Walter Gill, the first African American to graduate from Baltimore City College, addresses the school’s 175th anniversary gala.
On a day in the fall of 1956, West Baltimore teenager Frank Coakley stood with a feeling of awe before his new school, a Gothic-style edifice dubbed the “Castle on the Hill,” located in Northeast Baltimore.
“I was all wide-eyed,” said Coakley of his first day at Baltimore City College, which was, back then, the Ivy League of public high schools nationally. “It was really something to see.”
More than a half-century later, Coakley, who graduated in 1960, said he feels a similar wonder at his induction into City College’s Alumni Hall of Fame during the school’s recent 175th anniversary celebrations.
“I was truly honored, flattered, surprised—what other words can I use to describe this feeling…,” Coakley said with a laugh. “That this little guy from the city finally made it into the Hall of Fame with so many wonderful, accomplished people is amazing.”
Coakley, a banker by trade and now the assistant secretary of Maryland’s Division of Development Finance and Community Development Administration, is the embodiment of what many see as the major aspects of City College’s legacy.
The nation’s third oldest public high school and Maryland’s oldest, City was founded in October 1839 with academic excellence as its guiding principle. The citywide college preparatory institution places an emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences has highly competitive admissions.
“The legacy of City College in its Hall of Fame. It reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ list,” said Walter Gill, a respected educator and member of the 1955 graduating class.
Governors, congressmen, physicians, athletes, professors, lawyers and other professionals of outstanding caliber have matriculated through the halls of City College—including many African Americans.
City College was among the first public high schools to embrace integration after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision.
Sidney Krome, a longtime English professor and vice president of academic affairs at Coppin State University and an inductee into the BCC Hall of Fame, recalled what he called “City’s Proudest Day” in his speech during the school’s 175th anniversary gala. That was the day in September 1954 when demonstrators from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, known as Mervo, came to City’s campus to protest its admission of Black students.
“When the Mervo protesters arrived at City and massed at the foot of the hill, taunting us and urging us to come down to join them, not one City student walked down the hill; not one City student abandoned the fundamental principles of dignity and respect for others that was one of the hallmarks of our education at City,” said Krome, according to a copy of his prepared speech.
Gill, also a BCC Hall of Famer, was among the 10 African-American boys to breach the Castle’s formerly segregated walls and City’s first Black graduate.
“I could never be so proud that ‘once upon a time I walked up that hill to the Castle,’” Gill told the audience at the gala.
He elaborated in an interview with the AFRO, “City was at the forefront of the move to integration in this town. We really set the tone for the rest of the country.”
The school’s willingness to widen its doors to diversity resulted in what Gill saw as a standout of City’s legacy.
“It was important in terms of producing fine African-American men who went on to become great contributors to their community,” said Gill, who is himself a renowned educator, dubbed the “urban professor” for his groundbreaking work in teaching hard-to-reach, challenged and delinquent males, and also an artist, actor and author.
City has also groomed Black achievers such as former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Congressman Elijah Cummings, world-renowned neurologist Dr. Donald Gildon, attorney and AFRO Publisher/CEO Jake Oliver, Maryland law professor and political strategist Larry Gibson and many, many more.
Gill surmises that such success drew negative attention.
“I believe there was a conspiracy to undermine high-achieving African-American males,” he said.
In the 1970s, there was a move to make City a neighborhood, co-educational school. A task force convened to study the feasibility of the change voted against it—with much prodding from BCC alumni. However, the school board reversed the decision and admitted female students, citing constitutional concerns.
“That was the beginning of the end of City’s legacy of producing strong Black males. African-American leadership has been diluted because of that,” Gill said, though he clarified he was not suggesting female students were somehow inferior.
Today, 85 percent of City’s student body identifies as African-American; 42 percent are male and 58 percent are female.
And, City still ranks among the nation’s top 4 percent of high schools, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 ranking of high schools.
Teeshawn Jones, 33, is among the newer beneficiaries of the City legacy.
“It was the work ethic, it was the relationship with teachers, the accountability—as a student I was responsible for my own learning, the rigorous coursework and the extracurricular activities at City College that shaped Teeshawn Jones,” the Chicago English teacher told the AFRO. “It feels good to be part of such a rich legacy of academic excellence, achievement and community involvement that created such great leaders and professionals both here and abroad.”