Edna Lingreen, 86, recalled having to take her bar exam in the library of Georgetown University, apart from the men, because that was the only place there was a women's restroom.
Parthenia S. Pruden, 77, remembered dropping her dream of becoming a surgeon after her father made it clear that "no woman needs to be a surgeon." She went into teaching instead.
James Gholson, 87, talked about his pivotal role in implementing the court-ordered desegregation of Prince George's County schools in 1973, when "the community was in an uproar."
They are three seniors, all Prince George's residents, one white, two black, "having their say" last week at the Prince George's Community College forum inspired by the book, "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years," the 1993 bestseller turned into a successful Broadway play and made-for-television movie.
"Having Our Say," in which the centenarian sisters Annie Elizabeth and Sarah Louise told of their dual struggles to succeed as women of color, is the third book chosen by the Book Bridge program. The program was conceived two years ago by PGCC English professor Mary Brown to stimulate thought and discussion related to the theme of a single book in the college and community.
The forum's organizers said the message of the Delany sisters, a dentist and a teacher who lived to be 104 and 109, was this: Talk to your elders and, more importantly, listen to them; you could learn a lot.
"Use this as a motivation to talk to seniors in your family, seniors around you," advised history professor Yvonne Seon. "People you think are not necessarily important may have done more than you realize."
For two hours, the more than 100 people in the audience listened in rapt attention in the community college's Rennie Forum, and, when it was over, the panel and audience traded questions. But first, each panelist told her or his own story.
Lingreen, a former senior trial lawyer in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, spoke of her experience working as a secretary to the law school dean after she graduated from the University of Iowa.
When the dean, Wiley Rutledge, won an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, she went along. But when she wasn't typing his decisions, she was going to law school.
She was one of only five or six women taking the bar exam in the Georgetown library, while "hundreds" of men took it elsewhere on the campus. Lingreen eventually became one of only a handful of women among the 125 lawyers in the antitrust division of Justice.
"They tried to put me in [an office] with all women," but she successfully objected to the separation, she said. "Even when I left the department [in 1972], there weren't very many women. Now, the law schools are half women. The whole situation must be infinitely different."
Gholson, who came to Maryland from Hampton, Va., in 1950 to be the first principal of then new--and segregated--Fairmont Heights High School, became a trouble-shooter for Superintendent Carl W. Hassel. "My job was to go around to the high schools and put down the rebellions," he recalled.
In late 1972, when a federal judge in Baltimore was about to hand down the momentous desegregation decision resulting in court-ordered busing to compel Prince George's public schools to integrate, Gholson was tapped to smooth the way. Within two weeks, he had produced a 52-page plan, which he was then assigned to carry out.
There ensued meetings with teachers, administrators, parents, students and ministers, stressing the importance of good race relations. The system then had 163,000 students, more than now, and was predominantly white.
"People were yelling, 'Hell, no, we won't go. Ban the bus,' " Gholson said. "People were calling me late at night, with heavy breathing. It didn't faze me."
When what was known as "D-day" arrived, Gholson said, "We were ready. . . . There was an eerie quiet in the county that day. But we went about business as usual. One of my young principals called and said, 'My parents said they are going to demonstrate today; what shall I do?' I said give them a cup of coffee and show them the restrooms. It worked."
Pruden, a former assistant superintendent of Prince George's and head of human relations and pupil services before her 1985 retirement, recounted her rise from the segregated school system of Virginia.
There, she said, her mother had been first in her class at a teachers school but was denied the honor of being valedictorian because the second-ranking student was more fair-skinned and had straighter hair. "It was her first experience of bias, at the hands of people we call our fellow African Americans," she said.
Her father was protective. When she was offered a principalship in a rural area, her father refused to co-sign for the car she needed. "He didn't want his daughter driving to the boondocks," she recalled.
Eventually, she married a military man, moved to Prince George's and taught at Fairmont Heights, where Gholson was principal.
When she became assistant superintendent, she said, the salaries were published, and she learned that hers was $1,000 less than a white male counterpart's. When she protested, she said, the superintendent told her, "We knew that, but this is a man with a family, and we thought he was entitled . . . but we'll correct it."
To applause, Pruden then said, "And I got my salary retroactive."
CAPTION: At left, Prince George's Community College freshman Samantha Minor, standing, talks with Parthenia S. Pruden, former assistant superintendent of Prince George's schools, at a forum at the college. Below, James Gholson, former coordinator for the 1972 desegregation plan for the school system, speaks at the forum.