The time was the early 1970s, and the outbreaks of racial violence in Montgomery County's schools, while widely scattered, were becoming more frequent.
At Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville during the spring of 1971, police were called in two or three times a month to quell racial violence after the election of the school's first black homecoming queen. Elsewhere, brief racial flareups led to fistfights between students in the halls.
Spurred by a desire to understand and alleviate the racial tension, the county school board formed a committee to study race relations. After four years of studying and lobbying, this group's principal objective -- creation of a mandatory black study course for 12,000 school system employes -- became reality.
But the jubilation black parents felt at that time has soured in recent weeks, as a new school board has shown every intention of making the course optional.
For these parents, such an action amounts to the betrayal of a commitment won with "blood, sweat and tears," as one former school board member said.
The board will hold a public hearing tomorrow night on "alternatives" to the course, but there is considerable question whether a hearing will help bridge the growing distance between the board and irate black county leaders.
"This course represents only the tip of an iceberg as far as we're con cerned," said George Sealey, head of the county chapter of the NAACP, which claims more than 700 members. "We deeply resent the fact that they (the board's new four-member conservative majority), are planning to totally reverse the modest gains we've made without even listening to us."
Where five years ago there was dialogue and conciliation between the board and county blacks, today there is bitterness and confrontation. The NAACP and other black organizations are hurling charges of racism and bigotry against the board, hotly protesting that it is deaf to black concerns.
Board President Marian Greenblatt, who heads the board majority composed of Joseph Barse, Eleanor Zappone and Carol Wallace, firmly denied the charges. She said she is "shocked" by the controversy but steadfast in her determination to make the course voluntary.
"We aren't insensitive to the problems of blacks or any other minority. We just feel that the problems can be attacked in better ways... We are not in the business of solving society's ills."
More than anything else, county blacks fear that the move to make the course optional is the first of many setbacks they may expect, according to Frank Morris, head of the NAACP's education committee. Morris said there is growing fear that the board also will set out to cut the number of black administrators in the system, which increased by 21 percent in the last three years under Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo.
They also fear that the budgets of the schools' department of human relations and quality integrated education will suffer under the new board.
About 9 percent of the system's 110,000 students are black. An equal percentage of the system's 12,000 employes are black.
Greenblatt said some overall budget cuts may be necessary to increase the amount of classroom materials and to hire additional reading teachers. But she insists the areas the black parents are concerned about won't be singled out. "We're only trying to focus attention on the classroom, where it belongs."
In effect the controversy pits two educational philosophies against each other -- philosophies born of different eras.
The board's new conservative majority feels it was elected with a mandate to redistribute administrative funds to the classroom, cut class size and restore teacher morale, which they say has suffered in recent years because of such things as the mandatory course and the use of computerassisted instruction techniques.
It is a philosophy of the late 1970s, a time of tax cuts. It is founded on fiscal responsibility and geared toward classroom achievement.
But it has come up against a surprisingly strong philosophical tide with its roots a decade and none earlier that demands that attention be paid to the "special needs" of black children. The strength of the opposition can be gauged partially by the fact that the county's population is now nearly 10 percent black, more than double what it was in 1970
Groups such as the NAACP and the county's Organization of Black Parents, who have grown in size with the influx of newcomers to the county, say black students can be better taught, counseled and disciplined if teachers and staff understand more about black culture and heritage.
Several isolated examples of the current friction between blacks and the board best show depth of feelings involved in the controversy.
The bitterness of at least one black parent burst into the open during one recent board meeting, as NAACP member Hanley J. Norment stood up and demanded a public disclosure from the board on how much it was spending on legal fees to argue the contract renewal of Bernardo, whom the new board members are trying to remove, but whom many blacks support.
"We will not be silenced," Norment said. "You may think of us as niggers, Mrs. Greenblatt, but I want you to know that we are new niggers, niggers with spirit and determination."
In her board office Greenblatt said she is "terribly hurt" by the charges of racism and bigotry. "What can I do, though? Say I'm not? I think the black community is terribly mistaken," she said. Greenblatt said Bernardo has gotten "solid support" from blacks because he has put black administrators in highly visible positions.
"But no seems to be addressing the central issue of the education of black kids. I really wonder where all this opposition is being orchestrated from," she said.
Upstairs, Wilma Fairly, the black head of the human relations department, sat behind her desk sporting a "Support HR-18" button on her sweater. She said the controversy has generated nearly 75 letters to the board, running about "fifty-fifty" for and against the decision to tentatively rescind the requirement.
"Most of the letters are very thoughtful," she said. "But some are really racist and dirty. I nearly vomit every time I have to send replies to those."
Last Friday night, Greenblatt and former board member Roscoe Nix sat with host Fred Fiske of radio station WAMU for a debate on the black studies course.
A caller from Chevy Chase asked Nix if he would also support mandatory courses about Hispanics, Catholics, Italians and "every other ethnic groups."
"It's the same weird logic," the caller said. "I don't want your history crammed down my throat just like you don't want mine crammed down yours."
"I have had your history crammed down my throat," Nix replied.
Seventy-nine-year-old Edith Throckmorton worked as a principal in county schools for 20 years before her retirement in 1980. Afterward, she headed the local chapter of the NAACP for 15 years until her retirement in 1976.
"I always found the best way to change things was by talking quietly with people," she said. "But there are a number of new blacks in this county who feel the best way to go about things is to confront the powers that be and make demands.
"Maybe I'm behind the times," she said. "I support that course and wish the board would too. But I'm really afraid that they won't take kindly to shouting or embarrassment."