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Last graduating class of segregated Central Consolidated School to look back over 50 years Saturday

Former classmates Pamela Barner-Fant, left, and Sylvia Clark look through an old yearbook while planning their upcoming reunion. The last class to graduate from Central Consolidated High School in 1965 will have its 50th reunion Oct. 3
Former classmates Pamela Barner-Fant, left, and Sylvia Clark look through an old yearbook while planning their upcoming reunion. The last class to graduate from Central Consolidated High School in 1965 will have its 50th reunion Oct. 3 (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Students who attended racially segregated schools from first through 12th grades in Harford County 50 years ago remember having to use secondhand materials in the classroom and on the athletic field.

But members of the Central Consolidated School's Class of 1965, the last to graduate from the school, say that despite being relegated to what many whites and blacks alike considered inferior facilities, they and many of their classmates went on to college and to successful careers in many fields.

"Our teachers inspired us to go beyond high school and to achieve something," Central graduate Pamela Barner-Fant said during a recent interview. "They didn't want us to feel like we couldn't achieve just because you were in a segregated situation. They were very encouraging in that respect."

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Graduate James Smith, of Washington, D.C., grew up in Jarrettsville. His mother worked for a dry cleaners and his father was a laborer in a local lumber yard. He attended Central Consolidated from first grade until he graduated.

Despite the long travel time from his home in Jarrettsville to Hickory, where the school was, Smith said he "liked it very much" at Central.

"I think that we had a number of faculty members that I think were very concerned about us as students and they actually prepared us pretty well for heading on to the next endeavor, which in my case was going off to college," Smith said.

Central's Class of 1965 will hold its 50th reunion Saturday evening at The Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace. Smith is a member of the reunion planning committee, along with classmates Barner-Fant, Sylvia Clark-Williams, Leroy Bailey and Calvin Christy.

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'Separate but equal'

Central, which opened in 1950, was one of two segregated schools in Harford that black students attended during the late 1950s and early '60s. Havre de Grace Consolidated School, which opened in 1953, served students in the Aberdeen and Havre de Grace areas. Both schools graduated their final classes in 1965.

The Central Consolidated building was constructed just off Route 1 in the Hickory area, about 3.5 miles north of downtown Bel Air. At the time, Harford public school officials decided to "consolidate" an existing small network of racially segregated elementary and secondary schools in the county into two schools, both serving African-American students from first through 12th grades.

The two schools were built in an era when many public school districts operated under the so-called "separate but equal doctrine" that legally segregated white and black students.

Though "separate but equal" was famously struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas) decision, Harford school officials spent another decade resisting desegregation of their schools, often pointing to their new facilities for black students and the likelihood that the teachers who taught in them could not be assimilated into desegregated schools.

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Lawsuits followed, but the issue was not fully laid to rest in Harford until 1965, when Harford's schools were fully desegregated at the start of the 1965-66 school year in September 1965.

Today, the original Central Consolidated is Hickory Elementary School, while the former Havre de Grace Consolidated is the Roye-Williams Elementary School, the latter named for two pioneering black educators in Harford, the late Percy V. Williams, who was a principal at Central and later a state department of education official and a Harford County Board of Education president, and Leon S. Roye, the principal at Havre de Grace Consolidated.

Smith graduated from Morgan State College (now university) in Baltimore in 1969 with a degree in mathematics. He taught math at Perry Hall Junior High School for four years and then he went to work for IBM as a systems engineer.

He spent 29 years with IBM in the company's Washington metro area office. He retired about 10 years ago as a manager in the company's federal marketing unit.

"I think there was a sense or perception that the schools were separate but not necessarily equal in terms of some of the facilities, in terms of some of the curricular offerings," Smith said.

"You do wonder how you're going to compete [in college], and you don't know until two months later, and you get your grades and you say, 'I think I can hang in here and compete effectively,' he recalled.

Julian Meares was principal when the Class of 1965 graduated from Central.

"Now that we will no longer know Central Consolidated High School as we have in the past, it is up to you to keep it alive through your achievements and strength of character," Meares wrote in a message in the school yearbook, the "Aloha."

Close-knit community

Barner-Fant, Bailey and Clark-Williams, who gathered recently at the Golden Corral Restaurant in Aberdeen for a reunion planning meeting, recalled a close, caring school community made up of teachers, administrators and parents who shielded the students from many of the issues surrounding racial segregation.

"We were actually shielded from a lot of the difficulties that one would face being placed in what one might have considered a disadvantaged position," Bailey said.

Bailey recalled memories, "particularly of warm, caring compassionate, competent teachers."

"If we were bad they disciplined us, and then we went home and our parents disciplined us," Clark-Williams said.

Bailey, who lives in Prince George's County, grew up in Bel Air and Fallston. Barner-Fant grew up in Joppa and lives in Aberdeen. Clark-Williams grew up in Churchville and lives in Havre de Grace.

They and their classmates had to catch a bus early each morning and ride past schools that were closer to their homes.

"Each day the kids in [my] community would board the bus and travel all the way to Hickory each day," Barner-Fant said. "You had to get up pretty early in the morning."

The Central graduates noted they had secondhand textbooks, not enough microscopes for every student in the science labs and a grass field for a running track.

"Textbooks, a lot of times, were brought in from the white schools because they were getting more updated issues, and sometimes you may have a book that might not have all the pages in there," Barner-Fant said.

She said students whose books were missing pages had to contact classmates who had complete textbooks.

"You could use that as an excuse not to do your work, but that was an excuse that was not going to be accepted," Barner-Fant said.

Bailey said the high-jump bar and hurdles for track and field meets were made in the school's shop.

"We were encouraged not to lament those deficiencies, but to use our resourcefulness and our creativity," he said.

Bailey, who attended Morgan State with Smith and Christy, is a retired statistical researcher for the federal Census Bureau. Clark-Williams is a retired government accountant who worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the former Edgewood Chemical-Biological Center.

Barner-Fant spent 30 years working for Harford County Public Schools. She was the lead school secretary for Havre de Grace Middle School when she retired.

"I don't remember any of our class members or any of the classes ahead of us getting in any type of trouble, because we always had sports activities to attend, class dances to attend," Clark-Williams said.

Barner-Fant added: "We had a lot of cultural activities, like the French club, we had science fairs; we had a lot of things that were offered to us, we really did. We didn't lack for anything, really, within our own community."

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