The year was 1950 and Spottswood T. Bolling was just finishing the 6th grade at Washington's Garfield Elementary School. But there was no junior high school near his Southeast Washington home and the youth faced a cross-town trip to attend Shaw Junior High School.
His mother, Sarah F. Bolling, had a simple solution to the problem. Young Spottswood andother black youths living in his neighborhood could attend nearby Sousa Junior High where a whole floor of te school was not being used at the time.
But Mrs. Bolling and other black parents quickly realized that solution was not as simple as it might seem. District of Columbia school officials told them in no uncertain terms that their children could not attend Sousa.
"They said they would not accept any colored," Mrs. Bolling recalled yesterday.
The school system offered instead to reopen a closed elementary school as a junior high for blacks only. But Mrs. Bolling said that she and others thought the facility was a health hazard and sent their children to Shaw.
The incident might have been just another example of racial injustice in the United States. But eventually, after Mrs. Bolling sued the city school system, it became one of several cases in various states that resulted in the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision bannning school desegregation that was issued 25 years ago tomorrow.
Mrs. Bolling and her son, parents and children who were involved in other suits that resulted in the Brown ruling, lawyers, educators and others were among about 250 people who gathered yesterday at Howard University Law School to start a three-day celebration of the Brown decision and discuss the ramifications of the far-reaching ruling.
The 74-year-old Mrs. Bolling, a retired General Services Administration printer who lives in Northeast Washington, said that when it became known after the 1954 decision that she was one of the plaintiffs who had sued, she received several threatening telephone calls.
The caller, who from the sound appeared to be the same person all the time, kept saying about her son, "If he comes over to [McKinley] Tech we'll fix him," Mrs. Bolling recounted.
"I was scared," she said. "I told the police, 'I don't think I ought to have to take this."
Eventually the threats to her son stopped. By the time the 1954 ruling was handed down, Spottswood Bolling was a student at Spingarn High, a black school at the time that was desegrated by whites.
Spottswood Bolling, now 40, works as a community mental health specialist for the D.C. Department of Human Resources. He said yesterday that as a youth he "wasn't able to understand the implication of this whole thing" and that it was only in his early 20s that he realized the importance of the Brown decision.
At the time of the decision, he recalled, he was too bashful and too busy ducking reporters looking for interviews with him to appreciate the role he played in American racial history.
While yesterday was partly a time for reminiscing, James M. Nabrit Jr., one of the lawyers who represented the black plaintiffs in the Brown case before the Supreme Court, told the conference, "An anniversary is fine, but it won't be enough to carry us through the years."
At a session earlier this week at Columbia University in New York and at Howard yesterday, today and tomorrow, various black leaders, educators and public figures are debating and discussing such issues as equal rights in South Africa, the future of traditionally black colleges, the economic status of black Americans and the black underclass.
At one panel yesterday, Howard law professor Herbert O. Reid attacked the current federal government effort to change the historic role of the nation's 105 predominantly black colleges from that of providing remedial education to one of being fully integrated in state college systems.
Reid said black colleges are "being destroyed in name of desegration." But Jean E. Fairfax, an official with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said she believed the overall federal effort to upgrade black schools can be beneficial to blacks.