When the Prince George's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union decided in 1971 to challenge the county's segregated school system, the organization's lawyers laid the groundwork for the case and then searched for local families willing to take the risk of lending their names to the controversial suit.
They found eight black men with children in the county school system, fathers of families who had come to the county for the suburban promise of better schools and housing. Most were homeowners from the close-knit Chapel Oaks, North Englewood and Beaver Heights communities along the District border, one of the few county areas where blacks could buy homes at the time.
Last week, after opening the desegregation suit for a second time, NAACP officials were searching for those eight men again. What they found shows how things have changed in the county -- and how they have remained the same -- since the long court battle over the schools began.
Once a tightly knit group, the original eight plaintiffs have been separated over the years by moves, a marital breakup and death. Only one still lives in the same community. Only four still have children in county schools. Three of the fathers have left Prince George's, and a fourth no longer believes that county schools need more integration.
But despite the changes, including a jump in the black population from 13 to 37 percent of county residents and a shift in housing patterns that has seen blacks move throughout the county, four of the plaintiffs stepped forward again to say that the school system still denies black children equal access to quality education.
John Williams, a teacher who worked in the last of the county's all-black high schools, said he is sticking with the new suit because the initial desegregation agreement failed to address important problems, including teachers' attitudes toward minority children and the promotion rights of minority teachers.
But Sylvester Vaughns, president of the county NAACP at the time of the first suit, last week asked to have his name removed from the new court action because he no longer supports it.
"I don't believe that people in Prince George's county have the strong desire to have schools integrated as something meaningful," he said. "I don't think black kids feel inferior to whites anymore -- it's not necessary."
Citing Vaughns' attitude along with other factors, school board lawyers challenged the effort to reopen the suit, claiming that the plaintiffs no longer represent the black community in the county. A federal judge rejected that argument and the NAACP last week asked the court to replace Vaughns and three other plaintiffs with five new parties to the case.
The board's maneuver left most of the old and new plaintiffs reluctant to discuss the case. Court papers reveal some details, and others were supplied by Williams.
Hosea Wiggs, who lived across the street from all-black Fairmount High School when the suit was filed, no longer has children in the county schools. Nonetheless, the former neighborhood scoutmaster wants to remain part of the desegregation suit.
Reginald Jackson, who lived in the nearby Addison Chapel Apartments along with plaintiff James R.L. Brooks, taught karate to local youths. Jackson has since moved to Glenarden but he too will remain with the suit. Brooks died in 1978, according to court papers filed last week, and his family is believed to have moved to Virginia.
A fifth plaintiff, Dennis Ligon, lived a few blocks from the high school but NAACP officials have been unable to locate him.
Plaintiffs Walter and Margaret Wheatfall have since moved to a farm in Calvert County. They have declined to participate in the suit this time around.
The Williamses are the only current plaintiffs willing to discuss the reopened case. Williams' wife Loretta said antiquated equipment and "hand me down" books at Beaver Heights Elementary School made her willing to lend the family name to the first suit, even though she feared for the future of her husband's career and the effect of the pressure on his health.
"It had a space no bigger than a large closet for a library, while elementary schools in Bowie had carpeted rooms," said Williams, whose son John Andre went to Beaver Heights along with the children of several other plaintiffs.
At the time the school board seemed a fearsome monolith, but Williams recalled that the plaintiffs were not intimidated by the board or the hundreds of angry protesters who mobbed an Alexandria courthouse when the last appeal of the busing plan failed in January 1973. The plaintiffs had to be hustled out through a basement door.
In the living room of his split-level home in Mill Wood, just a few miles from his old neighborhood, is a large leather bound Bible side by side with a stack of yearbooks from Fairmont Heights High School, where he has taught since 1962, when the school was still all-black.
"We didn't have an auditorium or a modern science laboratory. We didn't have the diversity of courses you could take in other schools," Williams said, adding that the school nevertheless was the pride of the community because of the extra efforts of a talented black staff.
At the time black students were still bused as much as 21 miles to Fairmont Heights, passing white schools along the way, Williams said, but he insists corrective busing to achive racial balance has never been the main concern in the case.
"We cared nothing about busing. Busing was not the issue," he declared. However, he added, as soon as whites were put on the bus to Fairmont Heights the school board replaced water fountains that were originally two feet off the ground, and installed a new science laboratory, cafeteria chairs and a fresh coat of paint.
But despite those sorts of changes, Williams said, important concerns were left unresolved by the desegregation plan.
"They spent so much time on busing they never got around to the other issues," he said. He referred to the attitude of white teachers toward minority children, and promotional opportunities for black teachers.
Williams charged that his own career has suffered from "indirect pressure" from school officials because of his involvement in the original suit, but he said the case was nonetheless a "learning experience" he is willing to go through again.
"We've been in the heat before," said Loretta Williams. "You do ponder it, but there is something that just drives you on.