Dr. A. Skipp Sanders, interim executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, is the son of a Baltimore City Police officer and a factory worker. Despite his blue-collar upbringing he says that education was a vital component of the backbone of his working class family.
His mother’s ambition to pursue a degree in education from Coppin State Teachers College and becoming an elementary school teacher remains a source of inspiration and admiration to the devoted husband and father.
In a turn of divine intervention, Sanders was accepted into St. Mary’s Seminary, the oldest catholic school in the country, with the expectation that he would eventually become an ordained priest.
He chose a different path; one that would lead him to a lifetime of fulfillment and the ability to touch and change lives in a dynamic way – through education. It’s a path, he said, that holds no regrets.
At St. Mary’s he was the only student of color in his classes, a stark contrast to the familiar faces in the schools he attended in Baltimore City. After leaving City High School, where he was one of the first African-Americans to integrate the school, he studied Latin and theology at the seminary under a rigorous, military like program that strengthened his resolve to give back to his community.
Sanders said he was accepted among his fellow students; one of their few differences was race.
“Initially I felt lonely, as if I didn’t belong in that environment,” Sanders told the AFRO. “I soon learned that I had more in common with my white classmates than I would have ever imagined.”
However the stark contrast between the reality of his world and that of other poor Blacks in the city tugged at his heart causing him to walk away from the priesthood and the historic appointment that awaited him.
Sanders vividly remembers the moment in racially segregated Baltimore that left a lasting impression on his views on race. The day was hot, he said, and after a quick bath before dinner he and his friends decided to get some ice cream.
“We went to the High’s on North Avenue and there were three white boys from Eutaw Place ahead of us in line. They got their ice cream and went through the low swinging gate and sat at the table. So we bought our ice cream cones and I said to my buddies ‘come on’ and we started to go through the gate.
But this form in an apron blocked me. I looked up and there was this gigantic white woman staring down at me with her arms crossed. She said to me ‘where do you think you’re going?’ And I pointed at the tables. Now I don’t recall her exact words but she made it very clear to me that we couldn’t go to the tables.
I remember saying to her that we’ve already had our baths, but she again made it clear that we were not welcome. I went home and cried and told my mother what happened. It’s something that I will never forget.”
He served briefly as a Deacon in Roland Park and soon requested a leave of absence.
The 23 year-old questioned his motives for joining the seminary, which he says gave him a passport to opportunities and experiences not afforded to other people that looked like him. He said he was shielded by the seminary from some of the harsh realities of black life in Baltimore during a racially and politically tumultuous time.
“I was so nervous walking into that meeting with the Archbishop to tell him that I no longer wanted to be a priest,” said Sanders with a laugh. “But he accepted my decision; he knew I was making the right choice.”
He completed seminary earning a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Licentiate in Sacred Theology. He then went on to the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his doctorate of education.
Sanders began his career as an educator and advocate as an English teacher, at Edmondson High School. There a group of young men deemed bad apples taught Sanders some of his most important life lessons.
“Those guys were some of the smartest young men I knew in that school. And they taught me to respect their intelligence and ability even if it wasn’t quantified in a traditional way,” he said.
He went to work for the Maryland State Department of Education in 1980 and in 1990 was appointed Assistant State Superintendent under Superintendent Nancy Grasmick. After retiring from the position he then went on to become the associate superintendent of the Baltimore Archdiocese.
Along with his role at the museum, Sanders also serves as a professor of Urban Educational Leadership at Morgan State University.
The running theme in the summation of Sanders’ experiences is the importance of education and knowledge of self. “No one can give what they don’t have,” he said. ‘That is why I strive for the best.”