Difficult Change, One Step at a Time
School Board's Go-Slow Ways Challenged
By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page HO16
On Feb. 9, 1965, the Howard County Board of Education treated its momentous decision as a routine agenda item.
The board was ready to end racial segregation in Howard schools to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Board members held no discussion before voting unanimously to close Harriet Tubman, the black high school, and integrate the last black elementary school in Guilford. Local reporters nearly missed the story and scrambled to remake the next day's newspaper editions.
That's the way Howard's leaders preferred to handle the potentially incendiary issue. Other communities caught up in the civil rights movement had marches, sit-ins and emotional confrontations that sometimes got ugly. But not in Howard County.
"The county was very genteel. Southern genteel," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, who was then a young Republican operative. He moved to Howard from Iowa in 1956 and joined the county's civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Kittleman, 78, learned firsthand that there was something else here, beneath the civility of public discourse, something tough and resistant. Abandoning racial segregation, even at the direction of the Supreme Court, would take time in Howard. Indeed, 11 years would pass before integration of the county schools was complete.
Before the 1955-56 school year began, the three-member Howard school board said the county would comply with the Supreme Court's decision, but the board wanted time to develop a plan. In May 1956 it outlined "voluntary integration," allowing parents of black elementary students to ask that their children be transferred to white schools.
Under that policy, the families seeking transfer had to appear in person before the board, which could deny the request. In the coming years, the board would allow older students at black schools to transfer, starting in 1957 with the sixth grade and thereafter adding one grade every year.
In the meantime, no segregated school was closed, and bus transportation remained segregated as well.
"You needed to think about school facilities and teachers and locations," said Gertrude H. Crist, 85, who served on the board and supported the voluntary, incremental approach. "If they didn't have rooms or teachers, it wasn't easy. We had to work things out. We listened to one another, and it was very amiable."
But for years, only a few black students chose to undergo a transfer process they regarded as intimidating.
"It was hurtful," recalled Beaula Moore, the wife of Samuel Moore, a Baptist minister in Howard, who was active in the civil rights movement. "The parents had to go to the board and have questions asked. You didn't know then or there if your child was accepted. I guess they were trying to pick the cleanest looking kids to go to the white school."
The Maryland Board of Education provided no guidance to local school districts or pressured them in complying with the court's directive to use "all deliberate speed" in dismantling segregation, said Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor in Baltimore who has studied school desegregation.
"The state had taken a hands-off approach," Gibson said. Howard ended up somewhere in the middle, not as quick to integrate as Montgomery County or Baltimore City schools, but less recalcitrant than Harford County, he said.
Howard remained, as former state senator James Clark Jr. described it, "a Jim Crow county in a Jim Crow state."
The Art of Making Do
It hadn't been that long ago that blacks in Howard had to go to Baltimore or elsewhere if they wanted public schooling beyond the seventh grade. It was 1935, only 20 years before the high court's ruling, when high school classes for blacks first were offered at Cooksville Colored School in western Howard. In 1939, the first students graduated from what became Cooksville High School. It took two more years before countywide bus service was available to black students.
Roger Estep, a native of Clarksville who graduated from Cooksville in 1947, regards his years there as the most important step toward college and veterinary school, and a prominent career in health and higher education.
"The alternatives were a pick and a shovel, and no chance to get a high school education and get to college to a better life," said Estep, 74, who chairs the board of directors of the Howard County Center of African American Culture. "The alternatives were terrible, and some could not endure the struggle to pursue an education."
Schools reflected the segregation that permeated Howard's social fabric, creating an uneven weave that banned blacks from restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores, dictated which restrooms blacks could use at the county courthouse, and confined them to decrepit housing. Dividing lines sometimes sliced through neighborhoods such as Ellicott City's west end, where blacks and whites lived on opposite sides of Main Street.
Growing up in the 1950s, Herman L. Charity Jr., 54, knew there were places that were off limits to him, but he learned to deal with white customers who stopped at his father's auto repair shop in Jessup. One day a customer dropped off his car, and when Charity's father opened the trunk, he found the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. When the man returned, Charity's father mentioned what he had discovered.
"He made a joke about the robes, something like they weren't really his," Charity said. "But we all knew. There'd always been rumors that the Klan was out there and operating."
White officials begrudgingly responded to black constituents. At the 1949 dedication of Harriet Tubman High School, according to the "History of Blacks in Howard County," County Commissioner Frank Curtis warned his black audience, "You've got this. Don't come to us asking for anything else because you're not going to get it!"
Black educators practiced the art of making do, with crowded facilities, worn desks and ragged textbooks.
"It was not an easy thing to know that there were resources that you didn't have, but you did the very best that you could by the students that came to you," said former Harriet Tubman teacher Caroline Boston, who lives in Baltimore.
Charity remembers how upset his third-grade teacher became when she learned she wasn't going to get the new textbooks promised her. Guilford Elementary Principal Morris Woodson came into the class and told students that new textbooks were not as important as learning what was in them.
Leaders for Change
The NAACP got organized in Howard during World War II, drawing its initial membership from old families such as the Dorseys, Johnsons and Moores and from ministers and educators. The branch acquired a forceful advocate when Silas E. Craft Sr. arrived in Howard in 1944 to become a teacher and principal at Cooksville High and later Harriet Tubman High.
A one-time cadet to be a Tuskegee airman, Craft had received a bachelor's degree in math from Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., and a master's degree in school administration from the University of Pennsylvania in 1947. He was well known for being a tough disciplinarian, wielding a big wooden paddle with misbehaving students. He canvassed the county getting black parents to register their children for school, and he organized a countywide black PTA.
"He was expected to be a leader, which he was," said his widow, Dorothye Craft, 81. "The powers that be could not stand him. They didn't like him because Silas spoke his mind. They respected him, but they didn't like him."
By the 1960s, as the civil rights movement swelled nationally, Howard's NAACP chapter and black parents pushed harder. In 1963, the school board adopted a four-year plan to close some segregated schools and integrate others.
"An adequate period of time must be permitted for the psychological and emotional adjustment to this on the part of both white and Negro parents whose sons and daughters will be directed to attend certain schools," the board said in a 1964 position paper.
But to some, change was coming much too slowly.
Craft, president of the NAACP, and Kittleman, chairman of its education committee, became a fixture at school board meetings, sparring with Superintendent John E. Yingling, who chided the "demands of any pressure group." They cranked out a monthly NAACP newsletter and hinted publicly at lawsuits, sit-ins and public demonstrations.
Although violence appeared to be unusual in Howard, incidents were not unheard of. Beaula Moore recalled that white teenage boys in a car lobbed a Molotov cocktail into her yard, where her sons were standing. Kittleman had his young son, Allan, now 45 and a Howard County Council member, move his bed away from a window for fear that a brick could come sailing through.
"Never happened, but I was worried enough I made him turn the bed around," the elder Kittleman said.
During the early 1960s, Craft's daughter, Virginia, was a student at Howard High School, where she had transferred. She described her years there as "dismal." White students pushed her in the hallways and harassed her about trying out for the basketball team, she said. Guidance counselors wouldn't help her apply to colleges, she recalled.
She stayed at Howard "only because of the determination of my mother and my father."
New Board, New Attitude
Change was coming to the school board. In May 1964, as the county experienced increasing growth and James Rouse developed his plans for Columbia, the board was expanded to five members. Suddenly, the go-slow approach to school desegregation no longer seemed valid.
"The whole segregation thing was an anachronism," said former board member Edward L. Cochran, 75 , one of the two new appointees. He was elected county executive 10 years later.
"It should've been done a lot sooner. There was no reason to wait," said Cochran, whose daughter, Courtney Watson, chairs the current school board.
Member Fred K. Schoenbrodt signaled the board's changing position when he asked Kittleman privately to ease up on the pressure.
"I promise you, you'll be happy with what we'll do in '65,'' Kittleman recalled him saying.
The board's vote on Feb. 9, 1965, to complete desegregation two years ahead of schedule provoked no community outcry.
"I would say we did it very amicably," said board member Crist. "We had no riots or anything like that."
Instead, integration played out in the everyday drama of individual lives. Charity, who transferred to Howard High from Harriett Tubman as a junior, found his niche playing three sports. There were altercations at some dances, insensitive remarks by teachers and an occasional racist joke among teammates, but there also were whites who made an extra effort to welcome Charity.
"I felt like I was part of the school," he said.
Others, however, felt a sharper sting of discrimination.
With the closing of Harriet Tubman, Principal Elhart E. Flurry was demoted to a vice principal's job at a middle school. The local NAACP challenged that decision, taking Flurry's case to federal court. In 1972, he was promoted to principal of Clarksville Middle School, where he remained until retiring in 1983.
Many blacks missed the sense of unity cultivated at segregated schools, particularly Harriet Tubman, Craft said.
"For instance, teachers were required to make home visits," she said. "They were required to know that family. There was a relationship, a close relationship between school and family that we really don't have now."
Moore, who lives with her husband in Guilford, said integration helped ease the overt animosity of earlier times. In the late 1950s, for example, one of her sons was arrested in Laurel for failing to get off the sidewalk when a white man passed.
"It was a strange time when you look back on it," she said.
Still, she said she believes a more subtle racism persists and that some young blacks have given themselves over to drugs and violence perhaps because they don't have a Silas Craft watching over them.
At 79, Moore has been thinking things through, having recently completed a paper on integration for an English class at Howard Community College, where she's studying for an associate's degree.
"Integration took place at facilities but not in the hearts of people," she wrote.
Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company