Six years after a U.S. court ordered Prince George's County to desegregate its schools through massive busing, hundreds of county school-children -- most of them black -- are boarding buses each day for long rides that bring little integration.
This is because the busing assignments still are based on the racial composition of neighborhoods in 1973, and since then there has been a dramatic increase in the number of blacks moving into previously all-white communities.
In part, the 1973 bus routes continue because the Supreme Court has ruled that annual changes in busing plans are not needed. Prince George's school officials also have been fearful of a new lawsuit that might bring an even more drastic busing plan.
As a result:
In Riverbend, a community of large modern homes close to the Potomac River, 58 black children and 38 whites are bused to an elementary school seven miles away. The school at the end of the ride, Owens Road Elementary in Oxon Hill, is overwhelmingly black.
At the Marlow Overlook Apartments in Hillcrest Heights about 150 children ride the bus to Green Valley Elementary School instead of walking to nearby Sandymount school. When the apartments were shifted to Green Valley under the 1973 court order almost all the tenants were white. Now, virtually all the elementary school children from the apartments are black, but the buses still make the same trip.
About 150 black children from an area where students once walked to Green Valley Elementary still are bused in the other direction, again without helping desegregation. Both Green Valley and Sandymount schools are about 80 percent black.
Under the 1973 plan, children from the Kettering development near Capital Centre were sent to four elementary schools to provide white children for integration. Kettering itself now has become about 40 percent black, but its school children still are divided. In East Kettering almost all the children boarding buses to go to school in black neighborhoods elsewhere are black themselves.
"Right now in my area all we're doing is trading blacks for blacks," said Lynwood Eaton, a black State Department employe who lives in Hillcrest Heights. "It's costly.It fragments the neighborhood. It doesn't make sense.
"In the early 1970s there were legitimate reasons to have busing," Eaton continued. "It was a lever to bring up the quality of schools for blacks. But now I think it's served that purpose."
William Martin, newly installed president of the county chapter of the NAACP, said, "The county has changed a lot in the past six years. But the busing doesn't recognize that reality... There are more and more integrated communities and a decreasing number of whites. We have to come to terms with that."
Since busing began in January 1973, the number of whites attending Prince George's schools has dropped by almost 49,000 -- a decline of 41 percent. The number of blacks enrolled has climbed by about 18,000, or 45 percent.
As a result, blacks now comprise 44 percent of the 133,613 students in the school system, compared to 25 percent of the 161,969 enrolled just before busing began.
Before the court order -- and one of the prime reasons for it -- 58 percent of Prince George's black students attended majority-black schools. Under the guidelines for desegregation established by U.S. District Court Judge Frank Kaufman, every school was to have an enrollment of between 10 percent and 50 percent black.
When the first busing assignments were made, only one small school was slightly more than half black.
Even though almost no changes in attendance boundaries have since occurred, last fall 94 of Prince George's 226 schools had black majorities, including 10 schools that were more than 80 percent black.
These majority-black schools now enroll almost 56 percent of Prince George's black students.
"All of the changes have come from population trends, not from any boundary changes or any official action by the board," said Paul Nussbaum, attorney for the school board. "As long as the schools don't become resegregated because of an official act of the school system, there's no (legal) problem."
To many families living in Riverbend -- white and black -- there is a definite problem.
Most of the houses in the community, which is spread over wooded hillsides, have four or five bedrooms, two-car garages, and central air-conditioning. They appear to be generous slices of the American Dream.
The community itself, which is about three miles south of Washington, is part of another American Dream. It is integrated, and comfortably so, not with the tensions of rich versus poor that mark Capitol Hill and Southwest Washington, but with the ease of social equals living next door -- a black chemist and a white lawyer, a white businessman and a black Army colonel.
This winter just over 50 percent of the residents are black. But about 60 percent of the children going seven miles by bus to public school are black, according to new school board figures. The school they go to, Owens Road, is 85 percent black.
"We feel trapped, trapped again, just after we thought we had found a way out," said Van Gilmer, a black architect who serves as vice-president of the Riverbend Homeowners' association. "When we moved into the neighborhood we saw the schools and thought they would be for our children. Then we heard talk about busing to Owens Road, and a bell popped in our heads. The system is doing it to us again: my children are being forced into a segregated environment."
"We want integration for our community and we want our children to go to integrated schools, but that's not what's happening," said James Hudnall, a white engineer who is president of the homeowners association.
"Whenever we want a change, the school board says they can't do it because of the court order. It seems that what's reasonable isn't legal and what's legal isn't reasonable. It doesn't make sense."
When the busing order was issued, it did seem to make sense as a plan for exchanging children between white and black neighborhoods.
In 1973 most of the blacks in Prince George's County were concentrated between the District of Columbia line and the Capital Beltway. Most of the busing involved exchanges between their neighborhood schools and those in white areas still dotted nearby or those in the next tier out from the District of Columbia, which was heavily white.
The areas of Prince George's that are farthest from the District of Columbia also were heavily white but the busing that involved this sector was less extensive because of the long distances between black and white communities.
In the last six years the ring inside the Beltway has become more heavily black. The middle ring, which includes Riverbend and Kettering, has become integrated. Substantial numbers of blacks have moved into the outer ring as well, but much of it remains heavily white.
It is in the middle ring of the county -- about four miles out from the Beltway -- that the most "natural integration" has occurred. It is there that neighborhood schools would be integrated according to court guidelines if local children went to them.
If that happened, though, some schools inside the Beltway, which already are 70 to 90 percent black, would lose most of their whites and become over 90 percent black.
Theoretically, this could be countered by bringing whites in from the far rim of the county and sending blacks there, in effect leap-frogging the integrated areas in the middle. But that would involve many bus rides of an hour or more, school officials say, instead of the maximum of 35 minutes mentioned in the court order.
When the desegregation order was carried out in 1973, about 33,000 children -- almost half of them black -- were assigned to new schools. Officials say thet have not calculated how many children now are transported away from neighborhood schools under the plan, but since white enrollment has fallen sharply and the number of blacks has increased, they believe a substantial majority of those now being bused are black.
"There are a growing number of people who would like to decrease this busing, and not all of them are white, either," said Martin, who has headed the local NAACP since January. "A lot of blacks feel the same way."
Yesterday Martin, who has headed the local NAACP since early January, reached an agreement with county school board chairman Norman Saunders, setting up a procedure to allow children from integrated neighborhoods to go to neighborhood schools.
The agreement requires approval from a membership meeting of the NAACP as well as by the school board. It already has run into sharp opposition from Sylvester Vaughns, the former president of the NAACP who was one of the plaintiffs in the desegregation case, because of a provision sanctioning schools that are virtually all-black if communities approve of them.
Last year, in response to a request by the school board, Supt. Edward J. Feeney presented a plan that would have sharply reduced the number of children being bused out of their neighborhoods. It also would have cut by one-third the number of majorityblack schools.
The plan involved closing 11 schools, which drew complaints from parents -- either black or white -- who lived near them. It also would have increased the percentage of blacks in nost of the majority-black schools remaining, an outcome that prompted strong opposition. Bonnie F. Johns, the only black voting member of the school board, called it a move toward racial isolation. Vaughns said he would go back to court if the board approved it.
Eventually, the plan was tabled by its chief backer, Sue Mills, now a member of the County Council, who had been the most outspoken foe of busing on the school board.
Mills said she thought the plan failed because it was tied to school closings. This year the board decided to first tackle school closings before trying to reduce busing, but it has found it difficult to keep the two issues separate.
"Last year's plan really would have meant more integration for many more black and white children and more stability for the county," one school official remarked. "But there were those remaining black schools in the heavy black areas which you really can't integrate without an enormous amount of busing. I suppose we just had to write them off as far as much desegregation was concerned to get a lot of desegregation elsewhere. You know, even with the busing we have now they're getting blacker very quickly.
Last spring a small group formed and called itself the Black Coalition Against Unnecessary Busing. It included some Riverbend parents and several dozen others throughout the county.
James Garrett, the chairman of the group, said, "Prince George's now is one the most integrated counties in the United States, and we want to keep it that way. But you're not going to do that with busing.
"Let's face reality. You can't really mandate that you'll have whites in the schools. And I'm not willing to have my children chase them all the way to Charles County or Virginia just to sit next to them in the classroom...
"Look, the integrated communities ought to have their integrated neighborhood schools. If you continue to bus and bus and bus, then almost the whole Prince George's school system is going to become black, and then where's the integration?"
Vaughns agreed that busing has produced some white flight from the school system and discouraged other whites from settling in Prince George's County.
"But that doesn't bother me," he said. "It's not for me to argue with them. So what if they leave? You certainly can't go back to the dual school system to stop them."
Vaughns said he thought the school system soon would be predominantly black. He said he thought the county's overall population also would become more than 50 percent black. (Last year blacks accounted for 30 percent of the county's population, compared to 15 percent in 1970.)
Richard V. Falcon, a white raw professor from Baltimore who represented the black parents in the 1973 desegregation case, said "We don't know, but let's just assume that one of the consequences of the desegregation order was to rid Prince George's of white racists. I would say, 'Good riddance.' That may have been as good a reason to bring the suit as any I can think of."