1950s Race Relations Confused This Child


Native Remembers County's Slow Integration

April 24, 1991|By Russ Mullaly

After watching the recent television movie "Separate But Equal," oneof television's best efforts, some old memories and feelings came back to me.

The movie was a docudrama based on the struggles of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, led by then-attorney Thurgood Marshall, portrayed by actor Sidney Poitier, to put an end to segregated schools in the 1950s. The film ended with the landmark 1954 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found segregated schools to be unconstitutional.

Howard County's public schools were segregated until this decision. The county took its time complying with the law of the land. The plan here was to desegregate gradually. The county was not fully desegregated until 1965, 11 years after the high court ruling. Think aboutit. That was just about a year before Columbia began.

When I was in elementary school, my folks and I lived in an area of the eastern part of the county where I was the only white kid in a stretch of about a mile. In my immediate neighborhood, all my playmates were black.We played cowboys, cops and robbers, baseball, football; we flew kites and did all sort of kid things that all children do.

However, when the morning came during the school year, things were different. Itook a bus by myself to Elkridge Elementary School, about two miles away. My friends across the street took an earlier one to a differentschool much farther away. As a 10-year-old, this just didn't make a lot of sense to me. I was told this was just the way it is. I guess Iwrote it off to being another one of those dumb, adult-made rules that you have to follow. This was the '50s, remember: students didn't start questioning things until the '60s.

Integration started at my grade school in 1956, when I was in the sixth grade. I'm thinking that there may have been only one or two black students that started classes at the school that year. And some of the white kids at my schoolacted like they were looking at aliens from another planet. You know, they would stare at these kids like they had three heads. I didn't see what the big deal was.

There was one black student who was in either the fourth, fifth or sixth grade, I don't remember which. All I know was that he was on the same lunch shift I was, and he had a whole table to himself. Nobody would sit with him. I remember sitting with him a few times because space was at a premium and a seat was a seat as far as I was concerned. Naturally, I was called a number of the usual names that some of the kids learned from their enlightened parents.

I'm sure there were others who felt the same way I did, that people were people and you judge them as individuals, not groups. But as it always has been, you don't want to go against the crowd when you're a kid, so you keep your feelings to yourself.

As for the black kids who lived on my street, desegregation never caught up withthem and me. Throughout junior high and the three months of high school I had in Howard County before we moved to another state, I never rode the same bus with them.

When I think back to those days in elementary school, I wonder: How did that kid in the cafeteria feel about having to eat his lunch by himself? Did he wish he was back at hisold school? Did the experience make him embittered? How did it influence the rest of his life? I wonder what he is doing today and what occupation he has.

Seeing that movie made me think back to those days and ask the question, did those sort of things really happen in the United States of America, the best country in the world? And yet, if you think about it, some of that stuff is still happening in placesin this country, what with de facto segregation where whites have set up private schools so they won't attend school with blacks. And of course racial incidents are still going on. Just ask the Human RightsCommission in this county. I'm afraid there are still too many who think they are more equal than others.

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