Sylvester Vaughns didn't know much about Prince George's County, much less Palmer Park, when he began looking for a house in 1966.

When he found a three-bedroom duplex on a nice street with an elementary school and junior high nearby, he was ready to buy.

But not long after Vaughns and other blacks unloaded their furniture from moving vans, whites were packing theirs up.

It was happening all across Prince George's County.

"Neighborhoods were changing like that," Vaughns said, snapping his fingers. "It happened in Palmer Park, Kentland, Columbia Park. Then it started happening further out, like in Bladensburg."

The influx of blacks and the exodus of whites was doing little to help integrate the public schools, even as school systems were being prodded to desegregate in the years after Brown v. Board of Education.

After just a couple of years in Prince George's, Vaughns was working as an administrator with Marriott and was active in the NAACP. He had participated in the civil rights organization in his hometown of Charlotte, where he also attended historically black Johnson C. Smith University.

In 1970, Vaughns and other NAACP members began taking the Prince George's school board to task for not doing anything about the predominantly single-race schools that were the norm in the county.

"The board was kind of stubborn about it," Vaughns said. "The neighborhood school was almost all black. So my kids were part of a segregated system that the county was fostering. And they wouldn't do anything to change that."

After lobbying got them nowhere, Vaughns decided to take legal action. It had been nearly 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the idea of "separate but equal" in the Brown ruling. Vaughns had finished school at J.H. Gunn High School in North Carolina a year before the court's decision. But it had come in time for his children.

In 1972, Vaughns (then president of the county NAACP) and his son Sylvester Jr. became the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit that eventually led to busing in Prince George's County public schools. Black students would be sent to white schools and vice versa.

"If there was work to do, he would do it," said Barbara Martin, a retired teacher who has known Vaughns for more than 40 years.

Alvin Thornton, associate provost at Howard University and a former chairman of the Prince George's County school board, said that Vaughns was not unlike many of his contemporaries who got involved in or led desegregation efforts.

From Arkansas to Alabama to Maryland, African Americans who were well-educated, civic-minded and middle-class were at the forefront of the movement.

"He was in leadership and aware of what was going on," Thornton said. "And he and others were willing to let their children be part of the test group."

Vaughns didn't know the extent of the problems that segregation caused for black students until he saw and was told about the changes that were made when white students were bused into black schools.

For example, at a school in Fairmount Heights, black students had to trek in mud to walk around the school. After desegregation, Vaughns said, there was no more mud, flowers were planted and water fountains were installed.

"They really spruced [the schools] up because they knew the white kids were coming," Vaughns said. "It really ticked me off to know that they were ready to let them stay that way, even though I may not have realized that it was bad comparatively."

Similar changes were made in the classrooms.

Vaughns said his daughter Olivia remembered having only one microscope in science class at Kent Junior High, an all-black school. When she went to Kenmoor, a racially mixed school, there were microscopes all around the science room.

"They [whites] will put money and the resources where their kids go," Vaughns said.

But desegregation was not only about resources. It was also about social interaction.

Vaughns, who became a Republican in the 1970s because, as he once put it, "segregation always had to do with Democrats," said he believes, even now, that it is best for children to get to know their peers of different races.

"My daughter tells the story how one of the white girls in gym said, 'Y'all sweat just like we do,' " said Vaughns, who went to work in 1975 as an administrative assistant for the county government. "She had not been around black kids. That was a learning experience for that child."

During a television interview in 1997 about the end of busing, Vaughns' son, Sylvester Jr., said he wasn't that big on desegregation.

"I believe I can take my two black kids in a black neighborhood and they'd turn out as good as anybody's kids," Sylvester Jr. said in the interview.

Vaughns, who was appointed to the county planning board last year, doesn't necessarily disagree with his son.

"I grew up in a segregated environment, and I grew up to be a good kid, I've done well," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't be good people. I'm not saying being around white people makes you better. But I might have had a better education if I had been in an integrated environment."

Vaughns's all-black school in North Carolina got used books from an all-white school.

Vaughns said he thinks the county made a mistake when it said in 1998 that it would end busing and return children to neighborhood schools, a process that is ongoing.

"Basically, it became an economic thing for the state," he said. "And they got out of the business of integration."

Although there's little, if any, support for the idea, Vaughns said he thinks the state should help to make schools desegregated again.

"The school system doesn't have the authority to resolve it," he said. "But the state could. What if the state was responsible for school assignment?"

Busing across county lines?

"You won't get that drive out of blacks today," he said. "There isn't a feeling that it's necessary to do."

Sylvester Vaughns was president of the county NAACP in 1972, when he and his son sued the school board.