Ocean City Today
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Barbara Purnell continues stride toward unified society

By Greg Ellison | Feb 16, 2017
Photo by: Greg Ellison Lifelong Berlin resident Barbara Purnell points to a photo of Joseph Purnell, left, who helped lead the charge to restore the two-room Germantown School in Berlin, which was a segregated educational institution prior to being closed in the 1950’s. Pictured on the right is former Worcester Commissioner Jim Purnell, who also backed the effort.

(Feb. 17, 2017) Born and raised during the era of racial segregation, Berlin resident Barbara Purnell continues to work for a unified society.

Purnell, 74, attended the African-American-only two-room Germantown School on Trappe Road in Berlin, which was shuttered in 1953, and more recently has helped preserve and transform the symbol of racial intolerance into a historical monument to further community inclusiveness.

“I experienced an all-black school,” she said. “We didn’t know any difference, that was what we were used to.”

Beginning in 1962, the building was repurposed as a county highway garage facility until Joseph Purnell spearheaded an effort in 2001 to reclaim the historic site.

“He got a group of people together and he says, ‘How come we can’t try to get that school back in the community and do something with it?’” she said. “We jumped on the bandwagon.”

For over a decade, Purnell has served as president of the committee overseeing the Germantown School Community Heritage Center project.

Purnell, who had completed fourth grade when Germantown School was closed, ironically the same year as the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared separate schools as “inherently unequal,” has idyllic memories from that time.

“I lived across the field and we walked to school,” she said. “It used to be an apple orchard and it bordered my parents property.”

Despite the Supreme Court unanimous decision outlawing racially segregated schools, change was not imminent on the Eastern Shore.

“When we left from here we went to the Flower Street School,” she said. “That was the black school and it was larger.”

Although a new chapter in race relations was unfolding nationally, Purnell said her childhood was less turbulent.

“There were some changes going on and we weren’t naïve to what was happening,” she said. “But they were good days because that’s all we knew.”

She also recognizes advantages to an intimate educational setting.

“It was two rooms and two teachers with three classes in each room,” she said. “One of the advantages of having three grades in one room, in the first grade you paid attention to second grade lessons because you would hear what was going on. One class would learn from the other.”

She also marveled at the adaptability of the instructors, who also doubled as school staff.

“We had black teachers,” she said. “The teachers were janitors, nurses and counselors. They were everything and had to do all these roles.”

The varied duties did little to distract educators from their primary focus, Purnell said.

“Our teachers were very stern but they were good because their goal was to teach us and for us to learn,” she said. “The parents were very involved with education. They had PTAs and the parents always backed the teachers up.”

Although, as is sometimes still the case, the cost of purchasing supplies often fell into the lap of teachers. Purnell said parents regularly lent financial support, but community backing was sorely lacking.

“The books that we received when we got them they came from other schools and a lot of times pages were torn out or written over,” she said. “So we got these secondhand books but we still learned. We got our foundation.”

Racial segregation wasn’t the only cultural difference impacting education during Purnell’s youth.

“What happened here a lot of times, some of the children would have to come out of school, maybe in May, say to pick strawberries,” she said. “They didn’t start school until October because they were helping with the field work.”

Unlike many of her parent’s generation, Purnell was fortunate to complete high school.

“Some went as far as the seventh grade or eighth grade because of the same conditions,” she said. “It was the way of life and how it was. You have to do what you have to do.”

After finishing her formal education and entering the working world during the early 1960’s, Purnell said she watched national civil rights advances hardly impact the Eastern Shore.

“In the town of Berlin, they had drinking fountains for whites and coloreds and the bathrooms were the same,” she said. “Then the movies, where the Globe Theater is now, you couldn’t mix in the seating. The blacks went upstairs and the whites were downstairs. This was through most of the 60’s.”

While the changes may have arrived later, Purnell said the level of prejudice on the shore was not as severe as the “deep south.”

“We were still separated and it was still two worlds,” she said. “But living right here in a way you did pay it some mind and you didn’t.”

As a shore native, Purnell may have become conditioned to local racial divisions, but during her time working at Assateague National Seashore she encountered numerous cohorts who transferred from metro areas that were aghast at the lack of cultural advancement.

“I noticed quite a few of them when they came in they were talking about things being prejudice,” she said. “They were coming out of the cities and it wasn’t like that for them.”

In addition to fully embracing the fight for racial equality, Purnell has had numerous life challenges, which she always approached with grace and fortitude, starting with her first child, James Tingle, who almost sidetracked her high school career.

“I unfortunately got pregnant and dropped out of school,” she said. “I did not graduate with my class, however, I did graduate.”

Purnell’s son, born under her maiden name, is a well-known fixture in Berlin who recently retired after spending three decades delivering mail, while simultaneously helping to foster a sense of community.

“There’s so many children he’s seen born, that he knew when they were babies,” she said. “They know James now and he’s given some of them jobs and stuff. It’s just so much he’s been through with the people in town and they’ve all been connected to him.”

Gushing with a mother’s pride, Purnell said her son is the embodiment of a people person.

“The older ladies, or even the men that lived alone, they didn’t have to come out to get their mail,” she said. “He hand delivered it right in the house to them.”

Purnell’s strength of character was evidenced more recently when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, a battle she took in stride.

“It never put me down,” she said. “Everyday I went to chemotherapy I could come back home, sit, eat my lunch, and get busy working.”

Luckily since groundbreaking on the Germantown School Community Heritage Center took place in June 2010, Purnell has remained singularly focused on continuing to develop the site.

“It just became my job and I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “I saw when we got the school back in the community that it would bring people together.”

Just last month, Purnell helped promote an evening of jazz and blues at the facility, which included an array of culinary delights. The event was a sellout.

“We had a live band and people went wild. They loved it,” she said.

Other events have included a gospel cabaret dinner.

“Last year in June we did a summer fun kickoff for the children when they got out of school,” she said. “The national park, the state park and the Discovery Center were here and they each had tables with displays.”

Children were able to explore firefighting equipment, hop on a miniature train and even take pony rides. Plus, food and drinks were provided at no cost.

“The parents enjoyed socializing and meeting new people,” she said. “That’s in the planning stages for this year.”

Purnell also hopes the restored school will begin to attract those intrigued by history.

“We’re hoping to become a tourist attraction,” she said. “When things are taking place in Berlin they can stop in here and check us out.”

Purnell said she continues to formulate plans to create engaging historical displays inside the school.

“This is sort of a full-time thing for me because my mind is steady rolling all the time about what we can do to improve it,” she said. “At night I sleep with a pencil and pad because sometimes something comes into my mind while I’m lying in bed and I’m scribbling so I wont forget it.”

Moving forward, Purnell hopes to engage younger people to carry on the mission.

“What I’m trying to do is get some of these young people in here to teach them the history,” she said. “We’re older and are not going to be here forever. We didn’t put this building up here to just let it go down after we’re gone.”

For now, Purnell is grateful the Germantown School project has provided a space for all races to gather and celebrate.

“It’s bringing people together and they’re enjoying themselves together,” she said.

For more information, visit www.thegermantownschool.org.

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