'In spite of it all, we were winners' Graduates recall segregated schools

July 25, 1993|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

When Geneva Pope attended the old Bel Air Colored High School in the 1940s, she had to read books no longer deemed fit for white students. But she and her classmates first had to erase profanities and racial slurs that white students had left on the tattered pages.

White students caught buses to schools. Blacks had none, even if they lived nearly 20 miles away.

When they arrived at the Colored High School, black students found plumbing in disrepair and walked outside for toilets. In winter, they shivered until they fired up the stoves in the morning. They had no business courses, no advanced science, no musical instruments, no gym.

Today, almost a half-century later, Mrs. Pope recalls pain and anger and frustrations such as knowing she could never take typing or shorthand because of the color of her skin.

But she also recalls laughter, love, good times -- and a good education.

"In spite of it all, we were winners," says Mrs. Pope, a 1947 graduate who went on to become a cook, secretary, wife and mother of nine children.

"We were determined to learn, and the teachers were dedicated and showed us a lot of love -- they provided a real family atmosphere," she said. "It was a marvelous experience."

The memories came rushing back this weekend for Mrs. Pope and hundreds of other former students and guests at a three-day "Friendly Reunion" for Bel Air Colored High School and Central Consolidated School in Hickory, another former all-black school.

The former schoolmates renewed friendships. They spoke of struggles and barriers they overcame. They recalled growing up in Harford County long before integration.

For them, the civil rights movement is not just a chapter in history books. They lived it.

Breaking through barriers

Mary Elaine Weatherspoon, a 1954 graduate of Central Consolidated, says she had to break through many barriers -- not only as a black person but also as a woman.

"But I forged forth and didn't let racism and gender bias deter me," she says. "I just had to work twice as hard and knew there was always someone watching over my shoulder just waiting for me to fail."

Mrs. Weatherspoon, 54, credits her days at Bel Air Colored High School and her teachers there with preparing her.

"The experience has been a most important influence in my life," says Mrs. Weatherspoon, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Howard University.

Now, Mrs. Weatherspoon is a senior protocol officer for NASA in Washington -- the first black and only the third woman to hold the position. She plans and directs major events and programs such as the launch of space shuttles.

Today, she worries about the fate of many young blacks.

"Some people of color just can't handle the barriers placed before them," Mrs. Weatherspoon says. "They grow up in an integrated society and never learn to expect those barriers."

Her advice?

"Have plenty of self-respect, self-pride and receive a good education. If you don't get an education, you will fail.

"We had one great advantage -- one-on-one, teacher-student participation," Mrs. Weatherspoon says. "They knew our strengths and weaknesses and did a wonderful job helping everyone. We were never fully aware of what we were missing by attending a segregated school."

Mary Bond Berry, 68, agrees.

"Teachers didn't have any supplies, and the curriculum was limited," she says. "But they were innovative and full of love for us, and provided the best education possible."

Schools drew protests

Central Consolidated, which opened in 1950 in Hickory amid protests among residents who opposed a black school in the neighborhood, became the regional education center for black students -- first through 12th grades -- living in the lower part of the county.

Percy V. Williams, who last week began his second term as president of the Harford County Board of Education, was the school's first principal.

Black students in the upper part of the county attended Havre de Grace Consolidated.

Both consolidated schools became elementary schools when Harford County integrated its educational system in 1965, 11 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation.

But even now, Mrs. Berry says, "Racism still exists. It is just more subtle today."

Mrs. Berry says she has learned that anyone dreaming big and working hard can succeed.

"Regardless of color, once you live up to your potential and work to the best of your ability, you can achieve any goal you set for yourself," she says.

William Brown, a graduate of Bel Air Colored High, returned from his Florida retirement home to attend the reunion.

After graduating from high school, he became a track star at Morgan State, a gold medalist at the first Pan-American Games and a member of the U.S. Touring Track and Field Team before returning to his hometown to teach at Central Consolidated School.

Mr. Brown grew up in Bel Air, and remembers being envious when he once sneaked into Bel Air High School and realized how much more white students had.

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