Principal grew up attending segregated schools

October 23, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

An old ink drawing of a bayonet and a helmet hangs on Jesse Smith's office wall, a gift from a student the Mayfield Woods Middle School principal once taught.

The drawing is nicely framed and well-cherished. It came from one of the first white students Mr. Smith had in his classroom, at a time many schools across the country were bitterly fighting desegregation efforts.

"As schools integrated, I wondered whether I should aspire to be a teacher, because I wondered whether black teachers could teach white students," Mr. Smith said. "That didn't deter me, but that was a concern."

At one time, Mr. Smith -- like many other black educators nationwide -- could teach white children but was not allowed to live in their neighborhoods.

Now the 51-year-old principal and father of two heads one of the newest and most diverse middle schools in the county. Mayfield Woods has a 25 percent black student enrollment, a 6 percent Asian student enrollment and a 2 percent Hispanic student enrollment, according to latest figures. Countywide, middle schools average 15 percent black enrollment, 7 percent Asian and just over 1 percent Hispanic.

"We're all in this together," said Mr. Smith, a towering man with a big smile. "The world is going to be what we make of it. You're either a part of the problem or part of the solution. But I'm strongly encouraged by what I see and hear at Mayfield Woods."

Mr. Smith grew up in Cooksville and attended segregated Howard County schools. He was a fifth-grader at the all-black Highland Elementary School in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education. That was the landmark case that opened the door for school integration.

"The thought of going to a white school was very remote, because even though the law was passed, there were no moves toward integration in the county," Mr. Smith said. "The first moves came about four years later."

He said he has no regrets about going to a segregated school because he said he got an excellent education from well-trained teachers who motivated and cared for children in their classrooms.

But he noted the discrepancies.

Black schools got hand-me-down books from white schools. Black students from Laurel to Elkridge to Cooksville traveled great distances to attend the county's only black high school in Simpsonville.

Some students took a bus to the neighborhood elementary school, only to get on another bus to get to their high school.

"I doubt if we had three microscopes in the entire school," Mr. Smith said. "I felt shortchanged in that we didn't get adequate resources."

But what bothers Mr. Smith is that the name of the segregated high school -- Harriet Tubman -- was never put on the building. "Maybe because it was named for a black person," he said. The school, never named, is now a school warehouse facility.

Mr. Smith attended what now is Morgan State University on a scholarship, majoring in history. He's the youngest of seven brothers and sisters and the only one to graduate from college, but he's proud to say that all of his siblings are gainfully employed and own their houses.

"My parents provided for all of us," he said. "We always went to the local church. We were relatively poor, but we were always taught to help and assist others who were less fortunate. We were brought up in the church."

His first teaching career took him to the all-black Harlem Park Middle School in Baltimore. A year after he started, he longed to return to Howard County to contribute to his community. He found a job as a social studies teacher at Waterloo Middle School, where Deep Run Elementary now stands.

From there, he went to teach at Patapsco middle, Mount Hebron high and Glenwood middle school. He helped open Harper's Choice Middle School in 1973 as an assistant principal and moved to Wilde Lake Middle School in 1980 to become principal. He's been principal at Mayfield Woods since 1990.

Mayfield Woods students describe him as friendly. "He's a nice principal," said Brandon Allen, a 13-year-old eighth-grader. "He always wants to help everybody. He's always trying to make you laugh."

"He reminds me of a good role model, a good principal who's nice," Jessica Taylor, 13, said.

Mr. Smith knows that people of all races will get along with one another in the future.

He learned this lesson more than 30 years ago, when he worked as a camp counselor for a charitable summer program for Hispanic, Jewish, black and white children from New York.

"We did many projects there -- one . . . was to build a cabin in the woods. Having seen all those students live and work together proved it could be done," Mr. Smith said. "And this was at the height of the civil rights movement, where there was rioting and burning."

And with a lot of reflection, he said, "I think some day, harmonious racial relationships and multiculturalism will be a living reality."

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