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Baltimore after 'Brown'

WALTER SONDHEIM JR., 95, was president of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners when the school system desegregated in 1954 following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. The following are excerpts from interviews he granted to Maryland Humanities, a publication of the Maryland Humanities Council, and The Sun.

What happened with Brown vs. Board and the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners was much less dramatic than I'd like to be able to say it was. First, there was no feeling that the decision was being rammed down our throats. The board was ahead of the population of Baltimore in that sense, and in general it was welcomed. I don't think anyone enjoyed running separate schools - we strained at doing it.

Many people have asked me whether the [Polytechnic Institute] decision two years before Brown had an effect on our implementation of desegregation. I don't recall it having any effect, because the Poly case was a much tougher battle.

When we met after the Brown decision, the only question that was raised was whether we were allowed to desegregate the schools. A Baltimore City ordinance required separate schools, and a Maryland state law required separate schools. The board sent a letter to the Baltimore City solicitor, Thomas N. Biddison, asking whether we were still bound by the city and state ordinances and laws. The letter back was very clear and short. It said that in view of the Supreme Court decision, the state and city laws had no effect.

I was sure that everybody on the Board of School Commissioners, except possibly one person, would vote to desegregate, but I felt that a unanimous vote was very important in this matter. A day or so before the vote was scheduled, I called everybody on the board to make sure he or she was going to vote for desegregation and to try to persuade anybody that needed persuasion. There were none. When we met, Commissioner John Sherwood made the motion to integrate the schools in the fall of 1954. It was the first item to vote on, so I asked for discussion and then for the vote. The whole thing didn't take 45 seconds, and we went on to the rest of the day's business.

We didn't feel that we had done something that would excite people to the extent that people in the South were excited. We knew that it wasn't popular, but the real appearance of its unpopularity came in the fall of 1954.

Things were fairly quiet at first. After schools opened in the fall, we had problems. It had been simmering over the summer, and there were people stirring this thing up. The first thing we saw was a picket line outside of the school on Washington Boulevard. Later, there was some trouble around Southern High School in South Baltimore.

I remember being at a meeting on 25th Street for a school board strategy discussion to rally support for the schools. There was a report of a planned picket line at the junior high school that civil rights activist Clarence Mitchell Jr.'s children attended. We were having this meeting, and Clarence Mitchell appeared as I'd never seen him before. I knew him well. He was a very calm, a very decent, a very fine person, but now he had sweat on his face. He wanted us to know that he was going out there to counter-picket. He wasn't going to have anybody picket a school that his children were in. I remember going out into the hallway, talking to Clarence about it and begging him not to do it. We hadn't had any violence, and so many things might start with counter pickets. Reluctantly, he agreed.

The Brown decision brought about an enormous change in our society, and it exposed some of our weaknesses. We believed that once kids began to go to school together then we'd immediately start a generation of people who didn't have racial prejudice. How wrong we were.

Brown also caused a number of unintended consequences, but it doesn't mean that Brown was the wrong thing. If you would ask me whether we should have, or the Supreme Court should have, ordered desegregation of the schools, obviously it should have. That was the beginning of a widespread recognition of civil rights in this country.

We now live in a city that is largely African-American in population, and so the schools are segregated - not because the law says that they should be segregated, but because the people who go to school are very largely African-American kids.

We do have unintended consequences, and white flight was an unintended consequence of Brown. The flight of people was a flight to get out of an integrated school situation, because they moved into counties that had very few black students, where integration was not an issue.

So the school system in Baltimore has been left in an unfavorable atmosphere, as far as public support is concerned, and it's been very, very hard for school systems to maintain the kind of quality they had, because people who come from poverty need much more attention and much more help in their educational development. It's harder to get teachers who are willing to work with those kids.

This is a tough situation, and this isn't a product of what the school system has done. It's the thing that our society has done. Our society in my lifetime has grown an enormous middle class of people with good salaries, with living standards that have improved tremendously because of employment opportunities they've had, and this has been true both for whites and blacks. At the same time that we have growth in our middle class, we have widened the gap between that and impoverished families and people who live in poverty.

Where we go from here is to realize that we're not going to cure it overnight. There's not some magic bullet that many people search for and hope they can find. What we've got to do is to do a better job in giving educational opportunities to youngsters from poverty and at the same time to find a way to find employment opportunities.

This is not easy to do for people who have been raised in poverty. We have got to break this cycle of having children who come from homes where the educational level has been very low. Therefore, they go home from a good school to a home with a parent who does a very poor job of reading. That youngster goes back to that home in the evening where there are no books, no newspapers. The only thing you can be sure of is there's a television set.

A longer version of Mr. Sondheim's conversation with Maryland Humanities is available at www.mdhc.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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