Effort To Honor Willis Is Rejected By Board

Ex-schools Chief Oversawdelayed Integration

March 15, 1992|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Staff writer

Painful memories of the struggle to desegregate Harford County's public schools were silently aroused last week as the Board of Educationrejected a proposal to name a new elementary school for the superintendent who oversaw that transition.

Two board members, who worked in the county's former "colored" schools system, voted against namingthe new Route 543 area school for Charles W. Willis, county superintendent from 1945 to 1970. With two other members abstaining, the motion was defeated with only two votes in favor.

The school board then voted, 4-2, to adopt the name Fountain Green Elementary School.

Board President George D. Lisby and Percy V. Williams declined to explain publicly their votes against the Willis name.

But both men, who were officials in the Harford and state education systems, have been outspoken about delays in school integration during Willis' tenure.

Harford schools were fully integrated 11years after the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled against separate-but-equal schools, and after two lawsuits filed by blacks challenging the delay.

The school board's decision last week outraged Sally Willis Rogers, who has been hoping for two decades that Harford would honor her father by giving his name to a school.

"The Board of Education has committed a major injustice against my father and the people who honor him," she said. "Probably no one else in the history of this school system has had such a profound impact on the quality of education in Harford County."

The system expanded five-fold during his term, established a community college and developed the middle schools system, she said.

Rogers said she personally pressed for her father's name on the Route 543 school after seeing his name repeatedly passed over in christening new schools. "I didn't feel I should be the one to do it, as I was his daughter," she said, but letters to the board from other admirers of Willis convinced her there was public support.

The board's decision did not entirely hinge on the unexplained votes of Williams and Lisby.

Members Keith A. Williams and Anne D.Sterling said they would not vote to name a school for any individual. In fact, the four newest county schools were named by the board for geographical features.

But at the same meeting, Sterling said she believed a school should some day be named for Violet D. Merryman, a longtime county school administrator and teacher who now sits on the school board.

The name of Merryman, who has decided not to seek reappointment to another five-year term on the board this summer, wasamong those proposed by the public for consideration by the board innaming the new 600-pupil facility that opens this fall. She withdrewher name and joined Ronald R. Eaton in voting for Willis.

During the public comment period at the meeting's end, Rogers asked the members why they had voted as they did.

When Williams and Lisby declined to explain their position, Rogers said she was not surprised.

"I suspected the cause of their concern, I had heard about it before,"she said.

As principal of the former Central Consolidated High School in Hickory, Williams clashed with Willis over the pace of integrating the county's all-white high schools in the 1960s.

Ironically, in 1989, Williams received the Charles W. Willis Memorial Award, named for his former boss, from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education for his life's work in education.

Williams' name is already on a school, the Roye-Williams Elementary School in Havre de Grace.

Meanwhile, Rogers pledged to pursue the campaign to see her father, who died in 1977, honored by the county schools.

"I will be back the next time" a new school is named, she promised the board.

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