Memoir recalls author's fight to integrate Harford's public schools

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.

Life-changing ruling

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.

Entrance committee

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.

Harford's public schools were not fully integrated until the 1966-67 school year, which marked the end of the consolidated schools.

Pettit said his father paid much more dearly for his activism than did his son.

"I didn't have too much difficulty at Aberdeen High School," he said. "But my father paid a tremendous price by being told he would never be promoted again."

Life story

"Under Color of Law" is a smooth read. Its 21 chapters slice Pettit's life into small nuggets of information, including one about his childhood growing up with a father, whom he describes as a "bad nigger" and a "very proud, defiant and ambitious black man who had no fear of anything that I ever perceived."

Pettit narrates throughout the book, giving details about the family's lawsuit and its dramatic impact on them.

He said the suit forced them from the military housing where they were living and necessitated that he be tutored, so he could keep up academically while the case proceeded.

"Neither of [my parents] were wealthy people," Pettit said. "They scarified their whole being so that I could have an opportunity."

The book recounts his time at Aberdeen High and then at Howard University, where he received his bachelor's and law degrees. It also covers his post-college life as a lawyer involved in several high profile civil and criminal cases and a brief foray into the political realm.

Also included is what he considers his most important case as a lawyer: His father's.

The book comes full circle, as Pettit eventually becomes the lead lawyer in a suit his father brought against the federal government in which he claimed he was retaliated against in his job because of his efforts to get his son admitted to Aberdeen High School.

In 1973, the senior Pettit was awarded $100,000 in back pay, representing money he would have earned had he not been denied the promotion that was the focus of the suit.

Dual challenges

Throughout the book, Pettit draws many parallels between his life and the life of his father. They were both very smart, but also very boisterous and sometimes arrogant.

"Both of our past intellectual performances were being challenged in both cases by the defense," Pettit said of him and his father. "The defense challenged me as a child and attacked me in local papers as being retarded and low IQ and achievement in elementary school."

Pettit said his father was attacked in the same capacity during his own case, which lingered for 14 years, by which time Pettit had received his law degree and had taken over as lead counsel.

"How could they say my father didn't perform, when he was performing in a racially hostile environment?" he said.

The book concludes with a picture of his late father, who died in 1992, as sketched by Pettit's son. It's a tribute to George Pettit that serves as a reminder to Dwight Pettit that one of his proudest achievements was helping a man to whom he owed so much.

Pettit said he hopes his book is also a testament for young blacks about the importance of "perseverance" and "staying power."

The book is "for young people who may get discouraged when they run into some of the walls this country puts up, especially for those of African American descent," he said.

He said the memoir also can serve as a warning about the possibility of backsliding in the Civil Rights movement.

"We cannot as a people sit on our laurels and be taken back as a people," Pettit said. "We cannot go back now and allow this nation - which is a young nation - to pull back on its commitments to the rights of African-American people."

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