Sylvester Vaughns gets angry when he hears "newcomer black folks" complain about having their children bused out of integrated neighborhoods into predominantly black schools.
"They like to feel as if they've made it, that they're over the hill and to hell with the rest of you all," he said. "Well listen, brother, we were here first and we went through hell to get things where they are."
With those words Vaughns, a former head of the Prince George's County NAACP, summed up the dispute that his erupted between county blacks following the signing of an agreement last week to reduce school busing in integrated county neighborhoods.
The controversy reflects the marked change that has occurred in the county's black population since the early 1970s and centers on two personalities. One is newly elected NAACP leader Willian R. Martin, a chemist-turned-politician who is one of a growing number of professional blacks who have moved into formerly all-white county neighborhoods in the last 10 years. And the other is Vaughns, a militant county employe who remembers the "separate and unequal days" of the county school system, and opposes any changes in the busing plan.
Vaughns attended an all-black elementary school in Charlotte, N.C., in the 1940s that received hand-me-down books from all-white schools.
Every fall, he said, he and other black children had to leave school early to pick cotton in nearby fields while white children were allowed to remain in school.
"I felt cheated," he said recently. "I vowed to myself that my children wouldn't have to go through that."
So when he, his wife and four children moved to Prince schools that were in 1966 and found schools that were reminiscent of those of his youth, he decided to do something about it.
He became one of the plaintiffs in a court suit in 1973 that led to mandatory busing to achieve racial integration in the county schools.
"We probably would've had to wait till kingdom come before the school system would've done anything," he said.
He said Martin underestimated the power of the "inner Beltway clique," which is opposed to the new agreement and also misjudged how sensitive longtime black county parents are to to the struggle that led to the 1973 suit.
"The phone calls and letters were absolutely filthy," he said, referring to reaction from some white residents to the court suit. "It scared hell out of me sometimes but just went to show how racist the county was. The blacks who moved in after busing don't understand how much of a landmark the court case was."
Between 1973 and 1978 Vaughns headed the local chapter of the NAACP, which until Martin's election, consistently opposed any changes in the busing plan despite the county's shifting demographics.
School Board Chairman Norman H. Saunders said he approached Vaughns "on numerous occasions" to discuss busing problems in the integrated "middle-crescent," where many black children board buses every day to attend black schools.
Saunders said the former NAACP leader was "totally unreceptive."
"Damn right, I was," Vaughns said. "If you start changing busing patterns in one area, you affect the whole county. You're going to get further segregation in the inner-Beltway areas and I don't trust any county school board to guarantee equal resources between all-white and all-black schools."
The reason, Vaughns said, included his own Carolina experience as a child and "a healthy suspicion" that developed soon after busing began in Prince George's
He said Kent Junior High School was all-back prior to 1973. For years Kent parents had asked the school system to repair windows, paint walls and provide other urgent repairs. But to no avail.
"Then one day, the weekend before busing was to begin," Vaughns said, "I got a call from a janitor at Kent, who asked me to come to the school immediately.I went and saw repairmen all over the place, putting new tables and chairs in. They made the school look like it was brand new.
"I know for a fact," he went on, stroking his beard, "that if schools become all-back and all-white, the whites are going to get better treatment. It's just as simple as that."
Vaughns, an administrative assistant in the county's licensing and permits department, moved to Palmer Park in 1966. He said the neighboerhood was all-white then and that "people were peeping out of windows up and down the block" when he first moved in.
"White flight doesn't bother me a bit," he said. "They can run but they sure can't hide."
Then, moving imaginary busloads of children around a coffee table representing the metropolitan area, he said, "The best thing is to have an area-wide busing plan. The problem isn't that there's too much busing, but too little.
"The plan should involve the District, Montgomery, P.G. and Northern Virginia. There's no such thing as a neighborhood school anymore, intergrated or segregated.
"It's the make-up of the whole jurisdiction that matters," he said. "That's what the Supreme Court said and that's what I say."