More young people are expected to join their elders this Saturday for the 11th annual Walk to Dorchester.
The 9.2-mile trek begins at 6 a.m. at Briar Bay Park in Riceboro and ends at the historic Dorchester Academy on East Oglethorpe Highway in Midway. The annual fundraiser helps support efforts to rehabilitate and preserve the Liberty County landmark.
The academy was founded in 1871 to educate freed slaves and continued to provide schooling for African-American children in Liberty County for generations. Dorchester closed as a school in 1941 but continued operating as a community center. The academy hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, where the legendary civil-rights leader met with other activists to plan the famous Freedom March to Birmingham, Ala.
Dorchester Improvement Association members say there has been an increase in participation by younger people and families in recent years.
“Each year they seem to get a bit younger and younger,” Dr. Clemontine Washington, Midway mayor and association vice president, said. “Some of our older people aren’t able to walk, but they still show up to support us. It’s getting to be a family event; parents are bringing their children with them to walk.”
Washington said some participants show up at 5:30 a.m., ready to go. Most people usually finish the walk between 9-10 a.m., according to Washington.
More young people are participating in the event because they understand the importance of the old school’s history, she said. More residents also are asking to use the academy for community activities, Washington said. Midway’s mayor said she attended Bible school and dances at the academy growing up.
“We expect 150-250 walkers,” Riceboro Mayor and Dorchester Improvement Association President Bill Austin said. He added that around 350 people should show for “the entire event.”
Sadly, long-serving association member Mary LeCounte Baggs will be missed by many at the Walk to Dorchester this year. Baggs died at 100 years of age on June 2, a month shy of her 101st birthday July 23.
Austin said some association members have proposed naming the Walk to Dorchester in her honor.
“She was such a significant part of the organization,” he said.
Austin said an informal observance will be held Saturday to remember Baggs’ contributions.
“The Dorchester Improvement Association was one of the organizations that was near and dear to her heart,” Baggs’ granddaughter Rakael Mountain Brown said. Brown said the walk reflects the fact that children who attended Dorchester Academy years ago had far to walk to receive an education.
“She was always reinforcing education,” Brown said of Baggs. Her grandmother often urged young people to understand and appreciate the struggles experienced by previous generations and to value the opportunities they have today, she said.
Austin said two new association members, Joyce Kennedy and Felicia Jamison, have helped infuse the association’s efforts with new energy.
Jamison, 25, has set up Facebook and Twitter accounts to help raise awareness about Dorchester Academy, he said. Austin said they also are working on a history of individuals connected to Dorchester who played a role during the civil-rights era.
This year, the association hopes to raise $25,000 to replace the academy’s foundation and flooring, Austin said. In August 2010, Dorchester Academy was one of 10 historic schools from 250 applicants across the country and the only one in Georgia to receive a $50,000 preservation grant from Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation.
Dorchester Academy was named by The Georgia Trust to its 2010 list of 10 Places in Peril and was named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites by the National Trust in 2009. The academy opened its museum in 2004 with a grant from Georgia Southern University.
The building’s roof was replaced at a cost of $56,000 with much of the funds raised by the association. Austin added the association received some county funds to help repair and replace damaged cornices around the academy’s roof.
“Our next effort is to secure funding to install central heating and air-conditioning,” he said.