My mother-in-law tapped her chin with her index finger and peered at the picture in front of her.
“Yep, that’s me," she said matter of factly. “There’s the streak in my hair," she said referring to the bleach blonde shade she had dyed part of her mane. "My mother hated that streak.”
A couple of months before, while visiting with her in South Carolina, my mother-in-law had casually mentioned that she was one of a handful of Black students that desegregated Baltimore’s Southern High School in 1954 — something that until that moment my husband did not even know.
Fascinated and curious, I asked The Sun’s researcher and librarian Paul McCardell if he could dig up any photos from that time. Within an hour he was at my desk with a stack of photocopied news clippings. And now here I was sharing them with her.
The Baltimore school board voted unanimously to end school desegregation 17 days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Sun didn’t name in the photos the Black students who walked in a group toward the school in South Baltimore as white protesters jeered at them, spit at them and called them derogatory names. The newspaper chronicled their journey, but did not identify them. It might have been to protect them during the volatile time, but it also made them invisible characters in a very public and historic moment.
That is why I had to ask if my mother-in-law, Mamie McDaniels, if she saw herself in the photos. Her younger sister later also picked her out in the images.
I have thought about my mother-in-law a lot this week at the start of another school year that has laid bare the disparities that still exist when it comes to education in this country. Virtual school as a result of COVID-19 is likely to leave those students already at a disadvantage even further behind. The pandemic has exposed inequalities in internet access and reminded us that not every household has a computer.
Integration at Southern High School was short-lived. The school is now named Digital Harbor High School and is also now largely Black, as white residents fled long ago for the suburbs or private schools in a form of self segregation.
It would be easy to believe that the sacrifice my mother-in-law made at the end of the day did not matter. But learning that part of her life story gave me another level of respect for what her generation endured that many of us take for granted.
During our talks, she recalled sitting next to white students during the school day and then watching them on the television news bad-mouthing integration efforts. Teachers were also not nice. One didn’t like her hairstyle, while another questioned why she wore socks, rather than stockings. Her mother couldn’t afford stockings.
At some point my mother-in-law’s mother tried to convince her to switch schools, scared her rebellious daughter would get killed. Instead, my mother-in-law would stay after school to protest and was arrested several times for her activism.
“It was my right to go to that school,” she said.
But after a while she couldn’t bear much more. It was hard to concentrate in school and my mother-in-law says the daily stress was part of the reason she dropped out of high school. Her principal tried to convince her otherwise, but it was too much.
“I told him I couldn’t tolerate this every day; all these signs in my face every day,” she said. “People wanted to fight me because of the color of my skin."
Through the telling of that experience I gained new insight into who my mother-in-law is. I have come to admire even more her grit and willingness to fight for what she believes. “I speak my mind,” she often says. Even in decades-old photos the fight in her face is visible. To this day, she has a brashness about her that plenty of people have wished they hadn’t experienced. More than 60 years after moving away from Baltimore, she is still quick to throw out her Cherry Hill credentials and remind people she takes no crap.
She taught her own children to strive for the highest levels, and education to this day is one of her core values. What she wants to see most is that all of her grandkids get a college degree.
And at the end of the day, she says her sacrifice was worth it. A decade after the protest her younger brother, Clayton McNeill, was able to attend Southern High School, where he was a star quarterback, and later became an executive at Coppin State University.
So as the Baltimore school system deals with different kinds of inequalities in education, I thank my mother-in-law for the bravery she showed in pioneering change.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Please send her ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.