'Allowed' to attend high school

The Education Beat

October 25, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A MAJOR anniversary for Percy V. Williams occurred a few days ago. Sixty-five years ago Oct. 21, he was allowed to attend high school. Thousands of Marylanders these days choose not to attend high school, but Percy Williams, at 81, says he'll "never forget the moment."

It was in Elkton, Cecil County. Percy, his parents and others from the Harford County Colored PTA had lobbied for years to establish a publicly supported high school in their county. Percy Williams had graduated from a segregated elementary school at 13. But in those days that was the terminal education for most black kids south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Percy had been taking some high school courses at a black elementary school in Havre de Grace, but that, he says now, was a "make-believe situation." He'd traveled in the fall of 1930 to Elkton Colored High School for an interview with the principal. "You'll be three weeks late," he was told. "But we'll take you if you're willing to work hard."

That meant months of commuting 20 miles a day by train from Aberdeen. Percy Williams earned his high school diploma. He went on to graduate from Bowie Normal School -- and to earn out-of-state graduate degrees at the expense of a Maryland government that did not allow blacks to study at their own state university.

Dr. Williams then established more "firsts" than a gaggle of Olympic gold medalists as a Harford County teacher and administrator and a state Department of Education official.

Today, having retired in 1982 from his state job and last year from two five-year terms on the Harford school board, he lives with three sisters on the family farm near Aberdeen. He says he's not tired. "Maybe I've got something to see Mr. Glendening about," he says, referring to a seat on the state Board of Education.

The Williams homestead dates to 1921, when Dr. Williams' father, Vandellia, bought the land after being displaced by Aberdeen Proving Ground. The son of sharecroppers, the elder Williams had few rules, his son says: Go to church, do what's right, get an education. He died eight years ago at 100.

Harford established a high school for blacks the year after Dr. Williams began his commute to Elkton. He says Howard County was the last Maryland jurisdiction to establish high schools for blacks. Then, a quarter of a century later, as a trouble-shooter for the state Department of Education, he helped Maryland's school districts, one by one, eliminate legal school segregation. It was a process, he says, that was "oh, so painful."

So many stories. And, of course, ironies.

When Dr. Williams returned from service overseas in World War II, Harford Superintendent Charles W. Willis appointed him supervisor of the county's "colored schools." That began a close relationship that continued until Willis died more than a quarter of a century later.

"He was the best superintendent in the whole state," Dr. Williams says. "He really cared that Harford have a good education system; there's no doubt about it. He once went to a meeting and told a bunch of people, 'You treat your black children worse than cattle. I can go in some of those [black] schools at night and look out and see the stars through the cracks. But I can't do that in your barns.'

"But Dr. Willis had one problem: He wasn't going to tolerate the mixing of races."

Willis had no choice about desegregation, of course, and in 1989, long after Willis' death, Percy Williams was awarded the prestigious Charles W. Willis Award for his contributions to education. The award came from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which Willis served as the first executive director after he left the Harford superintendency.

George D. Lisby, now 61, was a student of Dr. Williams in Havre de Grace in 1947.

A generation apart, the two men have been close friends and allies ever since.

"I watched him work the state human resources secretary for seven hours one night in Ocean City," says Mr. Lisby, a retired educator now on the Harford Board of Education. "He finally got early childhood funding. He's a master."

Dr. Williams spent a professional lifetime in the outer circle of white elites. But he displays not an iota of bitterness. Childless (Bernice, his wife of 49 years, died within a week of his father), he was honored by dozens of nieces and nephews -- and their children -- last year at his 80th birthday.

"I've been helped along by a lot of people, including my family," he says today. "All I've ever wanted to do was get on with the business of making the world a better place."

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