Saturday morning’s overcast sky provided the 11th annual Walk to Dorchester participants with an intermittent breeze and protection from the hot June sun, which broke through the clouds later in the day.
A diverse group of about 100 people showed up to walk, run and bicycle the 9.2-mile trek from Briar Bay Park in Riceboro to the historic Dorchester Academy in Midway — all in the name of preservation and remembrance.
“Dorchester was the only school where African Americans could get an education in Liberty County [in the late 1870s], many of which had to walk a great distance to get here,” said Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin, who also serves as president of the Dorchester Improvement Association. “After closing its doors in 1940, it then became a community center, a nurses station and, in the ’60s, a place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held the citizenship education school.”
Austin said the walk has greatly benefitted ongoing restoration efforts at the nationally recognized landmark, bringing in more than $25,000 during the past 10 years to supplement funds the academy received from charitable grants, SPLOST and grass-root organizations.
“It’s always nice to be surprised at the amount of support we get each year,” he said. “Every year I wonder if people will come out and every year I am amazed at the turnout. It is always gratifying to see such a great crowd.”
Rose Mullice, 65, has attended the walk for the past three years.
She said the event is special to her because her mother, Sarah Lowe-Stevens, was a member of Dorchester’s last graduating class.
“My mother used to leave her house every Sunday afternoon and walk from Sunbury. She would then board at the school for the week, attend classes and make her journey back home on Friday afternoons. That is how important getting an education was to her,” Mullice said.
Eugene Dryer worked as a janitor at the school when King planned the Birmingham March there. His mother also graduated from the school in 1938.
He said that in those days, “when you said you had a diploma from Dorchester, that was like saying you had a degree from Cornell University.”
“When the school burned down in 1940, that was a great loss in Southeast Georgia,” he said.
Austin said that’s why it’s so important to preserve the academy and its history.
“This year, we have $70,000 committed to stabilizing the school’s foundation and redoing all the floors in areas where there has been water intrusion,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we can secure additional funds and we’ve already demonstrated that we can compete on a national level by completing our condition-assessment report and becoming listed as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”
As each participant victoriously concluded the haul, onlookers patiently standing and sitting nearby snapped pictures and cheered.
Noticeably missing from the crowd of supporters was Mary L. Baggs, a longtime Walk to Dorchester advocate. Baggs was 100 years old when she died June 2. She was known as a community pillar, an educator and, according to Austin, “the heart and soul of Dorchester.”
Kanetha Stevens, who attended First Zion Baptist Church with Baggs, said she completed the walk in honor of Baggs and all the influential leaders and role models who came before her.
“It’s hard that she is not here with us today,” she said. “Just next month she would have been 101 years old, but knowing that I am here today representing her willingness to help us out and show us what we [as people of color] have achieved today, it has been worth it,” she said.