Dr. Clara Small is keeping Shore's Black history alive

By Susan Canfora Special To Salisbury Independent
Posted 5/5/21

Dr. Clara Small will always remember the day she thought she would end up behind bars.

She was teaching a Black History class at Salisbury University when a student, on a Friday afternoon – …

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Dr. Clara Small is keeping Shore's Black history alive


Dr. Clara Small will always remember the day she thought she would end up behind bars.

She was teaching a Black History class at Salisbury University when a student, on a Friday afternoon – the day of the week remains clear in her memory – opined, “Blacks have never done anything in this country and definitely not on the Eastern Shore.”

“I said, ‘Would you repeat what you just said?’” her voice rising.

“I think the rest of the class was startled, too. I had to get myself together. I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to jail,’” she recalled thinking.

“I told them to take a break. Everything I had scheduled for them to have read for the next Friday, I said, ‘Be ready for it on Monday.’ I left class and I used a 1998 word processor. I typed all night long until the next day and I had 32 pages,” she said. Those pages contained detail after detail about prominent African Americans and their valuable contributions.

After staying up, writing all night, Small had a completed booklet and she headed back to campus to make copies for every student in that class.

“It was about 9 o’clock on a Sunday night and I was still Xeroxing. Security came in and the president of the college, Dr. William Merwin at time, came in and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ I told him about that student in my class. He called Public Relations and told PR to look at it.  He wanted a red, black and green cover on it and he wanted enough copies for every student in the tri-county area,” Small said.

The booklet was titled “Reality Check: Brief Biographies of African-Americans on Delmarva.”

At the next class, the student who uttered the disparaging remark was surprised by what Dr. Small wrote and another student warned him, “Don’t open your mouth. She’s going to work us to death.”

From that booklet, Small got the idea to write the book “Compass Points: Profiles and Biographies of African-Americans From the Delmarva Peninsula,” but as she continued to research, she had enough information for a second volume. Most recently, she wrote Volume III. She’s also co-authored two books.

Among those highlighted in Volume III, published by Salt Water Media in Berlin and selling briskly, are James A. Polk, an educator at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Edward Taylor, a Wicomico County native, educator and public servant; Kirkland Hall of the Princess Anne area, educator, community activist and baseball enthusiast; Bennie L. Smith, mortician; Edwin Lashley of Salisbury, Maryland State Trooper and Chief of the Salisbury University Campus Police; Ernest Leatherbury Sr., Somerset County native and law enforcement officer; Salisbury native Yancy Carrigan, radio personality; and Loretta Bibbins Jolley, an Eastern Shore of Virginia native, mortician and educator.

In the Introduction to Volume III, Small wrote the history of Americans of African descent “has suffered from benign neglect,” been ignored or distorted until it is nearly invisible.

“In 2020, hopefully, this monograph is timely because the country is in the midst of a couple of crises – a world health pandemic and a possible change in United States leadership – and it is the belief of many scholars that knowledge of history and culture of African-Americans may help to alleviate some of the violence, racism, discrimination and divisiveness this nation is presently experiencing,” she wrote.

“African-American history is deeply rooted in Delmarva, but it has to be preserved and taught to the next generations. Maybe the words of the late comedian Dick Gregory said it best, ‘A man without knowledge of himself and his heritage is like a tree without roots.’ A tree without roots will not survive, thrive or prosper and that should not, and cannot, be the fate of African-American history and culture on Delmarva,” she wrote.

“People are calling me already for the fourth book.  I have 20 people for the fourth one,” Small told the Salisbury Independent during a pleasant afternoon conversation.

“I like being a writer but being a professor is easier. As a writer, you double check and double check, triple check and triple check, and it has to be readable. And you try to do it with grace and make sure it’s with dignity for the people you are writing about,” reasoned Small, a native of Plymouth, N.C., a town she characterized as “in the middle of nowhere.”

“I wanted to be a nurse growing up,” she said, explaining she was accepted into nursing school at Mount Sinai Hospital in the Harlem district of New York, N.Y. Her grandmother lived  three blocks from there. But the school had too many students and they suggested Small attend school in Durham, N.C.

She applied and three weeks into the first semester suffered an appendix attack and had to have an emergency appendectomy.

Her roommate left her in pain, lying on the floor, she recalled, saying, “Oh, they were not nice.”

It was 1964. She was ill, frightened and 147 miles from home. Doctors needed her parents’ approval to operate. When she opened her eyes, a family friend who was a funeral director was there, checking on her.

“When I saw the person standing at the end of my bed was a mortician I started screaming. I thought I was dead. I didn’t see my parents. I saw him in this old, old hospital. They had three old ladies in there and two of them died that night,” she said.

Small recovered and stayed in school, studying chemistry for a while but eventually deciding she didn’t care for it.

“The only class I could take, because I waited until  the first day of the semester my junior year, the only classes that were open were history classes. I had to  take history classes, five at the same time. It was fun for me. I realized chemistry was not my niche. I figured out a new way to study and I got ahead. The other students stole my notebooks. We had class six days of the week, one professor every day for six days. In 1964 we could wear blue jeans on Saturdays, but we had to protest to do so,” she remembered.

“My great-grandfather was white and I have Native American in my blood, so I’m a mutt,” Small said.

“When I taught I said, ‘I am including everybody’s history in this because our country is a mosaic.’ I wanted students to look at things from more than one point of view,” she said.

Small has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from North Carolina Central University and a second master’s degree in liberal arts education from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. She began her doctorate degree at the University of Missouri and completed it at the University of Delaware. She  taught at SU full time from 1977 to 2013 and has given presentations at Wor-Wic Community College.

Wor-Wic instructor Dr. Dornell Woolford  praised her books as “truly a labor of love and a gift for the entire Delmarva community she adopted many years ago.”

“Her work teaches us the importance of oral history within the framework of the African-American family and the valuable place oral history holds alongside written history. Whether she’s writing about manumitted slaves who fought in the American Civil War, the men and woman in Compass Points, Volumes I, II, and III, or the last African-American skipjack captain, her research reveals a rich legacy of African-American doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, community activists, public servants and many other people, both living and dead, all of whom triumphed over adversity, stood up against racial injustice, or sought education by any means necessary to secure brighter futures for their families and themselves,” Woolford said.

When she started assembling the volumes about prominent African-Americans,  she included Frederick Douglass of Talbot County, Harriet Tubman, educator Charles Chipman and about 30 more, all from the Eastern Shore.

Douglass, a writer and statesman, escaped  from slavery in Maryland and became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. He died in February 1895.

Tubman, a native of Dorchester County, was born a slave in 1822, but she escaped, then  made more than a dozen  missions to rescue about 70 slaves. She died in March 1913.

The 74-year-old, unmarried Small has not found life on the Eastern Shore effortless.

“It has not been easy living, working, breathing, trying to survive, on the Eastern Shore, not just because of income but because of social factors, sometimes religious factors and political factors.

“On the Eastern Shore I have been called the ‘N’ word to my face. Once was when I was working at Sears, at the catalog desk at night and on weekends. I did that  when I first moved here, trying to survive. It was a break from working on campus every day. Sometimes when you come to a place and you are by yourself you need something. I worked at the Sears catalog desk 11-and-a-half years and I got to meet people. It was fun. I had fun.

“One day, a man jumped in front of everybody in line and I said, ‘Would you please take a ticket and we will wait on you?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Who is in charge?’ and I said, ‘I am in charge right now’ and he said, ‘You know what happens when they put ‘N’s’ in charge.’ I said I would wait on him after I waited on everybody else. He stayed and waited. But that’s on him. That’s not on me,” she said.

Another time, she overheard a student say she didn’t want to complete an assignment given to her by “that ‘N’ in the History Department.”

“I just said, ‘Wait a minute.’ I turned my head around and I said, ‘Are you referring to me? Preface that with ‘Dr. N.’ You could have bought her for half a penny. I wanted her to understand you never know who’s listening and you have to respect everyone,” she said.

Respect is so important to Small that she printed the word in bold on every syllabus she handed out and told students if they were incapable of respect, they were welcome to drop the class.

“I told them, ‘You will respect me because I am going to respect you. If you can’t do that, you have two doors. Decide which one you are going out of.’ I told them, ‘I am not your friend. I am your professor.’ That’s how I started with all my classes,” she said.

“It’s important to have  pride as an African-American. We have accomplished great things and we need to pass that knowledge  on to the next generation and on to each other. Everybody who reads these books should understand where we are in America at this present time because this country is in trouble. You have to understand African-American accomplishments to understand about Americans on Delmarva and to understand how some people think.

“Remember what Dick Gregory said about a man without knowledge of his history being like a tree without roots? It’s important to know about these people. I’m trying to add roots.”