When Willard Wiggins first set foot on the Gilman School’s campus in the summer of 1964, it all felt “somewhat overwhelming,” he said.
“I was used to seeing not mostly but entirely black faces at my old school, and I got here and it was all white faces,” he recalled. “Understanding the tone of race relations in Baltimore at the time, my parents went to great lengths to explain to me what I was about to do — the fact that it would not be easy, and that I would have to prove myself when I got here. So that was weighing heavily on my mind.”
For Stuart Simms, what stands out from his own arrival in 1965 at the North Baltimore campus — which only opened its doors to black students like him in 1961 — was the “curiosity” he felt.
He knew his enrollment at the prestigious school “was a great opportunity,” he said. But he also worried about finding enough time to get his school work completed and also play football. (He went on to become the captain of Gilman’s team.)
Both men said they felt cold shoulders from some white classmates. But the rigors of the coursework kept them focused, they said, and as they integrated into the community, what they had in common with their classmates outweighed their differences.
“There was no welcome mat, but there was also no door slammed,” Simms said. “And those small issues of who didn’t speak to you and what you weren’t invited to, I viewed as trivial.”
Over the next several years, both Wiggins and Simms thrived academically and socially. Wiggins took to singing and theater. Simms was a standout athlete. And in 1968, they both graduated — making them and their two black classmates, Greg Emery and David Robinson, the first black alumni in the history of the private independent boys’ school.
This weekend, Gilman is hosting a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their accomplishments and “recognize trailblazing students, faculty, administrators and parents” who helped bring the school out of its segregated past.
The school, which teaches boys from kindergarten to 12th grade, was founded in 1897 as “the nation’s first country day school” on what is now the Johns Hopkins University’s campus in Homewood. It moved to Roland Park in 1910.
The school did not admit Jewish students until the 1950s. And it wasn’t until 1961 — seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision integrating public schools — that the Gilman board of trustees decided that admission should be “without regard to race, color, or creed,” according to the school.
The first Asian student, Raymond Buck-Lew, graduated in 1965, three years before Wiggins, Simms, Emery, who is deceased, and Robinson, who could not be reached. In 1969, the school hired its first black teacher, Bill Greene, who retired, as assistant headmaster, in 2001.
Today, Gilman makes the claim that it is “among the most diverse independent schools in Baltimore,” and says it is now “noted as much for its multiculturalism as it is for its superior reputation.”
Nearly 26 percent of its students receive some kind of financial aid. School officials said 33 percent of the current student body is “ethnically diverse,” and that 12 percent of today’s students are black.
That’s not to say racial tensions have disappeared.
Last year, dozens of students, faculty and parents of the Gilman and Roland Park Country schools held a rally against racism after photos posted to social media portrayed local private school students and graduates wearing racially insensitive Halloween costumes. This summer, Gilman was criticized along with a handful of other Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association schools for deciding that their football teams would no longer compete against St. Frances, a mostly black city team. Some alleged the decisions were racially motivated, though the schools said they were based on scheduling conflicts or safety concerns in allowing their players to compete against the bigger, stronger, more skilled St. Frances team.
Despite those issues, Simms and Wiggins say the progress Gilman has made over the last half-century, and its commitment to diversity moving forward, are clear.
Both men, who still live in Baltimore and are attending the commemorative events this weekend, credit the school with laying the foundation for their academic and social success, and credit it with maintaining the same commitment to diversity that opened doors to them all those years ago.
“They’ve kept their eye on the fact that diversity is important, and by diversity I mean both economic and racial,” Simms said. “They also realize that they are part of Baltimore. The whole idea that this is some elitist place that is sort of above or outside of Baltimore is not a credible understanding.
“And they realize that the school can be even greater — based on the factor of diversity,” he said.