Wrong policies, right results

When the Class of 1949 of Havre de Grace Colored High School graduated on June 8, 1949, I wasn't quite a year old.

The story on this page is about that class of 29 young men and women and the recent reunion attended by eight of the 10 surviving members.

It's essentially a story about accomplishment and overcoming roadblocks that others deliberately place squarely in front of you, not necessarily hoping to prevent you from succeeding as much as making sure you know your place.

It's not a story I'm really qualified to tell, and I'm not pretending to be anything but interested and fascinated about what some of these 29 people did with their lives. And, while I'm glad to share just a little bit of that information with you, there's obviously so much more.

I grew up in a period when the members of the Class of 1949 were heading out into the world to make their indelible mark on it. In the towns where I lived in southeastern Pennsylvania, there was no "official" institutional racial segregation, including in the public schools. For us, the concept of "colored" or segregated schools was something far away, like way down south somewhere. It was something you saw on television during the post-Brown v. Board of Education times when schools were being forcibly integrated in places like Little Rock, Ark., hundreds of miles away. That was like a foreign country.

It never occurred to me then that the same sort of official separation of people because of the color of their skin was occurring as close as Harford County, less than 80 miles south of my home.

In the schools I attended, "Negro" or "colored" children and white children had classes in the same buildings, sat in the same cafeteria, used the same bathrooms and locker rooms and rode the school buses together.

Now, I'm not going to tell you there weren't some less-than-subtle discriminatory practices within those supposedly integrated schools. That would be wrong and untrue.

In elementary school, I rode the school bus with another boy who lived in a neighborhood where everyone was black. It was the only place in town where black people lived, and that probably wasn't strictly by choice.

My busmate, whose name was Jimmy, and I were never in the same classroom. He and the few other black children had their own classroom with a few white children. Looking back, I don't believe that was strictly because of special need or coincidence.

Between sixth and seventh grade we moved to an adjacent town that had a much larger black population, most of which also was concentrated in one neighborhood.

In junior and senior high school, most of the black children were typically herded into the general (shop) and secretarial courses — no questions asked. It was rare to see a black student in one of the college prep classes.

We all took gym, art and music together and played on sports teams, but there wasn't much interaction socially — unless the football or basketball teams were doing well — and then everybody was showing up for the dances after the games or to the usual hangouts. Frankly, since several of the starting players were black, there was a greater deal of acceptance by the whites than might normally have been the case.

Counting my college years as well, I have to say I was privileged to attend schools, play on teams and participate in other activities that were racially integrated.

When I came to Harford County to work in the newspaper business in 1972, I had no idea about its history of delaying school integration for a decade after the Supreme Court ruled racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Even though I had lived in Worcester County the previous two years, I still thought that separate but equal stuff was rural backwater, "down south," something practiced by haters and bigots.

Of course, that's not totally true. Racism can also be a benign policy, as in "we've always done it that way." Many people of both races who grew up in Harford County pre-1965 when the public schools were finally fully integrated, have told me the separation of the races in schools and other institutions was an accepted fact of life for many years, even for many of those who knew darn well it was wrong.

Well, enough of the personal history, which is inconsequential to the bigger story, anyway. I never bought segregation and never will. I'll always believe it was unfair and deprived people of basic human and legal rights, and for those people who still defend it today, I have zero respect.

The members of the Class of 1949 at Havre de Grace Colored High School overcame those social and political forces aligned against them, as did many like them in similar situations in our country. That's the real story here, one of strength and inspiration.

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