Beginning today and running every Friday and Sunday in February, andevery Wednesday beginning Feb. 13, the Anne Arundel County Sun will present "Making a Difference," a look at 10 blacks who have played, or are playing, key roles in government, schools, civic affairs or thebusiness community. The series, designed to concentrate on men and women not usually found in the spotlight, will try to spend as much time looking back on what has been accomplished as on what must still be done. For, as Annapolis alderman and longtime civil rights activist Carl Snowden is fond of saying, "La luta continua" -- the struggle continues.
Like any general who has been through a war, Walter Blasingame finds it difficult to put aside the tools of battle.
Which is why,at just about every county school board meeting, the tall, soft-spoken man takes a front-row seat, scribbling note after note.
Ironically, few members of the board remember him as the formidable foe who sat before another board in the early 1960s, demanding through letters, petitions, booklets, testimony and marches that county schools be desegregated.
Today, in his gentle and very deliberate manner, he recalls those days when he and others associated with the Joint Civil Rights and Citizens Committee on Education fought for providing all county students with an equal education.
"This county was as segregated as any found in the South," Blasingame says. "We had a very dedicated group of parents determined to eradicate segregation. We weren't lonely hearts out there. Every time the board met, we were there making some kind of presentation. And just as determined as we were, there were members on the (school) board who were determined to keep that from happening. Then we had some friends on the board who spoke out because they knew what we were trying to do was right."
The last county school was desegregated in 1966, after the federal government threatened to withhold nearly $2 million if the county did not come in step with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.
Blasingame was a tireless figure in much of the 12-year battle to bring an end to segregation. At board meeting after board meeting, he presented documentation and photos showing students living only a feet away from schools they could not attend because of race.
Today, he shys away from talking about his accomplishments or himself much, believing thatquiet work is better than noisy planning. And he shares virtually noinformation about his tutoring students in housing projects each week or battling with Annapolis city officials on behalf of the First Baptist Church, where he is an active member.
But despite his humility, the restlessness continues in his retirement as a physicist from the David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center in Annapolis.
Walter Blasingame's yearning for social justice began as a lanky student attending segregated schools in Griffin, Ga. -- a boyhoodthat prepared him for his mission in Anne Arundel County without his even realizing it.
Most of his memories of warm Georgia days are pleasant, but he does recall having to stand his ground after being ordered off the sidewalk by white students walking home from school through his neighborhood.
He and a few friends tested waters that weren't ready for change by showing up at the town's library to check out books, knowing they would be turned away.
His desire to affect change heightened as he grew older and saw the results of the separate and unequal worlds of the black and white community.
"There's one incident in particular that stands out in my mind," Blasingame says. "My mother was a domestic worker who worked for a rich family who owned a textile mill in the South. The lady's son wasn't even school age and he had the right to call my mother by her first name."
Instead of anger, he channeled his frustrations into making his educationcount, becoming a top scholar at Hampton University in Virginia. Butthe restless urge to do something about the inequities he saw aroundremained. He participated in organized sit-ins in Hampton and Newport News.
"When one group was thrown out, we sent in another group,"he recalls while seated in his comfortable Arnold home. "It became aconstant strategy in order to accomplish what we wanted to do. We, of course, were introduced to the dogs. We were intimidated, but I guess we had our hearts and minds set on eradicating what we saw as blatant injustice."
Those experiences made him the ideal candidate that Samuel Gilmer, then head of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, needed to challenge Navy hiring practices. Gilmer, who worked in the Navy's payroll department at that time, was tired of excuses for not including blacks in training programs designed to recruit talented college students and graduates.
"Time after time, I saw them parade these young students, offering them three months of school and three months of training," says Gilmer, now an Annapolis alderman. "We recruited at universities all over the country and brought back highly qualified black candidates that they couldn't use that old excuse on."
Blasingame got the job with the Navy. Then Gilmer, the man he had come to call "dad," asked him to head a NAACP committee aimed at forcing the end of segregation in county schools.
The alderman chuckles when he talks about the polite young man who dedicated himself to this cause.
"Blasingame sat down and prepared the play cards for the march on the Board ofEducation," Gilmer says. "He carried it all the way through, to makesure that not too many black schools were closed down and that teachers and principals were treated fairly during the integration process. He accomplished what the NAACP set out to accomplish, to totally integrate schools. He's very smart."
The Rev. George Stansbury, pastor of St. Matthews United Methodist in Shady Side, said he most clearly remembers Blasingame's negotiating skills.
"He is a perfect gentleman," Stansbury says. "He was a very good negotiator, but it was always in good humor. It took a lot of high spirits to bring about a solution. There is still a lot of work to do yet."
That is one sentiment that Blasingame agrees with. Though his two adult daughters have completed their education in county schools, he still feels he has a stake in what is decided at the bi-monthly board meetings. And unless there is another pressing engagement, he'll be there.
"I regretthat there is not an organization in place such as the Joint Civil Rights Committee on Education to keep up with what's going on," he says with a trace of sadness, "a group to see to it that the gains that we made are not lost. There are still vestiges of discrimination in the system."
He smiles when he talks about the board's two black members, but warns there can be no room for complacency.
"We've come a long way," he says, "I think to the betterment of everybody."