Their schools were segregated. They had to travel out of their communities to get an education. And they were taught using second-hand instructional materials.
Even so, 50 years later, the last graduates of Harford County's two high schools for African-Americans only, have many fond memories of environments that nurtured them from first through 12th grades.
"We were always like a family," Lenora Robinson, of Aberdeen, said. "We watched out for one another, and the teachers watched out for us. They were a good, sound foundation."
African-American children and teenagers in Harford County had been educated in segregated schools dating to the 1860s, and the multiple small schools around Harford were combined into two consolidated schools – Havre de Grace Consolidated School in Oakington and Central Consolidated School in Hickory – during the early 1950s.
Both schools served Harford County's black children, who were segregated from their white counterparts until 1965, more than a decade after the Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education decision said segregated schools were unconstitutional. The decision came in 1954 and a year later the Supreme Court ordered school systems to be desegregated with "all deliberate speed." Schools across Harford County began to be integrated in 1965.
The consolidated schools were open to children from first through 12th grades, and they were, in many cases, like second homes for the students who attended them during the 1950s and early '60s, before public schools were integrated beginning in 1965.
"Throughout my entire 12-year experience at Central Consolidated School I did not, on any day, feel inferior," Agnes Minor, a Havre de Grace resident and 1962 graduate of Central Consolidated, wrote in an email. "I was fortunate to have had loving parents and excellent caring teachers and a principal who instilled in me that I could achieve and become whatever I chose to become."
Christine Tolbert, of Havre de Grace, is a 1952 graduate of Central Consolidated. She taught at Havre de Grace Consolidated from 1958 until 1964, when she was transferred to Halls Cross Roads Elementary School as the Harford school system began integrating faculty, and later students.
Tolbert entered Central Consolidated in 1950 at the beginning of her junior year of high school, the first year Central was open.
"We had a big, spanking-new school, and we had new books and that kind of thing," she said.
Tolbert and her classmates, however, used second-hand materials before Central Consolidated opened.
She spent her elementary and middle school years at the Hosanna School in Darlington, which is now a museum, and the Kalmia School between Darlington and Hickory. She spent her freshman and sophomore years at Havre de Grace Colored High School.
"It was difficult for us to get new books," she recalled. "We had hand-me-downs."
Despite the second-hand materials and a curriculum that lagged behind the white schools in Harford, Tolbert said teachers "worked had to make sure that [students'] self esteem was intact, and they were proud of what they had and what they were doing and they were motivated to move forward."
Minor, a retired budget and program analyst with the Department of Defense, said she "always felt protected and cared for because of the sincere dedication and commitment ofmy 'village'" while in school.
"My classmates did not express frustration," she said of their feelings about segregation. "We were well-adjusted students performing at our best with the learning tools and materialsprovided."
Tolbert said teachers in segregated schools fought to get their students equal access to classroom materials and activities such as honor societies.
"They were definitely separate, but unequal," she said of the schools. "You can see that in terms of the curriculum."
Tolbert and her fellow teachers at Havre de Grace Consolidated held a sit-in to get language labs for foreign language classes. The labs come with equipment such as booths where students could listen to a native speaker.
"It had a positive end," she said of the sit-in.
Class of 1965 remembers
Robinson and nine of her classmates from the Havre de Grace Consolidated Class of 1965 gathered on a recent sunny afternoon on the grounds of their former school, which is now Roye-Williams Elementary School in the Oakington community between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.
Roye-Williams is named for the former principal of Havre de Grace Consolidated - Leon S. Roye - and the former principal of Central Consolidated – Dr. Percy V. Williams. The former Central Consolidated building is now the home of Hickory Elementary School.
The Havre de Grace Consolidated Class of 1965, which had 45 members and was the last class to graduate from the school, will celebrate its 50th reunion in August. The reunion will be held at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood. Tickets are $45 each, and they can be obtained by calling 410-272-6164, 410-272-1493 or 410-652-7327.
Robinson said the reunion is open to anyone who is "part of the Consolidated family," including students who graduated before 1965 and those who attended Consolidated and then graduated from another Harford County school.
The celebration includes a dance and a DJ, along with a worship service that is typically part of the annual reunions.
The Havre de Grace Consolidated building opened in 1953, and the Class of 1965 entered as first-graders that year.
"We were the first, first grade and the last 12th-graders," Gwendolyn Spruill Durbin, of Aberdeen, said.
The 10 graduates agreed that the strict discipline – which included corporal punishment – meted out by Mr. Roye and his faculty and supported by their parents was a critical part of their education, and it fostered respect of the adult authority figures and their fellow students.
"We had a lot of respect and discipline in the schools, a lot of respect for one another, respect for our teachers and a lot of respect for the rules and regulations," Durbin said.
Julius L. Witherspoon, of Aberdeen, said "our teachers treated us like we were their kids."
The connections have remained during the past 50 years, and the former students come together when a classmate needs help.
Mildred Finney-Martin, of Aberdeen, became emotional as she described how her former classmates supported her when her husband died in 2009.
"When you go through hard times like that, that makes you feel good," she said.
'Integrated in love'
The theme for the 50th reunion is "Segregated in learning, integrated in love," and Robinson and her former classmates stressed that they did not consider themselves segregated while they were at Havre de Grace Consolidated.
"We were not exposed to any discriminatory issues while attending Consolidated," Robinson said.
They acknowledged the legal segregation that was part of life for African-Americans in Harford County during the 1950s and 1960s, such as being restricted to the balconies of movie theaters, but they noted that they already spent much of their time together and with their families in their own communities.
"We went to school together, we went to church together," Mae Gwendolyn Williamson-Gregory, of Aberdeen, said. "We went on activities together, so we were always together."
Segregated schools in Harford County date to before the Civil War, when many black residents were still enslaved. A school for free black children was established on Linden Lane in Havre de Grace in 1860, according to a copy of the Havre de Grace Consolidated 1965 yearbook, provided by graduate Burlie Frink Jr., of Aberdeen.
Parents of high school-age children had to send them out of Harford for decades, however, to attend high school in cities such as Baltimore or Wilmington, Del., according to the yearbook. A high school for black students in Havre de Grace was established in 1924.
Mr. Roye was named the principal of the Havre de Grace Colored High School in 1930, and he became principal of Consolidated when it opened in 1953.
"One does not spend 35 years of his life at an institution and, especially one which he had the pleasure of officially opening, without feeling close to it," he stated in a message printed in the yearbook.
He said the 1965 graduates should "ever be sensitive to the conditions of your own existence and to the situation of man in the world."
"Always strive to improve yourselves morally, physically, spiritually, educationally and economically, thus carrying in your hearts kind and thankful thoughts for your parents, teachers and friends who have helped make your graduation possible," he stated.
Fifty years after graduation, the former Consolidated students said teachers and staff not only cared about their educational needs, they also cared for their young charges' nutrition, how they dressed and their personal hygiene.
"If you came to school, and you weren't dressed appropriately, you were asked to go home," Robinson said. "They were safeguarding our morals at that time, as well."
The students at Consolidated had classes in math, science, foreign languages, home economics, shop, art, history and social studies, as well as interscholastic sports such as basketball. They had to use many second-hand materials, however, such as textbooks handed down from the whites-only schools.
Despite living under segregation, the graduates stressed that they never felt inferior, and that they had each other to lean on.
"We were very well-rounded to face any obstacles that we had to come out of the world," Robinson said.
The graduates said teachers and students who came from formerly-segregated schools encountered discipline problems after integration, as students felt they were being forced to go to schools outside communities they knew.
It was the beginning of disrespectful student behavior they said continues today.
"I've been cursed out by parents; I've been cursed out by students," Witherspoon, who is a school bus driver, said. "I've been called everything, and I'm a senior citizen."
Before and after
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore attorney and author of a 2013 memoir about his parents' legal battle to compel the Harford County Board of Education to allow him to attend the then-segregated Aberdeen High School in the early 1960s, recently talked about his experiences in segregated schools and an integrated high school.
Pettit spent his middle school years in Baltimore County, and he transferred to Havre de Grace Consolidated for eighth grade when his family moved to Harford County. He completed the ninth grade in a boarding school in Baltimore, and then started his sophomore year at Aberdeen High, where he graduated from in 1963.
His father was a civilian engineer at the former Ft. Holabird outside Baltimore, and he was transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"The teachers [at Consolidated] were great, and so were the students, after the initial indoctrination that most kids have when they come into the school system," Pettit recalled.
Pettit said his parents did not want him to continue at Havre de Grace Consolidated, though, because his eighth-grade course work there was similar to his sixth-grade course work in Baltimore County.
"My father really didn't like the fact that I was doing work I had already done," Pettit said. "He thought that was going to pull me back in terms of my preparation for college."
The Pettit family prevailed in their federal lawsuit against the school board, and Pettit was clear to attend Aberdeen, making him the first black male to integrate a Harford County public school – he was preceded by two girls at Aberdeen.
His mother and father had hired "some of the best tutors that money could pay for" as he was transferring between his prior schools, so he felt ready to compete academically at AHS.
He noted Aberdeen's football team was the main reason he wanted to go to school there, however, and the school's then-head football coach, Jim Smith, became a mentor to the young Pettit.
"Aberdeen High School, Bel Air, Edgewood High and Havre de Grace High School had a distinct advantage over the black schools, and so therefore, they did not meet the standards required in Plessy v. Ferguson to show that schools were separate but equal," he said, referring to the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld segregation as long as institutions met a "separate but equal" standard for blacks and whites.