Courage, Conviction And The Extraordinary Angeline Williams


April 07, 1991|By Chris Kaltenbach

Angeline Williams was a frail 91 years old when I visited her in 1986.

Almost a quarter-century had passed since her outspoken supportof immediate desegregation made Mrs. Williams the most controversialschool board member of her time -- and left her squarely at odds with then-School Superintendent David Jenkins, who supported a more gradual end to the system of separate schools for black and white children.

I was researching a story on the 20th anniversary of the day black teen-agers were allowed to attend a school other than Bates Senior -- a day that marked the end of Anne Arundel County's segregated school system. Several people I interviewed had recalled Mrs. Williams asa key figure in that struggle.

Some spoke of her with a touch of awe, some with reverence, and some with a trace of irritation. But all agreed she had been at the forefront of the movement, never hesitating to say -- and fight for -- what she believed.

Angeline Williams was still listed in the phone book, living in a grand old house overlooking the Severn River. Her son said she would be glad to speak with me, but warned that she had been ill, and that her mind occasionally wandered. He said he hoped I'd get what I was looking for.

He needn't have worried. Mrs. Williams' eyes lighted up when I asked her about the struggle to desegregate county schools. "I know I helped," she said, with a self-effacing dignity that said she didn't want her accomplishments blown out of proportion, but didn't want them forgotten either. "I knew that the black children were being shortchanged, that they weren't getting what they should have.

"I remember when we were working on the desegregation, people would come up to me and whisper, 'Do you want to sit next to a colored person?' And I'd say, 'Yes I do, and I think we ought to do something about it.' "

I asked her if she ever had second thoughts, ever considered simply giving up. No, she said firmly, "because I knew I was right."

Angeline Williams died March 13. She was 95, and had been ill for some time. Buther accomplishments live on, not only in the school system she helped drag into the 20th century, but also in the memories of those she fought alongside.

"Mrs. Williams was really determined to see to itthat desegregation came about in this county," remembered Walter Blasingame, who headed an NAACP committee in the early 1960s aimed at forcing the end of segregation in county schools. "She fought exceptionally courageously to bring that about."

Speaking from his Arnold home last week, Blasingame, who played no small part in the desegregation struggle himself, recalled how the black community knew it had a friend.

"At the time, there weren't that many people at all who were interested in seeing desegregation," he said. "She perceived the situation to be one that was definitely wrong, and she was determined that it would be corrected. She fought very hard to see to it that that happened. The school board as a whole was determined to maintain segregation in Anne Arundel County, but she was just as adamant that it was going to be abolished."

Philip L. Brown is a former elementary school principal who was part of a successful suit in the 1950s that demanded equal pay for white and black teachers. His 1988 book, "Separate But Equal," chronicles the struggle to provide an education for black students in Anne Arundel County on a par with that provided their white counterparts.

"She was one person who always took up for fair play," Brown recalled last week. "She thought of children mostly as just children, not white children or colored children."

Sitting across from Angeline Williams on that May afternoon five years ago, I could sense some of the conviction these men talked about. And I, too, was more than a little awed by this woman -- who fought toothand nail for something not because she had to, or because she had something to gain, or because she wanted to be on the winning side, but simply because it was the right thing to do.

As far as I know, the school system has no plans for a memorial to Angeline Williams. Perhaps they should consider one -- an annual scholarship, perhaps. Or better yet, a student essay contest, on the continuing struggle for civil rights. Nothing extravagant, but something to perpetuate the memory of a lady who fought for what she believed in.

I think she'd like that.

Which is not to say, of course, that no memorial to her exists. The very fact that black and white children attend school together -- a notion that four decades ago would have been dismissed as a silly, if not dangerous, fantasy -- is her most lasting memorial. And the struggle to improve that system, the acknowledgment that equality is a goal and not a reality, ensures that her spirit will remain alive.

"She was a determined soul," Walter Blasingame said, chuckling fondly at the memory, "and indeed, in the end, it was her cause and her side that prevailed."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.