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Op-ed

'Inherently unequal'

On May 17, 1954, Baltimore was a gritty blue-collar town that had the bustle of a northern industrial center and the Jim Crow laws and traditions of Dixie.

Whites and blacks sweated together in the city's mills and shipyards, but segregation affected nearly every other aspect of their lives.

Black people could not get a room at the swanky Belvedere Hotel. They could not eat a hamburger inside one of the White Coffee Pot restaurants around town or watch a film at the Hippodrome or try on clothing at Hutzler's.

But on this May date, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Baltimore school board quickly announced that it would comply with the ruling, ending one of the city's most fundamental forms of segregation.

On June 3, 1954 -- 17 days after the high court's ruling -- the board voted unanimously to end school segregation in Baltimore.

"I asked for discussion. There was no discussion. So I called for a vote, and everybody voted for it. That was it," recalled Walter Sondheim Jr., school board president in 1954. "I can't tell you how fast that came up and we moved on to other matters on the agenda."

The next day, June 4, a headline stripped across the front-page of The Sun read: "City To End School Segregation In Fall." A front-page article said the reaction of Southern politicians to the high court's ruling ranged from "bitter criticism and near defiance through milder anger and on to quiet caution."

On June 5, the Baltimore Afro-American, which published bi-weekly, ran an even larger, two-line headline that took up a quarter of the space on the front page: "Board Votes Unanimously to End School Segregation." Its front page included a picture of the nine board members moments after the vote.

An ad that appeared in The Sun the day after the Supreme Court decision captured the racially charged anxiety of the times.

A local real estate firm offered "top dollar" for homes in "changing neighborhoods." The firm bought homes at bargain prices from skittish white homeowners and sold them at inflated prices to blacks. The tactic was known as block busting, and it would contribute to white flight in the wake of Brown.

Predictions of trouble

School officials that summer predicted that there would be trouble in September when schools reopened for the year.

"To be sure, there are a few white persons who see no good in any Negro and a scattering of Negroes who look with distaste or distrust on every white person," schools Superintendent John H. Fischer said in June 1954.

But, he added, "Such people are a small minority among us. Both their numbers and their influence are happily on the decline."

On Sept. 8, 1954, The Sun reported: "A new era in education in Baltimore began yesterday as the public schools opened with white and Negro pupils studying side by side."

The first day of school brought only three complaints to school officials and passed without any serious incidents. However, more serious trouble would come.

An ugly disturbance occurred on Oct. 1 outside Southern High School when 10 black students were "hooted, jeered and roughed" up by white demonstrators, according to an article in The Evening Sun. At Southern, an estimated 500 demonstrators milled in front of the school. Some carried placards that read: "Negroes Not Allowed" and "On Strike."

A near riot occurred when the 10 black students, at the request of their parents, were escorted from the school by police.

The students - nine girls and a boy - stood on the sidewalk across from the school when about 200 jeering protestors began moving toward them. "The 10 students retreated down Warren avenue to Light street, where police stepped between them and sent the two groups in opposite directions," The Evening Sun reported.

In a televised plea, Southern Principal John H. Schwatka said: "Look into your hearts, you Southerners. Examine your consciences. Keep up your courage and sense of decency to prevent another Day of Fear in our community."

Sondheim remembered going to Southern that day. He found the white football team captain and student council president standing in a doorway flanking two black students who had to make their way out of school through the mob.

"They were terrified," Sondheim said of the black students, in a 1993 interview with The Sun. "It was a very touching sight seeing those student leaders standing up for them."

Police arrested six people at Southern that day and warned that more arrests would come for school disruptions. But sporadic protests over desegregation would occur at the school for several more years.

Big step for city

Nevertheless, school desegregation was a major step for a city that had been inching toward integration before Brown became an order.

"Certainly, this was not the only thing that happened during the civil rights movement, so the pressures had begun before that," Sondheim, 95, recalled.

The school board consisted of nine men and women - eight white and one black. Most were doctors, lawyers or college professors, and each lived a middle-class, or better, lifestyle. The board was thought to be composed of progressive thinkers, and not one of its members publicly questioned the Brown decision.

Brown wasn't the first time the board had been forced to admit black students to white schools. Two years earlier, 13 black students were enrolled at the Polytechnic Institute after civil rights leaders, including Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's lead lawyer, argued that there wasn't an equivalent college preparatory program in the black schools.

In 1951, the city desegregated its public golf courses. In 1952, black transit drivers were hired. And in January 1954, the Lyric Theater allowed singer Marian Anderson to perform, reversing its practice of refusing to book black entertainers.

"The Brown decision," retired Baltimore Assistant Superintendent Joel Carrington wrote in his 1970 University of Maryland doctoral thesis, "merely gave impetus to a movement which had already begun."

When the Supreme Court decision was handed down, local newspapers hailed the decision but predicted that there would be difficulty implementing it.

"It is one thing to say in forthright language that segregation is unlawful. It is quite another to say how it shall be abandoned and what shall take place," The Sun editorialized in 1954. "Accordingly, there will be further argument and, presumably, further decisions on the various difficulties as they arise."

A Baltimore Evening Sun editorial compared the Brown ruling to the Dred Scott decision: "Not too many people will find fault with the way the basic legal problem in these cases has been resolved. The basic social problem arising from the legal decision is more complicated."

After the school board's vote June 3, the Afro-American said: "What we think is difficult can be done at once. What seems impossible will take a little longer. The only acceptable program to end segregation is to start now and finish it within a year. The start is important."

'Free choice' preserved

To implement Brown, the city school board simply eliminated the racial barrier, but it did not take stronger steps to assure integration. It preserved its "free choice" policy, which allowed parents to choose any school in the city for their child. It did not assign students - black or white - to specific buildings to ensure integration.

In the fall of 1954, about 1,800 of 57,000 black students transferred to white schools and only six of 87,000 white students transferred to a black school. The majority of city schools remained segregated, which limited widespread protests.

In many cases, integration meant having fewer than 20 students of one race in a school of more than 500 of another race.

Newspaper articles tracked the names of schools integrated by "Negroes" as if they were reporting sports scores. "Windsor Hills School, no. 85 with about 12 Negro students in a population of 938," reported a Sun article Sept. 8, 1954, the day after schools opened to integration in Baltimore. Other schools reported having four Negroes out of 743; 35 of 1,007; 275 of 650; and three of 1,000.

Fischer, at the end of the school year, declared the school system's efforts at desegregation a success.

But there were others who disagreed.

"We thought Baltimore showed a willingness to move forward; of course, they did it in a very small way," said Carrington. "They thought by eliminating the designation of race that you could automatically integrate schools. It seemed hopeful."

Carrington argued that the "free choice" policy undermined the city's hopes for wide integration.

Sondheim, the school board president, recalled the school system's getting exactly what it expected.

"It didn't bring about a big flood of transfers because students, particularly in the elementary schools, went to the schools in their neighborhoods," Sondheim said. "Frankly, we didn't expect there would be a great flood of transfers."

Within a few years of Brown, school officials began to worry that perhaps even their best efforts to implement the decision were failing.

Houston Jackson, who before the Brown decision was superintendent of Baltimore's black schools, said in 1961 that the school system had more segregated and underachieving black schools at that time than it did in 1954.

Still, no one ever legally challenged whether the Brown decision was being properly executed to bring about integration. It became clear that blacks and whites held very separate expectations for dealing with the desegregation decision.

Whites exercised their "free choice" and sent their children to all-white city schools. Other white families moved to the county, where the Brown ruling was not immediately accepted and schools remained segregated.

White migration

About this time, the county's population started growing substantially, as whites continued migrating out of the city.

Blacks, on the other hand, saw the Brown decision as a tool forcing the system to make educational programs equal in white and black schools.

"There were a lot of blacks, like the whites, who didn't want integration either. They just wanted equality," said Roberta O'Wesney, a retired city regional superintendent, who in 1954 was a teacher in the system. "The unfairness was that the blacks got hand-me-downs in everything from the white schools, from textbooks to eating utensils."

Richard McKinney, 97, the founder of the philosophy department at Morgan State University, said many blacks were happy sending their children to all-black schools. For blacks, he said, the Brown decision was about getting into college preparatory programs at white high schools, such as Poly and City College.

"Take Douglass High School, which had some excellent teachers who gave the kids a sense of self-respect," McKinney said. "From that point of view, the Brown decision was not necessarily looked upon as something required for black kids to get a good education. It was just a sense then that black schools weren't getting all the attention that white schools had."

Open question

The differing views of the Brown decision between whites and blacks might have been best reflected by who was attending the city schools several years later.

By 1961, just seven years after Brown, the Baltimore schools had changed from an overwhelmingly white enrollment to a mostly black population and still had many segregated buildings in pockets throughout the city.

"Looking back, the superintendent at the time and others said the schools were integrated beginning in 1954," said Howell Baum, a University of Maryland urban studies professor. "I think it is a good question as to whether they really were."

Researchers Jean Packard and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.


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