In fall 1955, word quickly spread through Northwestern High School that a black student had enrolled. Some white boys talked about having their pocket knives ready in case there was trouble.
But when 15-year-old Willie Edgar Thomas of North Brentwood arrived at the Hyattsville school on the morning of Sept. 6, the last thing on his mind was making trouble. He and his parents walked into the school office and met with the principal, John P. Speicher.
"Shortly after my parents left, I was sent to the library and then to my homeroom," Thomas, now 64, recalled as he sat in the living room of his Beltsville home. Thomas, who had two older and four younger siblings, would have attended Fairmont Heights High School, but after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, his mother decided to write to the Prince George's County Board of Education to request a transfer for him to attend Northwestern. The majority white board approved the request.
It was a grim time. For three years, Thomas ignored cold stares, insults and isolation, he said. But when he graduated, he had earned a place in history.
"We really didn't know what to expect, because the races didn't mix back then," said William "Bill" Breazeale, 63, a locksmith and Kensington resident, who is white and graduated with Thomas and 487 others in 1958. "Back in those days you didn't see blacks and whites walking down the street together. Kids were saying what they were going to do to this guy. He was the only black guy in the school for all three years."
"At least half the boys in the school carried Italian stiletto [knives] once they heard that a black kid was coming to the school," Breazeale said. "But when he showed up he didn't have a chip on his shoulder."
Thomas said he never knew that young men carried knives. But he remembered one boy who continually harassed him." In the classroom it was business and very little socializing," Thomas said. "I did not socialize in the hallway. The situation was not as controlled, and there was a concern because you had this one guy who always had something to say.
"Every time he saw me he would say something insulting," Thomas said, adding that for three years the student called him a "nigger" "two or three times a day."
Breazeale said that while some students were skeptical about integration, by the time Thomas graduated he had earned the respect of many classmates. "By the time he graduated, he was part of the woodwork," Breazeale said.
Linda Simpson, 61, a retired Prince George's County schoolteacher who lives in Laurel, is Breazeale's sister. She also remembers Thomas. "People looked up to this young man. He was a nice guy. I never heard one negative thing. He seemed to be a loner by choice."
Thomas said the first two years he was at Northwestern, he kept to himself, with the exception of a few field trips. He said he had little social interaction with other students, and even during lunch, he usually sat alone. "Sometimes this guy would sit down. I knew who he was, but we wouldn't talk."
. Thomas began to find a niche with a group of math and science buffs who ate together in the cafeteria.
"They were nerds who liked mathematics and science, like me."
"For me, it was an opportunity. When I grew up in North Brentwood it wasn't as nice as it is now," Thomas said. "The focus was to make a better life for your family."
Thomas said he doesn't feel like a hero because for the people who came along behind him, it was tougher. "My expectations from the social side was pretty low. [Going to an all-white school] was not a big problem for me. It was for a lot of the black students who came after me, because they expected things to be a lot better and they were not."
Thomas attended the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was the lone African American majoring in chemical engineering.
"I was part of a movement of a lot of people," said Thomas, who retired last year after working as chemical engineer for several major companies on the East Coast. His first job was with Hercules Powder Company in Cumberland, Md. He also worked for Exxon Research and Engineering in New Jersey and with FMC in Baltimore.
Thomas and his wife, Brenda, a Head Start teacher, have been married for 40 years. They have four children: Brian, Krista, Macco and Bari.