When the white kids spotted 9-year-old Carl O. Snowden in their newly integrated classroom, the first thing they wanted to know was whether the color of his black skin ever changed, chameleon-like, or if the color could come off.
They also wanted to know what the young boy's kinky hair felt like. And he had similar curiosities about them.
It was 1962, and there wasn't much space for their parents' politics in the fourth-grade classroom at Annapolis Elementary School. Sure, Snowden's parents had told him to be careful. "Don't play with the white girls," they said. "Keep your hands to yourself and study hard." The white children had received their own warnings. But for the most part, innocent curiosity triumphed over prejudice.
The meeting of races was an anticlimax, eight years after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ended public school segregation in the United States, at least on paper. From the distance of 50 years, only landmarks stand out, and one of those still-vivid milestones is the Supreme Court's famous Brown ruling. The truth is that segregation did not end the day after the court reached its unanimous decision on May 17, 1954. In Anne Arundel, as in the rest of the nation, the case only lifted the curtain on a long struggle composed of many individual battles, most fought at the local level, that have been swallowed by the passage of time.
In Anne Arundel, the struggle did not end until 1966, when the county school system was officially integrated. A child entering first grade in 1954 could still be going to a segregated school by the time he graduated from the public school system.
At the outset, there was more optimism, with many, both black and white, saying the ruling had been overdue. The Maryland Board of Education responded to the Brown decision by ordering local school districts to make their own plans to integrate the schools.
"The Supreme Court of the land has spoken," the Board of Education said in a statement issued nine days after the court decision. "We are confident that the local school boards, the local school officials, and the parents will settle this problem without resorting to chicanery or devious methods and with due regard for the rights of all parties concerned."
Some districts responded quickly, with Allegany, Baltimore and Carroll counties all integrating their school systems in 1955. But Anne Arundel, like many other counties, opted instead to integrate on a grade-by-grade basis, starting with the elementary school grades. Those plans could take years to unfold, depending on local resistance. Howard County integrated in 1963 and Prince George's in 1973. Montgomery County, which integrated in 1961, elected to begin in the southern, more urban part of the county rather than desegregating by grade.
Meanwhile, white parents in Anne Arundel, especially in the southern part of the county, began to contest the court decision in letters, petitions and protests.
"In order to assure equal protection of the law to each race and to prevent development of an inferiority complex in any child, no children should be compelled to undertake public education under instructors not of his own race without consent of his parents or guardians," read one point of the "West River Proclamation," a resolution signed by the parent-teacher associations of Southern High School and the now-closed Owensville Elementary School. Another petition circulated by the Maryland Petition Committee described the Brown decision as "an invasion and violation of our individual rights."
Despite the protests, the county Board of Education voted to integrate grades 1-3 starting in the fall of 1956. The order was tested when the parents of Jill Brown attempted to send the black girl to all-white Ferndale Elementary School but were denied admission. Her parents appealed, and the school board ordered her admitted.
Though Jill Brown's case represented a small victory for integration, 60 percent of black students were still attending all-black schools in 1965. Philip L. Brown, a county historian who served as vice principal of Bates High School in Annapolis -- renamed Annapolis Middle High School when it was integrated -- and wrote a book about desegregation called "A Century of 'Separate but Equal' Education in Anne Arundel County," pinned the blame for the slowness of desegregation on the superintendent at the time, David S. Jenkins.
"The buck stopped with him," Brown said. "He would get objections from some of the white parents, particularly in the southern part of the county. . . . Judging by his actions, I think he was opposed to [desegregation], and he was doing what the larger population of the county, the white population, wanted."
In the end, it took the Civil Rights Act of 1966, and the threat of losing federal aid for education, to do away with the dual system for good. On March 17, 1966, the county school board, after having put off the day of reckoning for years, ordered total desegregation that fall.
Brown was in the unusual position of teaching at an all-black school that suddenly received an influx of white students, but he found that both sides generally behaved themselves.
"We never had any problems at Bates that we couldn't settle at Bates," Brown said. "We didn't have any fighting."
And so it was that, in Anne Arundel as in the rest of the nation, doors began to quietly open to black achievement. They opened for the three members of the Annapolis City Council who are black; they opened for Judge Clayton Greene of the Maryland Court of Appeals and for Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the head of the Court of Appeals and Maryland's highest-ranking judge. They opened for Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore lawyer who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to become a Supreme Court justice, and for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
They even opened for Carl Snowden -- now a special assistant to County Executive Janet S. Owens -- who has dedicated his life to fighting for black civil rights, sometimes literally.
At 9 years old, he was only dimly aware that he was a part of something important.
"I think people were all fairly nervous, because they didn't know what was going to happen," Snowden said.
He recalled getting "into a few brawls," mostly prompted by white classmates' use of racial slurs, he said. They were "fighting words," Snowden remembered.
On the whole, though, the transition was relatively painless, historian Brown remembered. "Of course we had some trepidation as to how the coloreds would be treated," he said. "But as [whites] began going to class together [with blacks], going to lunch together, for the most part, as they got together, they began to realize that it wasn't so bad." As it turned out, Snowden was involved in one of the few incidents that required police intervention. In February 1970, he and 200 other students boycotted classes and smashed windows at Annapolis High School over the lack of a black studies program and black administrators. The police were called in; four students were arrested, 43 were suspended and 15 were expelled.
"Some people referred to it as a riot, but I think it's better referred to as a melee," said Snowden, who was among those expelled. He finished his education at the private Key School in Annapolis but didn't regret the decision to join the uprising.
"It was the only tool available at the time," he said. "Looking back at the county's history, it actually contributed to an improved situation."
Still, Snowden thinks there is more work to do.
So does Judge Bell.
"I think you're not going to get rid of discrimination until you change people's minds and hearts," he recently told an audience of students at Anne Arundel Community College. "We're human beings, and we ought to treat human beings as the golden rule suggests."
The Annapolis Middle High School chorus, from the school's 1967-1968 "Lair" yearbook, which also reflects integrated classes, faculty and clubs. The school system was officially integrated in 1966.Discrimination won't fully end, said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland's highest-ranking judge, "until you change people's minds and hearts." Civil rights activist Carl O. Snowden is now a special assistant to the Anne Arundel County executive.