Twice within the last month, the Worcester County Commissioners spent considerable time talking about the “Read Woke” program the county library offered. The main concern is whether the program, which is funded by Beanstack Black Voices microgrants, crosses a political line for the county library system as a result of a line on its website stating, “in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.” The county library applied for the $1,000 grant and was one of 39 libraries to secure funds to offer the diverse reading program to the community. The county then promoted the program to citizens, catching the eye of several community citizens.
County Commissioner Chip Bertino was alerted about the program by a concerned citizen. Bertino discussed his concerns last month at a public meeting and brought them up again this week before Library Director Jennifer Ranck. While Bertino was roasted on social media about his issues with the program, it was understandable for him to express a constituent’s concerns as an elected official. Defending the program and the library seeking the grant funding in the first place, Ranck said, “Our purpose for this grant was to highlight underserved voices” and to promote reading.
In response, Bertino said, “The library does have a responsibility to ensure that those voices are available to be heard in our library and I think we do that. But I have a really difficult time when the library’s advancing a political agenda. … “I feel like in this particular case [the library] has [become a political entity]. I think it’s wrong … This particular grant that advocates for a political agenda, I think that’s wrong. I think it would be wrong if it was a political organization I agreed with. It has no place in our libraries.” Bertino gathered support from fellow Commissioners Jim Bunting and Ted Elder, while Commissioner Diana Purnell seemed to object to the whole discussion, saying, ““I am not happy about putting you on the stand today about Black Lives Matter. … I didn’t get elected to come down here and do that. That’s not what I’m here for. We need to leave Black Lives Matter out of the library, out of the schools…”
Though it was an interesting dialogue on a sensitive subject, I think County Commission President Joe Mitrecic put a good lid on the discourse and hopefully ended the ongoing matter. He said, “I think that anything that gets our teenagers reading and sitting at a table discussing something and not playing with their phones is a positive. They’re not texting back and forth, they actually have to converse. I think that’s more important than anything else on this table right now. Although certainly I have my issues I think it’s a good thing for the community.”
Congratulations to Al “Hondo” Handy for a wonderful speech at Stephen Decatur High School’s graduation Wednesday night. It’s available on Stephen Decatur High School’s YouTube channel. His story of growing up during the desegregation of Worcester County schools is worth a listen.
Before serving 40 years for the Town of Ocean City’s recreation department, Handy was one of the first Black students to attend Stephen Decatur High School. Handy’s cousin, Larry Waples, was the first African American to attend Decatur the year before all by himself. Handy was one of the six students in the second year. He made a choice to attend Decatur rather than attend the all-black Worcester High School in Newark. In an emotional speech, he talked candidly about his experience, the concerns he had initially and how he went on to play four sports at Decatur including winning the Maryland state championship in basketball.
“I got my nerves up one morning and told my mother, ‘I’m not sure I made the right decision to come to Decatur.’ She never asked me why but without hesitation she said … you made a commitment to that school and you must honor that commitment.’ I said, ‘okay,’ …. We never had that conversation again, but I can see her right now standing in that front door as I left each morning on that bus,” Handy recalled. “She later told me she cried every day for the first few months and prayed every day for my safe return each evening. … I stand before you today that I am so glad my mother did not allow me to quit because without all the things I learned here at Stephen Decatur I probably would not be standing here today.”
As for advice for graduates, Handy advised, “set your goals but just remember goals can change. That’s okay. The first goals you choose may not fit, but as a Seahawk the only thing you can’t afford to do is quit … go out and make a difference in this world … we believe in you.”
Additionally, a tip of the cap to Worcester County Public Schools for planning and organizing wonderful graduation ceremonies this week. The fireworks at the end of the outside ceremonies were a fitting and special culmination of evenings the graduates and their families will never forget. It has been an unforgettable year on many fronts for public school students, but it’s worth reiterating Worcester County is currently the only public school system in the state offering five-day, in-person learning. Worcester has clearly been a model for operating in-person learning in a safe way. Gov. Larry Hogan has offered remarks about this on each of his visits to the county including last Friday. There is a lot to be proud of today.