Elbert Young heard his principal over the Spingarn Senior High School PA system, announcing that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional. If the ruling had come earlier, Young might have attended the high school two blocks from his home.
Marty Tapscott passed closer schools on his way to Spingarn each morning. The reason he attended the all-black school in Northeast Washington never registered with him until years later.
Audrey Farrar Morton loved Spingarn, where she decided to rethink her idea of becoming a secretary and planned to study medicine.
They graduated from Spingarn the same month in 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. The court declared that segregation generated in black students "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." But many Spingarn graduates said they didn't feel that way.
"I had ambivalent feelings because I personally was not one who felt that my education was inferior," said Morton, who recently retired after a career in government service that included directing the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "I recognized that our resources were somewhat limited, but it taught us how to be creative and the teachers continued to emphasize our focus on our goals, so whatever it took to achieve those goals, we were expected to do that."
Morton, Young and Tapscott have joined nearly 90 classmates this weekend as Spingarn's Class of 1954 -- the school's first graduating class -- holds its 50th reunion. Class members, among them former government officials, military commanders, teachers and professors, will hold a prayer breakfast this morning and a cookout this afternoon.
Many graduates speak fondly of the school, where shirts and ties were required for boys and skirts for girls, where no one was allowed to leave campus for lunch, and where teachers pushed students to question everything, including what they read in textbooks.
They said they support the premises of the Brown ruling, but many said they did not fully recognize the effects of segregation until after they left high school. Their school had fewer resources than other schools, they said, but they remember Spingarn more for its devoted teachers and the extracurricular activities they enjoyed.
Floyd Patterson, 67, said he took pride in his Spingarn education when he joined the Air Force after graduation and attended electronics school -- his first experience with white classmates. But the motivation from teachers, he said, sustained graduates in the years that followed as they helped integrate colleges and workplaces.
"The education that we received at Spingarn went a long ways for giving us a head start on what we were about to face in the future, which we were not totally aware of at the time," he said.
"Looking back on it now, I think that the education that we received in those days and certainly the quality of education in high school is better than what is being received today," said Patterson, who also worked in the D.C. and U.S. government, including serving as chief of employment policy for the Department of the Interior.
For the reunion, organizers combined their original yearbook with classmates' updates about their lives. The reunion yearbook includes each student's stated career ambition in 1954 -- including Elgin Baylor's career goal of being a physical education teacher, instead of the NBA star he became.
Of those in the reunion yearbook, 107 worked in government services, 47 in education, 36 in the private sector, 11 in health services and 3 in nonprofit organizations. "Even though I hate to put it this way, expectations of African American students" were relatively low then, Morton said. But, she added, no one would know that from the class's accomplishments.
Young, the class alumni association's treasurer, served in the Air Force, earned a degree in civil engineering from Howard University and worked for the Navy. Now 67, the Hillcrest resident said he realized the importance of desegregation after graduation, but he takes issue with the city's tracking system and the condition of supplies in schools today. He sent his children to private school.
Young said he saw the positive changes the Brown ruling produced. While he was a student, though, he had not been to white schools and could not compare the experiences.
After college, Tapscott joined the D.C. police department, eventually rising to assistant police chief. He later served as police chief in Flint, Mich., and Richmond and recently retired to White Plains in Charles County.
Graduates said the class has remained particularly close and connected with the area. The Class of 1954 established a scholarship fund for new graduates, and some alumni tutor at Spingarn.
Purvis Williams, Spingarn's first principal, planned to attend the reunion and address graduates. He said he looks forward to seeing what his students have made of themselves.
"I had organized the class when they were there, and I told them what I wanted them to pay attention to," he said. "Some of them should have done very well."