The Brown v. Board decision was heralded as a landmark step in the quest to end racial discrimination when it was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court a half-century ago. Yet, in Prince George's County, as in most cities and counties where segregation had been legal, the changes that resulted from the ruling unfolded at a glacial pace.
It was not until nearly a year after the decision that the Prince George's Board of Education even got around to assigning a task force to study how to integrate the county's schools. And it was not until at least a decade after the Supreme Court decision that a substantial shift was evident in the county's classrooms.
Yet, in ways small and large, the Brown ruling was an important moment in Prince George's long and often turbulent evolution into a majority-black suburb. It led, nearly 20 years after Brown, to court-ordered busing to end school segregation, a decision that prompted widespread protests and was followed by the migration of tens of thousands of whites out of Prince George's.
"It moved what was essentially apartheid away from Prince George's County," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University provost and the former chairman of the county's Board of Education. "It showed how we can breathe life into constitutional concepts and improve the condition of peoples' lives."
If change was less than swift, Prince George's was not unusual. In the 11 southern states and six border states that had policies of segregation, no script existed for undoing a system that had existed for as long as anyone could remember. "Nothing happened at all in most places for the first decade," said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor who has studied the Brown decision. "The court didn't define what desegregation was. It said 'do something' with all deliberate speed. But we didn't have a clear policy."
In the early 1950s, Prince George's was a far different county than it is today. Predominantly white and rural, most of its residents (about 195,000 by 1950) lived close to Washington in communities such as Fairmount Heights and Capitol Heights, Suitland and Seat Pleasant. In 1954, the year Brown was handed down, the Prince George's school system was made up of 37,300 white students and 5,700 blacks attending segregated schools. Black and white teachers and administrators were also assigned to separate schools.
Fourteen months after the Brown ruling, a task force established by the county's school board recommended a policy of desegregation where "classroom facilities and other conditions permit." The task force called for a "freedom of choice" plan, in which students could attend segregated schools but could also apply for transfers to schools nearest their homes regardless of the racial makeup. A survey by the committee found that blacks in Prince George's favored immediate desegregation, while whites wanted gradual change.
In response to the committee's report, the Prince George's school board announced that while it would not compel students to enroll at specific schools, it would not deny anyone the "privilege of transferring to another school." However, the board also declared that during the period of transition that it could delay or deny the admission of a pupil to any school if it deemed it "wise and necessary."
During the 1955-56 school year in Prince George's, 65 black students were permitted to transfer. Another 26 black students applied for a transfer, but their requests were denied. Only eight of the county's 104 schools were integrated that school year.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, then a sophomore at Suitland High School, which was virtually all white, said that the Brown ruling prompted little talk in his circle. "There was no substantial change at that time," Hoyer said. "I don't remember any discussion."
By May 1957, only 153 of the county's 6,785 black students attended schools with mixed enrollments. School officials acknowledged publicly that a consensus existed on the Board of Education to accomplish desegregation with "deliberate speed." William Schmidt, then the schools superintendent, credited the slow pace with helping the county to avoid racial conflict at the schools. Although black community leaders expressed unhappiness with the pace of desegregation, they did not exert organized pressure to alter the policy.
The story in the rest of the country was not much different. By 1964-65, only 20 percent of the nation's black students were enrolled at racially mixed schools. But it was also the time when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and the federal government began to actively pressure cities and counties to integrate their schools. In 1965, federal education officials began threatening to cut off funding to counties that did not speed up their efforts. The threat worked. In Prince George's, school officials eliminated the "freedom of choice" policy and redrew school boundaries. The impact was almost immediate: Black enrollment at desegregated schools almost doubled. Some schools, however, remained segregated.
J. Franklyn Bourne, the head of the local NAACP, called the school board's new policy satisfactory. But the plan sparked anger among whites. When Bourne rose to speak at a school board meeting, more than 200 whites walked out. "There will be a holocaust in the county if you put this plan into effect," Leonard Richardson, a leader of the white parents' faction, was quoted as saying. But there was no violence. When schools opened in September, reporters quoted Richardson as saying, "It's been peaceful. The plan has been a success so far."
The goodwill did not last. By 1970, 219 of the county's 226 schools had mixed enrollment. But many black leaders in Prince George's complained that there was a gross inequity in the quality of the schools. While 80 percent of the county was still white, the NAACP found that a preponderance of blacks attended all-black schools.
In 1972, Sylvester Vaughns, a resident of Palmer Park, led a group of local parents in filing a federal lawsuit that claimed that the county's enrollment policy violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The proceedings in Judge Frank A. Kaufman's Baltimore courtroom prompted national attention. One day, a half-dozen members of the American Nazi Party showed up to watch. "They had swastikas, khaki uniforms, boots, belts -- they looked like Gestapo guys," said Andrew Nussbaum, the Prince George's school board attorney whose father, Paul, represented the county during the lawsuit.
Kaufman's busing order triggered clamorous debate and protests. Five thousand people attended a demonstration against the decision at Rosecroft Raceway. Thousands showed up to protest in Annapolis. "Busing was the hottest issue that I have confronted in all my years of public service," said Hoyer, who was elected to the Maryland General Assembly in 1966. "There was a lot of anger. There was a fair amount of racism, no one can deny that."
But the congressman also said that whites had legitimate concerns about their children being bused to neighborhoods far from their own and sent to high schools where there was "going to be a hostile environment. In some schools, it was the case."
Thousands of white families migrated out in the years after Kaufman's ruling, a departure that Prince George's leaders and academics have attributed not only to busing but to the emergence of new housing in the county that was attracting black families from the District. Whatever the root cause, white enrollment at Prince George's public schools declined by 63,00 by 1980.
A decade after Kaufman's ruling, the NAACP sought to reopen the lawsuit, which led to the creation of 33 magnet schools established to draw white students to predominantly black schools. By 1998, Prince George's was about 63 percent black and few thought it made sense anymore to bus African American students to predominantly black schools.
Over time, the discourse over education issues have changed. Instead of integration, educators talk about distributing resources equitably, as embodied in the Thornton commission's quest to funnel hundreds of millions into schools in black neighborhoods. It is a goal that was almost unimaginable a half a century ago when the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down.
"It's the difference between night and day -- we've made so much progress," said Doyle Neimann, a former Prince George's school board member, and a state delegate to the General Assembly. "Brown was the first major break in the system of Jim Crow, which led to the transformation of society. And it helped to create this county, a minority-majority suburb, with a spectrum of wealth and power unthinkable in 1954."