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Howard school board apologizes for earlier segregation

Move praised as 'important gesture'

By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

8:19 PM EST, November 15, 2012

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On the day that the Howard County school board apologized for the system's treatment of African-American students during segregation, Dottie Cook thought back to her middle school days, when she received a hand-me-down education that included tattered books with her uncle's name written in them.

An African-American resident from Dayton, Cook said her family petitioned the Howard school board to allow her to go to a school that white students attended — a more modern school with new books — and they were told she could but only if she got permission from the bus driver to be taken there.

"My father and I went to the gentleman's house," said Cook, 61, "and he told my father that if I didn't cause any trouble that he would pick me up and take me to the school."

It was 1964 — 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision outlawed segregated public schools.

Cook was among those present Thursday as the school board members took turns reading from a proclamation apologizing for the segregated school system. The proclamation received a standing ovation and board chairwoman Sandra French choked up afterward, saying, "I'm glad that we did not delay this anymore."

Thom Rosenblum, a historian with the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, said he recalls many apologies for slavery and segregation, but he could not think of one that specifically addressed segregated schools.

"What you're saying is, 'We admit we did it,' and I think it's important for everybody, because I think it allows you to move on and from it," Rosenblum said. "I do believe it is an important gesture to admit it happened."

The school board voted unanimously to approve the proclamation. It said the school system expressed "profound regret" for maintaining "segregated and unequal public schools both prior, and subsequent to, the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision" and that the board "commits to ensure that each student, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or socioeconomic status, receives the educational opportunities necessary to ensure the fulfillment of the student's potential and dreams."

The proclamation again brings to light heinous practices and opens old wounds suffered because the school system gradually desegregated over an 11-year period after the Brown vs. Board ruling. At the time, the school system was criticized by civil rights leaders for taking so long to desegregate.

Howard was not alone in taking years to fully integrate schools. According to an article in The Baltimore Sun at the time, only a handful of counties in Maryland had fully integrated student bodies and faculties as of August 1964. In contrast, Baltimore City's schools were desegregated shortly after the Brown decision in 1954.

"It's late in coming, but this is a good sign of great leadership," said Sherman Howell, vice president of research and agenda planning for the African American Coalition of Howard County, in an interview. "When you look at people who are 65, there is still evidence of that wrongdoing to them. My experience has been that they can't effectively assist their grandkids in terms of their homework and those kinds of things."

Howard County's proclamation comes during a time when local governments are making similar apologies for treatment of their citizens during segregation. In May, on the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback apologized to African-Americans for segregation in the state. And on Veterans Day, the mayor of Gulfport, Miss., George Schloegel, apologized to family members of African-Americans who served in the U.S. military but were not allowed to be buried in the city cemetery during segregation.

Howard County, which has one of the highest-performing school systems in the state and nation, has occasionally and publicly looked back on its treatment of African-American students during segregation — including in 2004 in a publication commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.

According to that publication, the Howard school system paid white teachers eight times more than African-American teachers in 1887; voted unanimously against a petition by African-American families to allow education at a school to go past seventh grade; and moved old toilets from white schools to African-American schools as a cost-saving measure.

Cook said those types of practices had lasting effects on the lives of students.

"There could be many, many students my age that could have gone further in their careers and in their lives," she said. "We really didn't have a chance based on the books we had and equipment we had. Even in the school band, we had instruments that were so raggedy, because the white students didn't want them anymore."

She said the apology "means that the county had the wherewithal to admit they were wrong. You just want to go, 'What if? What if we all went to school together?'"

Cook praised board member Allen Dyer, who led the efforts for the proclamation, for "seeing that it needed to be done," and said that the apology gave her a sense of closure for what she experienced as a student in the school system.

"It's been recognized," Cook said after the reading, "and unfortunately the people who recognized it are not the ones who are really at fault. But it's been cleared up and we can go forward."

In 1965, the Howard school system closed the all-black Harriet Tubman High School and started enrolling elementary-school students in the schools closest to them, regardless of race, completing desegregation. Those moves cut the school system's four-year desegregation plan in half after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had talked about holding demonstrations.

The proclamation has led some experts to wonder how it helps today's students.

"We all recognize that what was done back then was wrong," said David Almasi, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research. "It will make people feel good, but it's not going to graduate any more kids come June. That's up to modern legislators, modern parents, modern teachers and modern students."

Howard Del. Frank Turner said that the move is "very nice," but added that he was more concerned about ensuring the school system furthers efforts to address the achievement gap.

"They need to make sure we put resources into current-day problems that we have within Howard County schools," Turner said, "because there is a difference in how performance has been, especially in those parts of the county which have [high numbers of students with] reduced-[price] meals. That would be more of my concern."

Gilbert Holmes, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said he commends institutions that acknowledge past wrongs.

"I think it sets an example," Holmes said, "for others to do the same instead of being defensive about their prior actions. But the real challenge is what are they going to do going forward about the impact that those prior discriminations have had even now? I just hope this indicates a recognition of an issue that's still present today."

Howell said in a statement that he hopes that other groups in Howard follow the school board's action.

"Hopefully this apology will serve as a 'model' of actions that should be taken by other institutions in Howard County who have committed similar injustices and insensitivities toward Black residents of the county," he said.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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