On a recent Thursday afternoon, A. Dwight Pettit went back to where it all started.
He walked through the halls and into the auditorium at Aberdeen High School, where almost 55 years ago he was denied admission to the school because of a "lack of ability and low achievement, as evidenced by standardized test scores and school progress reports."
Pettit is African-American. The members of a "blue ribbon committee," as it was called, that denied him admission was made up primarily of white men.
Pettit, 68, was invited back to his alma mater for a Black History Month presentation to speak about his struggles growing up as a black child during a highly racially charged time in America from the mid-1940s through the 1960s.
He talked about the legal case his parents brought against the Board of Education for Harford County and his recently published memoir, "Under Color of Law," in which he recorded it all.
"It's the first time I've been back at Aberdeen since the book came out [last October]," Pettit said during a recent phone interview. "The kids really seemed to enjoy the presentation... and it was really emotional for me. Every time I go into that school it is emotional for me."
Pettit, who lives and practices law in Baltimore, said his self-published book, which took him a decade to write, is named after a phrase from 42 U.S.C.§ 1983, also known as the "Ku Klux Klan Act," which states that if a U.S. citizen is deprived of their rights, privileges or immunities "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage," the denier – be it a public or private institution or an individual – shall be liable to the injured party.
As a lawyer and a civil rights activist, Pettit pens an honest and intriguing narrative about how the initial denial of admission to Aberdeen High School changed the course of his life and also drastically affected the lives of his parents, especially his father, George, whom Pettit said was passed over for promotions because of his fight for equality, an adequate education and the civil rights of his son.
In 1960, Pettit's father brought a federal lawsuit against the Board of Education of Harford County, arguing that the board's admission and transferring policies forced his son to attend a school at which his father argued, as stated in the lawsuit, "curriculum was inadequate, as compared to Aberdeen High School." The suit did not, however, contend that the teachers were inferior to those at Aberdeen High.
Although most historians point to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, as the turning point for school integration in the United States, many communities that had practiced the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine, which the Brown ruling struck down, were slow to change, Harford among them.
Throughout the second half of the 1950s and into the middle of the 1960s, leaders of Harford County's white establishment did everything they could to keep black children from attending any of the county's all-white schools.
In those days, the black children were sent to one of two blacks-only consolidated schools,- Central Consolidated, on the site of the current Hickory Elementary north of Bel Air, or Havre de Grace Consolidated, on the site of the current Roye-Williams Elementary in Oakington. Roye-Williams was so named for the two principals of the consolidated schools, Percy V. Williams at Central and Leon S. Roye at Havre de Grace.
The consolidated schools, which had replaced smaller, "colored schools" scattered around the county about 1950, served students in grades one through 12. Their teachers and principals were black. As this arrangement was not unique to Maryland, the high school-age children in the two schools competed with similarly segregated schools in other Maryland counties. Maryland's system of teachers colleges was also segregated in this era, as was much of its public university system.
Although federal courts with jurisdiction over Maryland had ordered local school districts to start allowing black children to transfer into the all-white schools, Harford school leaders continued to resist. Black children, they argued, wouldn't be prepared academically, or would have difficulty fitting with white children.
Another argument used locally to resist any consideration of systemwide desegregation was that the school board would not be able to retain all of its black teachers because there would be no place for them, if the consolidated schools were to close. That amounted to school leaders saying in not so many words they did not want black teachers teaching white children.
According to archival news articles and subsequent historical research and writings on the subject, one of the dodges used locally was the establishment of the blue ribbon committee on school admissions, members of which were to determine the suitability of any black students seeking transfer to an all-white school.
The panel might not have been used at all, except Harford faced an additional pressure beyond the federal courts: Several of its all-white schools were the closest ones to a large, racially integrated military and civilian population living on or near Aberdeen Proving Ground and the then-Edgewood Arsenal. Among them was the George Pettit family.
Through his lawsuit, which was litigated by the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Pettit's father eventually won his son admission into Aberdeen High School, where Pettit said he excelled and was a favorite, as a top athlete, and experienced little personal racial discrimination from his classmates. He was, however, still among a very few black children, the majority of them in Edgewood or Aberdeen area schools, who broke Harford's color barrier in the early 1960s.