This past Saturday was not only the first Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday but also the 21st annual Walk to Dorchester.
Dorchester Academy building supervisor James Baker said each year the walk honored a former student or a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.
When the boys’ dormitory first opened students typically walked nine-miles, one way, to attend class on campus.
This year the walk honored Dr. Wyatt T. Walker.
Walker was an African-American pastor, national Civil Rights leader, theologian, and cultural historian. He was a chief of staff for Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1958 became an early board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which King served as the first President.
The Dorchester Academy Boys' Dormitory was the primary site of the SCLC's Citizen Education Program. This program, ran from 1961 to 1970, and worked toward attaining equality for blacks in the south by teaching them their rights and helping them acquire the knowledge necessary to become registered voters by passing the required test. The dormitory building was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2006 for its later role in DR. King’s Civil Rights Movement, and for its association with activist Septima Clark, who oversaw the education program.
Prior to the SCLC use of Dorchester, the Academy served as the first school for African-Americans and operated from 1869 to 1940.
Earlier this month a ribbon cutting was held in front of the former school ushering in more than two decades of fundraising and repairs. The new exhibit called the Civil Rights Movement at Dorchester highlights all the work done at the Center for the Civil Rights Movement which included several visits and stays by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The new exhibit was primarily funded by the annual Walk to Dorchester as well as donations received from other sources.
The walk begins at Briar Bay Park and ends at the Dorchester Academy. Baker said educators would ring a bell letting the students know class would soon be in session. He said when they “tuned” the bell a second time, students were expected to be in class.
Baker said the folks who attended Dorchester Academy displayed a dedication and commitment in making the nine-mile trek each morning to better their way of life.
Being Juneteenth, the group also held an additional fundraiser while highlighting the importance of what the new federal holiday meant.
Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved people until June 19 when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. It was also two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Southern states.
Baker said the funds will be used to maintain the building and further the ongoing renovations of the second floor of the dormitory.
Former Riceboro Mayor William Austin, who currently serves as the Board President of the Dorchester Improvement Association said he has completed 20 of the last 21 walks.
“In about two weeks I’ll be 78 years old and I’ve been blessed and we are blessed to have people who continue to support this event,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of great things here at Dorchester.”
“This was the first place where African Americans could get an education in Liberty County up until 1941,” he continued.
The walk drew in roughly 100 walkers.