H. DeWayne Whittington, Maryland superintendent who won discrimination lawsuit in 1996, dies at 81

December 2, 2012

H. DeWayne Whittington, a school superintendent on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who received wide attention in the 1990s when he won a discrimination lawsuit against a white school board that had not renewed his contract, died Nov. 20 at a hospital in Salisbury, Md. He was 81.

He had an embolism, said his wife, Louise Whittington.

To many on the Eastern Shore, Dr. Whittington symbolized the struggle against the racism that remained even after the civil rights movement.

Dr. Whittington spent nearly four decades in the Somerset County schools and was the first African American outside of Baltimore to head a Maryland school system. As a teacher, he taught physical education and coached basketball teams to state championships. As superintendent, be enjoyed broad popularity.

Then, in 1992, the school board voted 3 to 2 not to renew his four-year contract. It was the first such decision in his years in the school system, he alleged in his lawsuit.

He “just had that gut feeling” that racism was to blame, he told the Baltimore Sun. “When no one has complained about your performance, that’s the first thing that pops in your mind.”

In 1994, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, he filed suit in federal court in Baltimore.

A nearly two-week trial followed in 1996. The school board members denied that they were motivated by race. They cited differences over management style, discipline and the system performance.

Witnesses for Dr. Whittington endorsed his professionalism. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the trial, a local freelance writer testified that during the 1988 election campaign for school board, the future board president had used a racial slur to describe Dr. Whittington.

As reported by the Sun, the witness said the official had said that “the last thing we need is a (racial expletive) running the school system.” The Sun reported that the board president denied making the remark.

The jury found in Dr. Whittington’s favor, awarding him an amount ultimately raised to more than $800,000.

The verdict form contained an unusual handwritten addendum: “It is the unanimous opinion of this jury that monetary compensation alone is not a sufficient punishment for an act of racism.” Jurors recommended naming a county school for him.

On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1997, Crisfield Primary School was renamed the H. DeWayne Whittington Primary School. (It was later closed as part of a district consolidation plan.)

Harrison DeWayne Whittington was born June 9, 1931, in Crisfield in Somerset. His mother died shortly afterward, and his grandparents reared him.

He attended Crisfield Colored High School and received a bachelor’s degree in education and physical education in 1952 from what is now Morgan State University. He began teaching in 1954 after two years in the Army.

As he rose from teacher to principal to superintendent, he received a master’s degree in education from Pennsylvania State University in 1961 and a doctorate from what is now Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1980.

After his dismissal, he taught at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he was also on the board of visitors and an adviser to the president. He was appointed to the Somerset Board of Education in 2008 but, in declining health, lost an reelection bid in November.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Louise Holden Whittington of Marion Station, Md.

Of the board’s refusal to retain him, Dr. Whittington told The Washington Post: “I felt like I’d let down the whole black community. To be vindicated was a real relief.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.