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A struggle for equality amid a legacy of racism


The first day that Herman Charity and a dozen other African-American high school students were to integrate the previously all-white Howard High School in 1965, the county school bus left them stranded at their Jessup stop. The same thing happened on the second day.

"The Savage [white] boys didn't want to ride with us," said Charity, a retired Howard County police officer and top aide to County Executive James N. Robey. The county eventually provided a separate bus for the black students.

Later, as a Howard High football player, Charity was told he couldn't run with the ball at a Hagerstown game because the white referee penalized the team too often when he did. A black player wasn't allowed to be quarterback, either, and the wrestling team was barred from restaurants on the road because of Charity's race.

That was life in the rural, agrarian Howard County that existed before Columbia was built, according to Charity and others who attended segregated schools.

As the 50th anniversary approaches of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation illegal, communities across the country are pausing to consider their racist past and the challenges they still face. Charity was among seven former students at the all-black Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High who, along with several former teachers and community leaders, gathered Thursday night to talk about how things were between the 1954 court ruling and 1965, when Howard County finally obeyed the decision.

Some of the panelists on the "Remembering Desegregation" program, held at Locust United Methodist Church in Simpsonville, said that in their own small world, they did not feel the sting of discrimination.

"I didn't know I was being discriminated on. We had a community there. I was loved there," said Audrey Avery, another former student at Tubman, which still stands a few dozen yards from the church.

For them, discrimination was in Ellicott City, where blacks could not go to the movies, eat in the restaurants on U.S. 40 where their parents worked, or get service in the front of Main Street stores, said former Tubman student Fanny Avery.

Charity, Audrey Avery, Fanny Avery (no relation), Melvin Kelly, Carolyn Lomax, former Maryland prison warden Howard Lyles and Freeman Sands talked about what their lives were like then, and how integration came with a cost: the loss of the insular cocoon of focused support -- and sometimes coercion -- that the all-black Tubman staff lavished on their young charges. Teachers knew every student, every family and visited them at home as part of their jobs.

"I dreaded those days," Charity said, jokingly admitting he was a bit mischievous in school.

"Failure was not in the program. There was no excuse," Kelly said. Lomax said teachers drilled into him that "you have to be the best. You have to be able to compete," in the larger, white world.

Sands confessed that as a youth, "I decided that riding around in a car on Friday and Saturday evenings was more important than being involved in books."

But his teachers took him in hand, he said, and "made me promise I would do my best, that I would be the first person in my family to go to college. They laid that on me, and once I had that confidence I had to succeed," he said. He became a straight-A student and won a scholarship to then-Morgan State College in Baltimore.

The event Thursday, held in a cozy, warm church with polished knotty pine walls and wood ceilings and enlivened by music from a seven-member choir, is one of a series to culminate in May on the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

The struggle in rural enclaves such as tiny Howard County was far from easy, though, as many attested during the discussion. State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican, was then education chairman of the county's NAACP chapter, which met in the basement of the church in which the gathering was held Thursday.

At that time, Kittleman's Republican Party held the allegiance of many blacks in Howard County because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln, while local white Democrats had sympathized with the South and strongly resisted legal equality for blacks.

Kittleman said that trying to push the school board to desegregate more quickly was a painful, uphill battle until the appointment of former County Executive Edward Cochran, a Democrat, to the Howard school board. Cochran swung the 3-2 majority to speed up desegregation.

But that brought new problems.

All of the county's black principals were demoted because white authorities could not tolerate the idea of a black principal bossing white staff members, said Dorotheye Craft, whose husband, Silas, was a principal. "They took our music teachers, our art teacher," to work in white schools, she said.

After 27 months, 14 black students were attending formerly all-white schools, said Roger Estep, who graduated from segregated Cooksville High School in the late 1940s, before the Tubman building was finished.

By 1956, Estep said, black families had to make a personal appeal to the county school superintendent to have their child admitted to a white school. Nine years after the court decision, "several hundred [black] students and a few [black] teachers" were in formerly white schools.

"Even in a nation of laws, power yields nothing without sacrifice," Estep said.

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