July 24th, 2008
06:47 PM ET

Hard Times at Douglass High

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/24/art.vert.tonyharris.jpg width=292 height=320]
Tony Harris
CNN Anchor

Watching Soledad’s tremendous documentary made me think of a conversation I had recently with Rob Hardy - one of the founders of Rainforest Films (the company behind "Stomp the Yard.”) He was telling me about this amazing documentary he watched recently on our sister network HBO. It was all about Fredrick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

I stopped Rob in his tracks and told him I had an idea what the documentary would be about, not because I'd seen it - but because, for one remarkable year, Douglass was my high school.

What an amazing school it was in the 70's. It boasted the best marching and jazz bands in the city and it provided me with "the moment,” the moment I think about when people ask me where and how I got my start.

Tony Harris at 15! What a sight it was, all legs and Michael Jackson afro with the pick sticking out of it with the Tommy Smith\John Carlos black fist on it? Ha!

I guess it was 1975 and I landed the role of Oliver Twist in the school production that year. Of course, I was a rousing success. I was offered a partial scholarship to train at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory after that performance, but mom was raising two pretty rambunctious kids on her own as a state employee. There was no money for a fancy "conservatory." Mom moved my sister and me to Reisterstown, Maryland the next year and it seems everything I've heard about Douglass from that moment on has been disappointing.

I still haven't seen the doc, but Rob indicated that it pretty much chronicled the dismantling of a once great inner city high school.

As I look back on the move to Franklin Senior High School in Baltimore County - and its 95-to-five white to black student ratio at the time - it’s clear my mom was providing us with the best possible educational opportunity she could, and I'll always love her for that. There's no doubt Franklin filed away some of the rough edges and broadened my view of what was possible.

But, you know, I really loved Douglass. I loved being a Douglass Duck! I felt at home there in a way I never felt at home at Franklin. I'd like to think black kids in Baltimore today love their schools, but I know that in many cases they don't. In fact, so many are turned off by the very concept of school that more than 70 percent of young black men who enter a Baltimore high school won't graduate.

I'd like to help improve that number. I don't know how just yet.

I'm meditating on it based on my wish that black boys and girls in troubled high schools figure out a way to not only survive, but thrive. By today's standards, the Douglass I loved was underfunded and populated by underprivileged children, but I found something there to believe in. And guess what, a lot of my friends did as ell. I know today's young people can do the same. I see it too often not to be bullish on young blacks in America. I hope to be part of the effort to articulate a message that makes my wish for them their reality.

Filed under: Black in America • Tony Harris
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Chrystal G; Durham, NC

    I was just discussing this school with my husband we watched the documentary on HBO a few weeks ago from 2005. It was difficult to see where our public school system is now and how much further we have to go.

    July 25, 2008 at 12:08 am |
  2. Loretta from California

    What an amazing school it was in the 70’s. It boasted the best marching and jazz bands in the city and it provided me with “the moment,” the moment I think about when people ask me where and how I got my start.
    This reminds me of my high school days, and how wonderful it was for me. We had the #1 football team, we were 1st in track & field and we had a great interest in learning. So much pride. Yes Tony the 70's were great.

    So much has changed.

    Now I work at a High School and I see little pride in self, or school. The desire to learn is not there anymore. Teenagers cursing the teachers, fighting, and disrupting the learning process. And when we contact the parents, they defend their childrens bad behavior.

    I don't understand, but I continue to hope. Great story, Tony.

    July 24, 2008 at 9:32 pm |
  3. Hannah Storm

    Tony....thanks to you for writing about your memories as a young man.

    Tony Harris the actor with the Michael Jackson fro......now I would pay to see that 🙂

    July 24, 2008 at 8:23 pm |