At first it was Poly

Baltimore Glimpses

July 16, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE CITY SCHOOL board meeting of Sept. 2, 1952, was a special and extraordinary one. A group of 16 black boys was seeking something unprecedented in Maryland -- admission to the demanding pre-engineering "A" course at Poly -- in a city in which segregation was legally mandated. The board was being asked to consider whether setting up a similar "A" course at the all-black Douglass High School would satisfy the Supreme Court's ruling that black and white public school students must receive "substantially equal treatment."

One of the boys' spokesmen was Marshall Levin of the Baltimore Urban League. (He is now a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.) Helping to argue the case for the boys (and representing the NAACP) was a Baltimore native, Thurgood Marshall.

Roszel C. Thomsen, now a senior federal judge, presided over the four-hour discussion. Perhaps sensing the import of the meeting, he opened it by asking all present to "invoke God's guidance." He then explained the issue before the board: 16 Negro boys had applied to Poly. Thomsen then reviewed decisions of the Maryland Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court.

"It seems to me that the only real question before the school board is whether the proposed curriculum in one of the Negro schools . . . will be substantially equal to the Polytechnic 'A' course," Thomsen said. "If it will be substantially equal, then under the City Code, we must continue the policy of separate schools. If it will not be substantially equal, then under the Constitution of the United States we must admit the boys to the Polytechnic "A" course, or abolish the curriculum."

Levin made the point that the "A" course had been functioning for many years, had national recognition, veteran teachers, a position of influence, distinguished alumni and prestige. A new course at Douglass, he argued, could not possibly offer these "intangibles" and therefore would be "unequal." An assistant dean at John Hopkins made a similar point. Equal facilities aren't offered by creating "something identical in form but not in spirit," he said.

Marshall was then 43 years old but already enjoying a reputation as a brilliant lawyer in the forefront of the civil rights struggle. He pointed out that in the several cases then pending before the Supreme Court, "there is expert testimony from the best child psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists, all of whom testify that children who are segregated in the public schools [are] harmed by segregation. It is impossible for them to obtain an education on the same basis as in a mixed school."

Thirty-nine years later, Levin recalls that "Marshall was not at the hearing very long. He came in like a tornado, argued like a tornado and left like a tornado."

There were arguments on the other side, too. School officials testified that they could replicate the "A" course at Douglass without difficulty. One former president of the City College alumni association declared: "Negroes should have advantages and should have proper education, but I think the Negro will do better trying to be a Negro and don't ape the whites. If I were colored and I had a son, I would be in favor of that boy going to Douglass High."

The vote was 5 to 3 in favor of admitting the students to Poly. As chairman, Thomsen did not vote, but he said that he would have voted with the majority.

And so the young men were admitted. (The board later declined to admit black girls to Western, deciding that the advanced courses at Western could be replicated at Douglass.)

The Poly victory came nealy two years before Marshall and colleagues won their greatest victory -- the Supreme Court's decision that all school segregation was unconstitutional.

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