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Janice Grant, a Black civil rights activist who helped desegregate Harford schools, never wants to stop teaching

Janice East Moorehead Grant was born in her Aberdeen home in 1933, a time when Harford County was segregated and Black people, like her family, were not able to give birth at the hospital.

“When I was born, people of color could not go to the hospital,” she said. “Everyone had to be born at home.”

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Grant has spent much of her adult life battling for civil rights, working to end segregation in Harford County schools and in other parts of the country.

Aberdeen native Janice East Moorehead Grant has spent much of adult life battling for civil rights, working to end segregation in Harford County schools and in other parts of the country. At age 87, the lifelong teacher remains actively involved in her community.
Aberdeen native Janice East Moorehead Grant has spent much of adult life battling for civil rights, working to end segregation in Harford County schools and in other parts of the country. At age 87, the lifelong teacher remains actively involved in her community. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

She is an ordained minister, a former president of the Harford County NAACP, and a retired teacher with 50 years experience in different U.S. school districts and other countries. As a member of the Peace Corps, Grant has traveled the world as a missionary and, at age 87, still remains actively involved in her community.

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Through it all, Grant says she’s found most people are alike.

“Everyone wants a home; they want enough to eat, they want to be able to clothe and feed their children,” she said. “All human beings have the same needs.”

The home she was born in, along a dirt road on Edmund Street in Aberdeen, was purchased by her great-grandmother, grandmother and great-aunt. It had no running water. The family had to use an outhouse instead of an interior bathroom, and got drinking water from a well.

“Boy, that was good water,” she said, noting her family did not get running water until she was in high school.

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Starting in seventh grade, Grant attended the Havre de Grace Colored School, a segregated school for Harford County’s Black children. She graduated from the Colored High School in 1951 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bowie State University, a historically Black university in Prince George’s County, graduating in 1955.

She later earned three master’s degrees, including her first in elementary education from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1961, followed by a second degree in secondary education from Texas Southern University — another historically Black school in Houston — and a third master’s in African studies and African history from the University of Liberia in Monrovia, the capital of that West African nation. Grant earned her second and third master’s degrees while serving with the Peace Corps in the early 1970s.

A photo shows civil rights activist and Aberdeen native Janice Grant during one of her many speaking engagements. Grant was the head of the Harford County NAACP for a time and played a significant role in the desegregation of public schools in Harford County in the 1960s.
A photo shows civil rights activist and Aberdeen native Janice Grant during one of her many speaking engagements. Grant was the head of the Harford County NAACP for a time and played a significant role in the desegregation of public schools in Harford County in the 1960s. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Civil rights, teaching career

Before she earned her advanced degrees, Grant taught in Harford County after she finished at Bowie State. Public schools in Harford County were still segregated in the mid-1950s, despite the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 striking down school segregation throughout the United States.

Grant began teaching at Havre de Grace Consolidated School, which opened in the early 1950s in the Oakington area between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. That school, which today is Roye-Williams Elementary, remained open until Harford County Public Schools desegregated in 1965. She spent 10 years teaching at Havre de Grace Consolidated and another year at Halls Cross Roads Elementary School in Aberdeen after desegregation.

During that time, she met Woodrow B. “Woody” Grant Jr., a Virginia native who was in the Army and assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground. She and Woody Grant, whom she married in 1963, were plaintiffs in four federal lawsuits against the Harford Board of Education, along with some of her teaching colleagues, to force the school system to desegregate.

Grant and her fellow plaintiffs prevailed in the lawsuits. During the same time, she, her husband and multiple family members worked for the cause of civil rights and integration, whether in Harford County, other parts of Maryland, even in the Deep South.

She worked in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer” in 1964, during which Black and white civil rights volunteers traveled through the the Magnolia State helping African-American residents register to vote. Grant taught Black people to read and write, in addition to helping them register to vote.

Activists faced extreme violence from segregationists — James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality, and volunteer Andrew Goodman were abducted and later found murdered that summer.

“I had to hide in the trunk of my car one time to keep from getting killed in in Mississippi,” Grant recalled.

A life member of the NAACP, Grant also took part in efforts to desegregate businesses and institutions in Harford County and around the state, such as sit-ins in Baltimore.

“We would march all over, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen and Joppatowne,” she said, noting she was arrested while protesting in Joppatowne.

After one year at Halls Cross Roads, Grant left the Harford County schools as she and her husband moved to Nashville, Tennessee. While her husband attended medical school, the couple also worked in civil rights in Nashville. Woody Grant led the local chapter of the NAACP, and the Grants worked to support striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support the workers when he was assassinated in April of 1968.

Following the four-year stint in Tennesse, Janice and Woody Grant joined the Peace Corps, which took them to Ethiopia and later Liberia and other West African nations over five years. Janice Grant’s work with the Peace Corps included teaching.

The couple came back to Harford County in early 1976, and Janice began a second stint with HCPS at the start of the next school year, teaching at Hickory Elementary School. She taught at Aberdeen and Havre de Grace high schools through the late 1970s and into the early ‘80s before she retired and went to Bible school in Delaware.

The couple traveled the world as missionaries. Janice Grant served as a long-term substitute teacher, working in schools in Harford County as well as Baltimore City and Baltimore County. She also has worked with jail and prison inmates in the area, running programs such as Bible study sessions. Grant’s husband died in July of 2019.

A photo dated 1971 shows a group of United States Peace Corps teachers and staff including Aberdeen native Janice Grant and her husband Woody Grant. She played a significant role in the desegregation of public schools in Harford County in the 1960s, and remains actively involved in her community.
A photo dated 1971 shows a group of United States Peace Corps teachers and staff including Aberdeen native Janice Grant and her husband Woody Grant. She played a significant role in the desegregation of public schools in Harford County in the 1960s, and remains actively involved in her community. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Legacy of service

“It was instilled in me to do everything I could to help people, regardless of the color of their skin,” Grant said of her upbringing.

Her worldview has been shaped, in large part, by spending her teenage years working for and living with the Green family in the historic Sion Hill mansion in Havre de Grace. The brick mansion, which dates to 1787 and was the home of Navy Commodore John Rodgers in the early 1800s, is off of Route 155 on a hill a short distance from the Susquehanna River. Sion Hill is a National Historic Landmark, one of 73 in Maryland and the only one in Harford County.

Ann and Montgomery Green were known for helping many people in the community, including its Black residents. Grant was 14 years old and attending the Havre de Grace Colored School when the principal, Leon S. Roye, was approached by the Greens and asked if he knew of any students in need of assistance.

Grant said her younger sister was initially invited to live with the Greens, which Grant’s mother denied because her sister was too young at the time. Janice Grant went to live with the family and worked for them as a cook.

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She spent seven years with the Greens, who had four children, in their 23-room house. She learned from them a love of learning as well as travel.

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“They had every kind of book you can imagine,” she said of the family’s library. “They would let me read books, and I learned so much about the world.”

Grant said she visited Sion Hill during the late summer of 2020 and met son Jonathan Green and his wife, Diane, as well as their youngest son. Jonathan Green and his family moved into the mansion where he grew up in 2004, and they moved again late last year — they currently reside in Baltimore County.

George Johnson and Morris Steward, of Atlanta, currently own the mansion and surrounding property, which comprises about 23 acres, with plans to preserve it as efforts to develop the larger 244-acre Green-Ianiello-Patrone and Johnson tract move forward.

“There’s so many stories attached to that house, that they just keep on coming,” said Jonathan Green as he recalled Grant coming up the driveway of the mansion and telling his family her story. He described the encounter as “heartwarming” and noted it was not unusual for people to stop by and talk about their experiences with Sion Hill, including instances in which his parents helped people.

“They certainly believed in giving back to the community,” Green said, noting his parents helped found the private Harford Day School in Bel Air.

Grant worked as a cook for the Greens during high school, and came back to work on weekends as a governess, teaching children there, while in college. Ann and Montgomery Green were “instrumental” in helping her get an education, she said.

Grant’s own family also instilled in her the values of helping others regardless of their background. People in need could stop by the Grants’ property in Aberdeen, where the family raised livestock and produce, and get food and shelter.

“We had a huge garden, and my grandmother used to feed everybody who needed food, always,” she said.

Grant stressed that people need to see each other as equal human beings with the same desires to help heal the divisions currently roiling American society — she also encouraged people to travel and meet others.

“Jesus Christ is my savior. I’m going to love everyone as much as I can, just like He does, even people who hate me,” she said. “We have one enemy, and his name is Lucifer.”

Grant currently serves on the board of The Havre de Grace Colored School Museum and Cultural Center Inc., the nonprofit entity working to restore the former Colored School and convert it into a place where people can learn about the history of Harford County’s segregated schools.

The first of five phases of the restoration was recently completed, according to organization president Patricia Cole. The first room restored is in the basement; it served as a library, plus famed African-American poet Langston Hughes would recite poems and interact with students there when he visited the school. That space is called the Langston Hughes Room, Cole said in a recent email.

Grant said she wants to teach classes on African history, culture and language at the Colored School, plus she wants to set up a free tutoring service to teach people to “read and to write, and anything else that they need to learn.”

“I want to teach people,” she said. “I don’t ever want to stop teaching.”

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