In early 1953, the head of private Georgetown Preparatory School convened a meeting of advisers to wrestle with a potentially explosive problem: an application from a black family, the first ever, seeking admittance for their son to the seventh grade.
The meeting at the Jesuit boys' school in North Bethesda came to order and, the minutes show, got to the heart of the matter:
"Question: Should a colored applicant who qualifies be accepted?"
"Against Acceptance: . . . Our students in this class are principally from the South. These families are invincibly prejudiced. . . . The 11-year-old boy will find it difficult on the occasion of dances and other socials. He will be served at table by colored help who will not prove friendly. His personal social adjustment may suffer a serious set-back," according to the minutes in the school archives.
"For Acceptance: The acceptance of a colored applicant who qualifies is the ideal and should be put into practice. . . . Rejection may brand the school as un-Christian. . . . Acceptance of all qualified applicants will come eventually. Now is the time for us to take a step."
The issue was starting to roil the small world of private, independent schools in the Washington area. A few of them had been founded as interracial schools -- Green Acres in Rockville in 1935, Georgetown Day in the District in 1945 and Burgundy Farm Country Day in Alexandria in 1946 -- but they were the exceptions. Tortured debates were waged at others, especially after Beauvoir School in the District accepted a black student in 1952.
As Georgetown Prep wrestled with its decision, the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on Brown v. Board of Education, the case that would desegregate public schools. The historic decision, in 1954, had no legal bearing on private schools, but they, too, felt history moving in their direction.
In Brown's wake, private "white-flight academies" opened in parts of Virginia as havens from integrated public schools, according to Sally K. Boese, executive director of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools, but none endured. Mainstream independent schools -- selective, academically rigorous private schools supported by tuition rather than government or church funding -- began, fitfully, to integrate.
Georgetown Prep admitted the seventh-grader, Anthony Pierce, in 1953, although he later transferred to a majority-black public high school. Coed Sidwell Friends School in the District dropped its all-whites policy in 1956 after trustees outvoted the head of the board, who feared interracial marriage, according to letters he wrote at the time. St. Albans School in the District followed a year later, admitting a sixth-grader named Frank Snowden Jr., now a Yale University professor. Bullis School in Potomac accepted its first black in 1966, and St. Stephen's in Alexandria in 1969.
In 1965, there were 19 independent schools in the area enrolling a total of 120 black children, a tiny fraction of total enrollment. Many of them were the children of foreign diplomats or World Bank employees rather than permanent local residents. Today, the 84 schools in the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington are on average 26 percent diverse, compared with the national average of 20 percent among the national association's nearly 1,200 independent schools.
Today, as in public schools, diversity encompasses all minorities and goes beyond student numbers to include representation on the faculty and in the curriculum, so that they are not merely admitted but also allowed to shape the educational experience of all students.
Now, the struggles of black students to gain admission and cultural acceptance at private schools are being eclipsed by those of the new underrepresented minority, Latinos, who feel that they must catch up with both whites and blacks. "They are actively seeking Latino applicants, definitely, but it's slow," said Alejandro Saavedra, interim director of the 10-year-old Latino Student Fund, which provides scholarships to Latinos. "And there is still bias considering blacks as the minority."
And now, "exclusive" private schools tend to earn the adjective less for racial, cultural or intellectual reasons than for economic ones. Tuition in the Washington area runs as high as $21,000 a year, dividing paying customers and scholarship students into the haves and have-nots until their performance in class and on the playing fields redefines them.
Barbara Patterson, head of the 40-year-old Black Student Fund, which provides private-school scholarships for blacks, has seen a resurgence in expressions of racial prejudice in private schools, as elsewhere, since the 2001 terrorist attacks sparked what she said is fear of people who look different from whites. "We see change in lots of different ways, but then sometimes you see the same old same old," she said.
A Young Pioneer
Frank Snowden Jr., who attended his 40th high school reunion this month, knows what "same old" meant for the pioneering blacks in private schools. He was the first to attend and graduate from St. Albans, an Episcopal school in the District for boys in grades 4 through 12.
His father was a prominent Howard University educator -- many of the first blacks to enter private schools here had Howard connections -- and was determined that his son succeed academically, as his own father had demanded of him. "His aspiration for me was to have demonstrated racial equality by achieving educational equality," he said.
It wasn't easy, recalled Snowden, who went on to Harvard University and is now a history professor at Yale. Although he never felt that any faculty member treated him unfairly because of his race, some students were not as merciful.
"I wasn't made to forget," he said.
In his first three years, students called him names and told him to go back to Africa, he said. Often, party invitations were sent to 51 of the 52 students in his class. When he was included, the parents of the host might call his mother and say, " 'We watched your son the entire time, and he didn't swear.' " Once, a good friend backed off doing a science project with him. "He called to tell me, 'My parents said if you come to my house, my sisters will have black babies.' I was 13."
Boys challenged him to fight, but he resisted.
"I was imbued with the fact that it was not just my story but a collective endeavor," he said, reflecting the sentiment of many blacks attending majority-white schools. "I was very afraid to do anything that would reflect badly. And I didn't want to do anything that would get me expelled."
Eventually, however, he agreed to a wrestling match with one of his "tormenters."
"I made sure I won," he said.
The harassment diminished in high school, where he excelled in athletics and academics, but exclusion took new forms. For spelling bees or sporting events at all-white schools, he would be "unceremoniously dropped" from the team for a day, he said.
In his senior year, the boy who had given him the most trouble over the years came up to him, weeping. "He put his arms around me and said, 'Frank, will you forgive me?' "
" 'Yes, I have,' " he recalled telling the boy. Then they shook hands.
Finding Their Voice
Like Snowden, minority students in private schools in the 1950s and 1960s rarely complained about harassment, threats or indifference, feeling an obligation to those who would follow and a sense that speaking up wouldn't do any good -- or would get them thrown out. It was in the 1970s and 1980s, said Agnes Underwood, former head of the National Cathedral School in the District, that they found their voices.
"The floodgate opened, and these children and their parents started to say, 'Make this a better place for children of color,' " she said. "They complained that the faculty didn't really understand how difficult it was. . . . We didn't understand how difficult it was to be a significant minority. There wasn't a respect for the history and culture of people of color. It was ignored in the curriculum, for example."
Patricia Talbert Smith, 45, attended NCS in the 1970s. She said she greatly enjoyed her time there but felt it keenly when she was the only black student in her classes -- especially when one of her favorite teachers assigned "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Underwood dropped the book from the curriculum 20 years later.
Smith is now academic dean of private Norwood School in Bethesda, which her daughter, Courtney, attends and where 45 of the 526 students are black and 22 percent are minority. Courtney, an eighth-grader, said she loves her school, though as one of three black students in her class, she feels both in the spotlight and hidden in a corner.
"I usually feel like I do stand out, though most times I feel invisible because I feel like I'm the one making all of the efforts, because I don't get invited to a lot of social stuff," she said. "Sometimes when a certain situation has happened, I usually say to myself, 'Did that just happen because I'm black?' . . . I know a lot about my mom's experiences, and sometimes she'll tell me the same thing happened 30 years ago."
Pat Smith teaches a course in cross-racial communication at an institute run by Patterson, plain-spoken head of the Black Student Fund, who has become a force in the integration of private schools in the region. "Diversity" is a word she can't tolerate; she could do without "students of color," too.
"They're black," she said. "Let's call it like it is."
Patterson praises the 43 area independent schools who are members of the Black Student Fund because of their commitment to welcoming and improving the experience of black students. Since 1964, the fund has not only helped black students get into independent schools, but also helped ensure that they have the resources to succeed.
It wasn't until the 1990s, Patterson said, that schools started to understand the need to make substantive changes in the curriculum, teaching methods and student activities. In 1994, she created a diversity institute that still instructs private school teachers in the different communication styles of blacks and whites.
For example, Patterson said black parents tend to speak more directly to their children than do white parents. "If the white teacher tells a student to listen to their inner selves and sit down, the black child isn't going to understand," she said. "The kids get blamed for teachers' failure to cross-culturally communicate."
Patterson is on to something, said Jonathon Jackson, 17, a black junior at Georgetown Prep, now 9 percent black and about 30 percent minority. Jackson said he loves Georgetown Prep, where he has friends of different backgrounds. But he is sometimes the only black student in his classroom, and racial problems, though not overt, can be "subtle things, like people making jokes."
This is where Patterson sees the clock slipping back. She said she has received more complaints about racial incidents from minority students in private schools since 9/11 than she did three years ago. "We clearly see problems arising now that we thought were taken care of," she said. "I think that what is going on is that children and parents feel free to be negative about people that are different."
It took Snowden 35 years to go to a reunion at St. Albans, now about 25 percent minority and a place he says he wouldn't hesitate to send a son. For a time, "I was too filled with conflicting emotions" to return, he said. After he did, he was asked to describe his school experience in the alumni magazine. Writing the article was cathartic, he said, adding that some of his classmates "were quite surprised . . . by the comprehensive picture of what had been going on."