Did Yankee carpetbaggers broach racial integration of some rural Maryland schools as far back as 1912?

Revolutionary as it sounds for more than a century ago, within the living memory of the Civil War, it seemed possible from a recently uncovered New York report urging "consolidation" of eight small white schools and a "colored" school on a rich man's barony in Frederick and Montgomery Counties, in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain.


It didn't happen — at least not then. But some interesting things emerged. Like, for example, that the black school was better than the white schools.

The unlikely story comes out of a report of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research (BMR) at the Newman Library Archives of Baruch College of the City University of New York — the same collection that yielded a report on racism in the Baltimore Police Department in 1941.

Fed up with bossist corruption, the BMR starting in 1907 pioneered a new scientific approach to local government with budgets, audits and professionally trained administrators. It investigated local conditions, spawning imitators around the country and eventually growing into the hugely influential Institute of Public Administration.

In 1912, the bureau's new Training School for Public Service sent a team to investigate school conditions around Dickerson, Md. The report was commissioned by Gordon Strong, a wealthy Chicago builder who owned extensive property on and around Sugar Loaf Mountain, (now Sugarloaf), a quartzite outcropping in Frederick County 1,282 feet above sea level, a onetime Civil War battleground and now a public recreation area with a rentable mansion an easy hour's drive northwest of Washington, D.C.

Strong would gain renown in 1924 for hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to design a tourist attraction atop Sugar Loaf. The distinctive spiral structure was rejected, but Wright repurposed it for his Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Later, Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House coveted the site for a presidential retreat, but Strong instead directed them nearby to what became Camp David.

Traveling by buggy, training school investigators visited four white schools in Montgomery County and another four white schools in Frederick County along with the black school at Sugar Loaf. They recommended that a consolidated rural elementary and high school be established at Sugar Loaf.

"We are of the opinion that a right solution of the problem at Dickerson will be of immense importance to Maryland and the south, as object lessons in the first stages of educational reorganization south of the Mason and Dixon's [sic] line will have the attractive power which attaches to all first steps."

But whether they were including the black school was left ambiguous. Frederick County's handwritten school board minutes seem silent on the topic.

In 1910, Gordon Strong had established the Halstead School for white children, and in early 1912 the Comstock School for 26 black children where Strong arranged for "a high caliber teacher" named Helen Laud, subsidizing her official salary of $32 a month (about $750 today) by as much as a third more. Strong also paid for keeping the black school open beyond its usual closing date of April 15, until May 31 when the white schools closed.

The study found school conditions poor, but surprisingly the black school came out better. "This building was more attractive in architecture than any of the white schools," the report said. "The children were under excellent discipline; but were not suppressed as in some of the white schools."

The black teacher "has better address, maintains better poise in the presence of visitors, shows more evidence of the gift of leadership and more maturity of character than the white teachers visited." She had taken courses in pedagogy and been trained by her father, also a teacher.

The black school had better natural light, and each child had an individual drinking cup, as was not the case in the white schools. The seats and desks were "in better condition than in any of the white schools." And there was an excellent organ.

Still, the report found, both white and black schools had a long way to go, with as many as 86 percent of students over-age for their grades — by as much as nine years. One-third of the children attended school less than half the time.


For all these reasons, the training school report urged consolidating elementary and high school education in a modern one-story building with the latest equipment including labs and "flush closets and urinals." The curriculum would include music, vocational training and hygiene, including "the beginnings of sex hygiene."

By November 1916, according to Sugarloaf archives, Strong's Halstead School was expanded to include high school in one of the first consolidated schools in the state. But "colored" schools persisted, school minutes show, and real integration would have to await the civil rights era some half a century hence.

Ralph Blumenthal reported for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009. He can be reached at www.ralphblumenthal.com.