with Dr. King. He was a good softball player."
Gross was inspired by King’s message and joined the civil rights movement with many other students to help organize and teach people how to vote. "It was something I needed to do as a concerned student for Liberty County," Gross said. "We went door-to-door to get people to vote."
Gross said that many people were afraid to stand up and join King’s program, but as students they had nothing to lose. "Racism is still here, we have not arrived. Sure we have gotten better, we treat people like people but Dr. King was just the beginning," she said.
King is fondly remembered by Baggs, Robinson and Gross as an ordinary, humble, calm man who was interested in equality for all people, black and white.