During the days of segregation, Clarence Herndon was bused from Maryland to the District for swimming lessons with other black kids. They weren’t allowed in Montgomery County pools.
Herndon drank from hoses while white kids sipped from drinking fountains. And when he watched Hopalong Cassidy or Captain Midnight movies with friends, they entered the theater through the fire escape because they weren’t allowed in the seats downstairs.
But when it came to education, Herndon said, he didn’t think he was getting anything less than what white students experienced.
“We had the best doggone teachers,” said Herndon, who started his education at a segregated school and graduated from an integrated high school. “The only difference was we always got the hand-me-down books.”
Herndon, 67, traveled from Florida to Gaithersburg this past weekend for a reunion with classmates who attended segregated schools in Montgomery. Herndon and nearly 300 other former students caught up with each other on the decades that have passed, swapping stories about their health and bragging about their children and grandchildren.
Saturday marked the first multigenerational reunion for former Montgomery students who attended segregated schools from 1927 to 1960. Many at the reunion agreed that, despite used supplies and separate classrooms, they still received a quality education from caring teachers.
“We struggled, but [the teachers] made the most of what they had,” said Warren Crutchfield, 75, who went to Rockville Colored High School. “We took all of it and, like a sponge, we absorbed it.”
Montgomery students were segregated beginning in 1866, when the first elementary school for African American children opened. But it wasn’t until 1927, after the opening of Rockville Colored High, that black students got an education beyond seventh grade. Before that, students had to leave the county for high school.
The Rev. Jane Wood, 65, remembered cafeteria workers who prepared hot food from scratch and thanked her kindergarten teacher who stopped after school to deliver homework when Wood was sick.
“We grew up in a unique community, and that community survived out of tenacity, out of love and out of helping one another,” Wood said.
Some students remember learning in one-room schoolhouses or traveling for football games because they weren’t allowed to compete with white students. Some students stayed in the system for many years, later becoming teachers.
Margaret F. Williams, 79, who graduated from Lincoln High School in 1951, became an educator in segregated and integrated schools, working in the system for 50 years. Former students at the reunion thanked her and other teachers, presenting them with certificates.
“If you came to school with no lunch, they would give you lunch,” Williams said. “They cared, and they worked hard. Because of that, I worked hard.”
Nina Clarke was a teacher and school administrator in Montgomery for 36 years. Clarke, 95, couldn’t make it to the reunion. But she remembers combing through the ragged and incomplete pages of used textbooks from white classrooms and tearing out sections or cobbling together pages from several books to make a single, complete text. She had students draw pictures and write story titles on construction paper to create new book covers.
“We couldn’t go to the public library, and the board of education didn’t provide library books for us,” Clarke said. The children “delighted in reading those homemade books.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools for black and white students was “inherently unequal,” Clarke said she was “scared to death” of integration. The school system moved her to teach white students in a posh section of Montgomery where no black families could afford to live. But her fear quickly disappeared.
“I forgot they were white,” Clarke said. “They were all my children.”
The last segregated class in the county graduated from George Washington Carver High School and Junior College in 1960, six years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional. Carver High School closed, and today it houses the Montgomery County Public Schools administrative headquarters.
One of the reunion’s oldest attendees was Ella Smith, 91, who spent 36 years working in the cafeteria. Smith said she and others cooked everything from scratch, peeling 50 pounds of potatoes by hand or baking homemade bread. She sat at the reunion with a jazz band playing in the background and enjoyed the evening’s dinner, which included salmon, chicken, green beans and cobbler.
“I enjoyed working with the kids,” Smith said. “They loved me because of the food.”
Crutchfield, who helped organize the reunion, spent much of the night moving from table to table, laughing with old friends. He said that the weekend meant more than reminiscing and reconnecting.
“We have a story here in Montgomery County,” Crutchfield said. “It’s important to have this event because it’s part of history that people seem to forget.”