Just a few miles from the Supreme Court, which in 1954 decreed that segregated public schools were illegal, Prince George's County continued to maintain its segregated school system for years after the ruling.
As was the case in many Washington area communities, in the late 1950s and 1960s whites and blacks lived on opposite sides of the tracks, in some cases literally, in Cheverly and elsewhere in the county. Like most Prince Georgians, former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who is black, and prominent development lawyer John Lally, who is white, began their educations attending separate schools and leading largely separate lives.
The Brown v. Board of Education ruling began to have a ripple effect when Curry and Lally were in elementary school. In 1959, Curry's father, who eventually became vice principal at all-black Fairmont Heights High School, pressed the school board to allow his sons to attend a white elementary school near their home. He prevailed, and that year, Curry and his brother Daryl integrated the school after attending an all-black elementary school in Beaver Heights. Lally, meanwhile, lived in Riverdale and went to an all-white Catholic school.
Their paths merged later at Bladensburg High School, when Curry joined a small group of black students at the school, beforea 1972 lawsuit led to full integration in Prince George's public schools.
Curry and Lally became buddies. Lally was a member of the school's basketball team; Curry was the team's manager. By their senior year, they were so popular that the student body elected them president and vice president of the class.
Their friendship has endured. Both men still live and work in Prince George's and have had highly successful careers as lawyers for developers.
They spoke recently to Washington Post Staff Writer Krissah Williams about their experiences in high school and with integration in Prince George's.
QWayne, in what part of Prince George's did you grow up?
AWAYNE K. CURRY:
I went to Fairmont Heights Elementary School for a year, maybe two, and then the new elementary school at Beaver Heights. Then at some point my parents moved down the hill to the 4th Ward of Cheverly, which was cottage-style houses, typical move-up houses for that time. The community was on the cusp of white flight, so to speak. I mean, there were still some white folks who lived there, but many were starting to sell and either go to the other side of Cheverly or to other places.
But as far as I was concerned, it was a neat little packaged, tidy neighborhood, little bungalows and cottages. At that time, we as kids paid zero attention whatsoever to the racial makeup of people we played with.
Then [came] inexplicable kinds of events, like my old man's attitude. At a point in 1959, he and some of my neighbors sort of agitated the 4th Ward, which was by then overwhelmingly black, to send the children to the school that was closest to our house, which was Cheverly Tuxedo Elementary. At the time, [it] was a white school.
My father and others decided that they were going to make the county adhere to the 1954 Brown decision, and so they insisted that the kids in the 4th Ward be allowed to go to Cheverly Tuxedo. That would have been the summer before my fourth-grade year and my brother's fifth-grade year. . . .
So anyway, there was much agitation . . . going on. We weren't party to the strategics of it, you know, adult stuff. All we knew is we were going to a new school, and in years subsequent, Daddy explained his recollections about it, and it was essentially, to digest it and abbreviate, they insisted we go to the closest school. The school board, of course, said we don't do that. The parents kept on instigating around the subject.
It concluded with the board throwing in the towel and basically saying, you know what, you need to be careful what you ask for: If you want 'em to go, we're going to send 'em. See how you like that.
And so off trundled my brother and I and one other kid from the neighborhood to Cheverly Tuxedo to integrate the elementary school. . . .
That began the odyssey through Cheverly Tuxedo Elementary through Bladensburg Junior High and ultimately to Bladensburg Senior High, which is where I met John.
John was in my class; his wife was in fact in my class in elementary school. . . . Cheverly was kind of cool, most of the people were kids of professionals. There were only a few roughnecks. . . .
Bladensburg Junior High was quite another story. It was my first encounter with ducktail haircuts, pointed-toed shoes and those pants, the jeans that clung, I mean, for my first real exposure to the white redneck. At that time, I don't know if it was the school system or parks and planning, but somebody decided that we couldn't have any Boys' Club teams, and they raised an issue of our participation. They insisted that the way to denote our dubious status as eligible to play was that my brother and I and a couple of other guys from the neighborhood [had] to wear our jerseys inside out. [That] struck me as a mite redundant. I figured you could . . . sort of look at us and tell . . . guess which ones are the guys, you know, whose status was being questioned. It was all part of the idiocy, the lunacy of that time and how people behaved.
Tell me about Bladensburg High School, John. What was it like when you and Wayne attended from 1966 to 1968?
I was a Catholic school kid, so I went through St. Bernard's [School] over in Riverdale. I went to [Archbishop] Carroll High School, a [Catholic] boys' school downtown, and we ran out of money, so my mother informed me that despite the fact that my brothers and my sister had gone to Catholic school, now I get the grand opportunity to go to Bladensburg. Up to that point of time it was a sentence of death. . . .
So over at this place [Bladensburg High School], there's 3,000 students, and you know nada. You just survive. The first semester is kind of just a blur of not wanting to be there. And then starting to assimilate, starting to play sports and that kind of stuff and get active. . . . You try to know somebody. And of course there were very few African Americans there. A handful, maybe six or seven in our class.
Yeah, because I don't think until the point that we graduated there were 20.
I guess part of the phenomenon of my experience in high school was the kids I met that were African American were the sons and daughters of aggressive, intelligent, articulate, assertive people. So you end up meeting those kinds, those were what the kids were like, so you're meeting kids that are funny, intelligent, athletically skilled, artistically skilled, there's this high level of engagement. So you became friends. You started doing activities.
I was trying to think of what the ramifications of Brown were. Brown didn't really do anything. It just held up a flag and said, 'If you all really want to do this, it's here.' It took people to get up and go, start to change the social interrelationships, and it took a long time, it took a relatively long time to do it.
[The Brown ruling] was passed in '54, 14 years before I graduated from high school. In [that period of time] there'd been essentially only a modicum of progress, an occasional concession here or there to the dictates of the law. Of course, people in Prince George's County didn't think they had to adhere to the U.S. Constitution. What we got to listen to that for?
It was cultural. I mean, I'd get stunned, because my mom was a nurse, and she raised us after my dad passed away. She was night supervisor over at P.G. Hospital . . . in the '60s, and she'd come home with stories about how someone was in the room that night and they brought a patient in who was African American and the guy said no, no, no, I don't want him in here. And the protocol was to move the person to another room. And my mother said . . . 'We're not going to do that.' And everybody got in a hassle. . . .
So you've got a whole culture of people thinking they're right when they're doing appalling things. And that takes awhile to change. [The Brown ruling] unlocked the door, [but] it still needed to be kicked open. And a whole bunch of doors were just being kicked open in the '60s.
One of the great fascinations to me, living in a black community and going to school in a white arrangement . . . was how little either side of the divide would allow themselves to be engaged by the other.
Now I mean, me and my brother and the guys that went up through the vanguard of this mess were obviously in a novel position, because we were in both camps. And had to have, you know, a social repertoire that got you through both camps.
John, you and Wayne were president and vice president of your senior class, respectively. How did that come about, and what was the year like?
All the jocks were in charge of stuff [our junior year] and of course the jocks, of which I was one, didn't do anything. So they all didn't want to run again, so we just concocted this slate [of candidates], and [had fun.]
But I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot [on April 4, 1968] distinctly because it all kind of just became different. It was just 'Oh [expletive], what's going to happen now?' I remember calling Wayne and saying, you know, what do you think is going to happen? It was a shock for everybody, and then the riots started downtown. . . .
Everyone was sort of watching, everyone was holding their breath for about a week as things evolved downtown. And then things kind of just subsided . . . you could see in kids' faces they really weren't involved at all. I mean, they weren't social activists, they were just kids.
There was a fear, I think a tangible fear, of the unknown. What was going to happen?
And of course there was this huge and unmitigated sorrow in some of us about what happened and, of course, there was elation in some quarters about what happened. As school kids go, it was largely subdued and mellow. It never led to any serious clashes. There were occasional classroom discussions of the implications and, as John said, it subsided, and people resumed whatever sort of loose-knit relations that they had had, but with a different eye on it. . . .
How did you all, as high school students, overcome the racial barriers that existed at the time?
Well, I think one of the biggest benefits I had was to be exposed to talented kids that were better than me in certain things, be that athletics, be it popularity in school -- [Wayne was] more popular than I was. I mean, there were things that you could like, say well, okay, that guy's superior. In academics, there were guys and gals who were doing things a little bit better than me. . . . When you're among the best and the brightest of a generation, that helps you.
What's your sense of integration in the county now?
What's my sense of integration in the county now?
Yeah, now that you're overwhelmed, now that you're a minority, what's your sense of integration? How does integration feel now? [Laughs.] Now that you're the overwhelming underdog, is it a little different? Does it feel a little different?
I think you have a huge story as you've replaced a prior economic elite with a higher and a richer. You have a whole [new] economic strata that's in the county and running things. That's great. What I like about the status of integration in the county is my kids have a far different view of the world than I did. I was always walking around trying to think, am I doing this right, am I doing it right?
They're just best buds with folks, and my son, a Filipino kid is his best buddy, and there was a big mixed bag at Bowie when he went through Bowie. And I just see them very comfortable with each other, and they're far more mobile than we were.
Whenever we ventured out it was always . . . we're going on safari, and we might get killed. A bunch of us guys went down to Ocean City in '68. . . . So we're signing into the hotel room. We've got all our stuff [and] Wayne comes strolling in with his stuff, and the guy looks up and says, 'Oh, I'm sorry, we made a mistake. There's no vacancies.'
We'd just checked in, and I'm just, you know, I'm not used to people [messing] with me. I'm just kind of [upset] and Wayne grabbed me by the arm and he said 'Come on, we're outta here.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'We're outta here. . . . You're in Ocean City, man, you're not home.' I said okay.
My children have a lot more mobility [between races]. They just kind of glide in and out. It is a good feeling to see they're not walking on as many eggshells as we had to walk on.
When I was growing up [Prince George's] was small. It was rural, and it was overwhelmingly white. And to have lived through all of that turmoil with school desegregation only to emerge from wherever we are along that continuum with this [wealthy African American] community defining Prince George's County is an irony. It's almost poetic justice. . . .
The private schools that busing spawned in the '70s . . . had two consequences. One, white folks said, 'We ain't paying no more taxes, because 60 cents out of every tax dollar of property tax goes to the school system, the school system's now under siege by African Americans, I ain't paying for it. So let's do a tax freeze and take it directly out of schools.' And, two, 'Let's have our own [private] schools.' Well, now all the private schools are competing to get the best and the brightest black kids in their schools to sustain the school operation.
Those schools were established to defy the tenets of the public school [system] under the Brown decision, so it's a huge irony now that even the private schools, the elites ones on down . . . are now competing for the best and the brightest of African American children. The whole thing was born out of resistance to African Americans. It's a huge irony.
To read more excerpts from the Curry-Lally conversation, go to www.washingtonpost.com/education/specials/brown.