“I have never forgotten that week. It was a seminal event in my life,” Brown said recently in a phone interview.
Brown and her fellow students at Cabin John Junior High were participating in an experiment with prejudice, a program so controversial that parents protested against it and national news media covered it. From Philadelphia to San Mateo, Calif., newspapers reported on the exercise — even Walter Cronkite devoted a segment to it on the “CBS Evening News.”
Tom Warren, Cabin John’s principal, conceived of the idea of turning Brotherhood Week, an official nationwide observance of tolerance that started in the 1930s, into a lesson on the development and spread of prejudice. But instead of discriminating against the handful of black children in the school, they would make a point by targeting blond students.
By creating a reproduction of the national struggle on race relations, the experiment illustrated contentious issues of the day: Is prejudice just a Southern problem? Can you teach children to be prejudiced or to resist prejudice? Issues that, 50 years after the experiment, are still part of the national dialogue on race today.
The Thursday before Brotherhood Week, Warren sent a notice to parents saying the blond students will experience some of the inconveniences and denial of privileges that many Americans encounter every day, according to a story about the experiment in The Washington Post.
Then, on Monday, “the message that blondes are inferior, undesirable persons was broadcast over the school’s public address system and circulated in a one-sheet newspaper,” The Post story said.
The blond students were forced to use separate restrooms, doors and drinking fountains, relegated to separate tables in the lunchroom and library and shunned by teachers and brunettes, even their friends, as Brown and others in the junior high at the time described it.
At first, some students, blond and brunette alike, thought it was a joke. Ann Shipe Cooper, Brown’s cousin, was also a blond eighth-grader at the school. The first day, the treatment by students and teachers seemed like a passing inconvenience. But by the second day, the abuse began to feel never-ending, she said.
“Imagine if you had to go through all your life like this,” Cooper said. “It had a big impact on me. There’s no way somebody can make you feel what it’s like with just words.”
Cooper, Brown and others who attended school that Monday and Tuesday say that some brunette hall monitors were overzealous about enforcing the rules, many times crossing the line into bullying.
“I remember some kids getting beaten up and pushed around because some kids took it as an opportunity to just act out,” said Cindy Minter, a brunette ninth-grader. “It was just bringing out what African Americans were going through all of the time.”
“It seemed like the tough guys had free rein to harass people,” agreed Chuck Sullivan, who was also in ninth grade. “I was grateful I wasn’t a blond — we were all kind of scared of some of the enforcers.”
Mark Walston, another ninth-grader, also remembers that “the hall monitors became like neo-Nazis, they took their job just way too far and got physical with the kids.” He says as a result, some blond girls cried and went home early during the first two days of the exercise.
Most of the former students interviewed identified students who went overboard. However, when contacted, none of those enforcers responded to repeated requests for interviews.
Sullivan says it wasn’t until years later that he realized what Warren was trying to do: Make the students realize that prejudice harms all involved — the perpetrators and the victims.
Even though he was a brunette, Charlie Bermant, an eighth-grader, could relate to the blond experience. He had moved to conservative Potomac the year before from liberal Woodstock, N.Y., and wore his hair longer than other boys at Cabin John Junior High.
“I was bullied constantly for my hair and for being a hippie,” he said in a phone interview from Washington state, where he is a retired journalist.
“Just the week before, these same people were pushing me around for having long hair and now they’re just turning the same energy onto these blond kids,” he said.
By Tuesday, news media had descended on the school. Local and national TV crews crowded the hallways. The Post photographed and interviewed several students, including Bermant. Below his photo, in the story on the front page of the Metro section, his quote said, “Blonds are just sitting there and acting like Uncle Toms.”
“My quote was taken out of context,” Bermant, who was 14 at the time, said. He said he was at first disappointed that the blond students weren’t more radicalized. “I mean, two kids dyed their hair brown to fit in,” he said. “I was furious at them.”
Peter Mellem was one of those kids. He recently confessed that he had just moved to Cabin John Junior High and didn’t want to stick out for any reason.
“I was just a scared 14-year-old kid,” he said. “I didn’t want to get beat up. Besides, I had no real-life experience with prejudice.”
But by the second day, blond students did start to fight back. Some students wore signs that said, “Blond Power” or “Blondes Are Humans Too.” One brunette girl even dyed her hair bright blond, which earned a “tremendous amount of respect” from Bermant, he said.
Brown said she had an easier time facing the frenetic discrimination when she was with a group of blond students, “because we were in it together.” She had a much harder time being in a classroom and not getting called on, she said. “That felt much more personal and directed at me.”
Eric Notham, a blond who was also quoted in The Post, says he had the “mistaken impression that segregation was something that had happened in the South” and not in Potomac where he lived.
In The Post article, his photo appeared along with his statement, “I don’t think discrimination is really a problem in this school.” Looking back, Notham “deeply regrets” that comment, which he eventually learned was inaccurate.
Unworldly at such a young age, other students hadn’t been exposed to racism in their suburb. Yet in 1969, Montgomery County still had vestiges of its Southern past, according to Walston, who is now a historian and author living in Olney, Md.
The county’s schools had finished integrating in 1961, just eight years before the experiment, Walston said. A Confederate statue still stood in front of the county courthouse. The Baronet Theater in nearby Bethesda was segregated until 1961, and “then only after the owner, who refused to integrate it, sold the theater instead,” he said.
In 1969, only 15 of the 800 students at Cabin John Junior High were African American, according to The Post. All of them lived in the all-black Potomac neighborhood of Scotland. Houses there didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing until the mid-1960s, according to Joyce Siegel, who helped run a campaign to build modern housing in the neighborhood at the time.
The junior high school students were surrounded by signs of discrimination in their county, but now the Brotherhood Week experiment forced them to confront the idea head on.
With blond students leaving school and the media disruption, by Wednesday of that February week, principal Warren had received numerous complaints from parents, including Rep. Dan Kuykendall (R-Tenn.), who had two sons at the school.
“I resent the fact that they are planting the idea of prejudice in the minds of our children,” Kuykendall said in The Post. “A Negro woman who works for my family eats at my table and is accepted as a member of the family,” he added.
But Warren said he also received many compliments on the program, according to the CBS News report. Even so, on Wednesday he called off the experiment, saying the important lesson had been learned.
Reflecting back, the students today have mixed feelings about the week, but most said it was worthwhile.
Brown said the three days enhanced her thinking and made her feel more open to other groups of people. Although not directly related to the experiment, she says she ended up marrying an African American — D.C.-area jazz pianist Reuben Brown.
“My mind was opened up by the blond experiment. I started seeking out other kinds of friends and I wanted to learn more about them and where they came from,” she said.
The experiment spawned a deep feeling for what it’s like to be discriminated against, even for those who just watched, Walston said.
“A decade after the first black man was elected president, we still see the same deeply ingrained racism in America,” he said. “We’ve had the rise of white nationalists and social media postings of African Americans harassed by whites,” he added.
“We could use something like this now because anyone who says we’re in a post-racial society, just open your eyes and take a look.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Montgomery County schools were integrated in 1961. They finished integrating in 1961.
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