IT TOOK a lot more than one court decision in 1954 to desegregate Washington's public schools. Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes, who died Thursday, spent nearly a decade as a member of the city's school board, in the tedious and abrasive work of dismantling the old structures of racial separation. When she was appointed to the board in 1960, the school system was desegregated but classrooms very often were not. Dr. Haynes assigned herself a special responsibility to end that anomaly.
The school system's administration at that time was dismayed by the migration of white students to the suburbs -- a migration that, incidentally, had begun well before 1954. Administrators responded quickly to pressure from parents who threatened to pull their children out. Assignment rules were bent. There were dual enrollment zones, in which most children (black) went in one direction to school, but a few (mostly white) went in another. Above all, there was the track system.
That was an attempt to classify children by academic ability from the day they arrived in the first grade. It was intended to reassure middle-class, educated parents that their children would not be held back, as the phrase went, in the classrooms filled with children from families that were neither middle class nor educated. But tracking worked badly, especially in the elementary grades. The criterion of ability always seemed to get mixed up with manners, diction and social class, if not race explicitly. It was a system to preserve islands of segregation.
Mrs. Haynes' position was simple. She was against segregation, covert as well as overt. By 1966-67, when she was president of the board, the old habits were disappearing rapidly.
But she never confused legal equality with intellectual mediocrity. She had a doctorate in mathematics, and had taught both in the city's high schools and at Miner Teachers College, one of the forerunners of the University of the District of Columbia. She had a clear and rigorous sense of the education that she was trying to open to all the city's children.
There is no more disinterested public service than taking a seat on the kind of school board that Washington had in those years. There weren't the present generous salaries for board members. There was no springboard to a political career. There was only a succession of long, angry meetings on issues that divided this city deeply. The great social achievement of this city, and this country, over the past generation has been the decline in racial segregation. It happened only because tough and determined people worked at it for many years. Dr. Haynes was one of those people.