Desegregation recalled in school's celebration

November 18, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Just four months after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, Howard County opened Guilford Elementary School -- a school for "colored" children only.

In May 1955, the Supreme Court ordered the public schools to desegregate with "all deliberate speed." But the response to that order didn't come until 10 years later for Guilford Elementary.

"I think the border states and Southern states interpreted that in their own way -- which was a snail's pace," said Morris L. Woodson, the school's first principal, who left in 1965 to teach at Coppin State College in Baltimore.

Throughout this year, the elementary school on Oakland Mills Road is making desegregation an important part of its 40th anniversary observations, with class projects and guest speakers recounting the school's bittersweet history.

Guilford was one of four elementary schools for blacks in the county and is the only school built as an all-black school that remains open.

It had its genesis 70 years ago in a two-room school on nearby Coleman-Thomas Road that served the predominantly black neighborhood. That school eventually moved to a three-room building at Route 32 and Mission Road, and the county built the existing structure in 1954.

"As far as the black population in the county, it was elated that the county was building a school for black children," said Mr. Woodson, who was the county's supervisor of "colored schools" before becoming Guilford's principal.

When Guilford opened, the county closed four "colored" schoolhouses in the southern part of the county. Black children from Elkridge, Meadowridge and other areas were bused to the 16-room school to join the Guilford community's children.

The new school lacked many of the amenities that most new buildings receive.

"We weren't given any extra finance to equip the school," Mr. Woodson recalled. "Most of the old furniture was brought from the old schools. . . . Even though they said 'separate but equal,' I don't think that was the intent."

In those days, Guilford Elementary included kindergarten through sixth grade, with about 30 students in each class.

Although it took 11 years to desegregate Guilford's student population, Mr. Woodson said it was the first school to integrate teachers. In 1957, part-time music teacher Mary K. Daniels, the school's first white teacher, joined the other 11 teachers.

And students such as Romaine Woodson -- not related to the former principal -- who attended the school during its early years didn't seem bothered by the lack of equity in supplies and equipment when Guilford was still segregated.

"I knew we used their hand-me-down books," said Ms. Woodson, now a first-grade instructional assistant at the school. "Nevertheless, the teachers taught us. As a student, I couldn't say I was missing out."

In 1965, the county's schools were integrated, and Guilford Elementary enrolled white students.

The school's administrative secretary, Doris Harriel, a lifelong Howard County resident who has been at the school since 1964, recalled that tempers flared in nearby Columbia as white parents were told that their children would go to Guilford.

"They didn't want their children in this black school," said Ms. Harriel, who has seen Guilford's population shift from all-black to 63 percent white and 28 percent black.

"We didn't have the necessary things the white students had."

Race was not the only issue, she noted. As the more urban Columbia community was developed, the aging Guilford Elementary seemed less appealing to parents from such affluent neighborhoods as Huntington.

Eventually, however, those same neighborhoods that initially opposed having their children attend Guilford came to support the school.

In the 1980-1981 school year, they became part of a coalition that successfully opposed a school system proposal to tear it down. The refurbished building opened in 1982.

That history will be reviewed during this year's anniversary celebration. Current Principal Judith T. Bland recently touted Guilford's success at integrating and renovating the school.

Yet the school's painful racial legacy still surfaces, she said, especially over such issues as the school's high rate of suspension for black students. She hopes the anniversary will help heal those wounds.

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