Harman Elementary reunion recalls segregation

November 12, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,SUN STAFF

Three decades ago, Linda Jennings Smoot attended Harman Elementary, then an all-black school.

"At Harman, when I went there, you weren't just a student and a child, you were family," said Mrs. Smoot, 41, a librarian in Maryland City.

Friday night, she and more than 400 people who were students or teachers at the school during those years of segregation gathered for a reunion at La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie to recall their experiences.

From 1960 to 1966, Harman was one of 13 all-black schools in Anne Arundel County. In the fall of 1966, the Board of Education integrated the schools, and Harman Elementary and its 300 students were never the same.

At the reunion, it wasn't hard to recognize anyone after three decades, participants said. Many students and teachers stayed in western Anne Arundel County, becoming neighbors and attending the same churches.

But there were surprises.

"Ms. Petty, you were my first grade teacher!" reveled Rodney Jones, a balding 40-year-old Giant Food Store manager.

"Give me a last name," asked Georgene Petty, 63, trying to jog her memory. "For a long time, I could remember every name of each student I ever taught. Now I'm beginning to forget."

Ms. Petty, who also attended Harman as a student, taught kindergarten and first grade for 34 years. She retired in 1993.

The original Harman Elementary was a two-room school built in 1918 on Dorsey Road. It was one of 5,000 schools built by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald for black children. Two decades later another room was added. Three teachers taught there, including a teaching principal.

About 100 students attended the school, which had no indoor plumbing, though white schools long had modern conveniences. To ease overcrowding, in 1955 the Board of Education built a modern, 13-room, red-brick school a mile away on Ridge Chapel Road, where the school stands today. St. Mark's United Methodist Church sits on the site of the original school.

"It was like moving to heaven," recalled Frank Hebron, 68, who attended Harman Elementary from 1933 to 1939 and served as its principal from 1951 to 1964.

Still, the inequity continued. The only books that the Board of Education gave black schools were outdated texts that white students had used. What Harman students didn't have, the teachers made up for in perseverance.

"It was very hard to teach in those conditions, but we took care of each other," recalled Laverna Hall, 65, who taught fifth grade from 1952 to 1956. "Teachers planned together, we saw the children all day long. We developed them mentally and spiritually."

Their devotion to students did not go unnoticed. At the reunion, it was the dozen teachers and three former principals who received the most attention. When they lined up in front of the ballroom to be recognized, dozens of former students rushed up to snap pictures of their mentors.

Many of the students went on to become teachers and principals themselves.

"I decided to be a teacher in the second grade," said Brenda Burley Rogers, 45, who lives in Montclair, N.J., and teaches fifth grade. She didn't see her second grade teacher, Myrtle Williams, at the reunion, but remembers her well.

When the county integrated the schools, Harman's enrollment neared 400, with about 150 black students. The black Harman students lost their sense of community, but took a step toward helping change society.

"It was sad because you were leaving your friends," recalled Mrs. Smoot, who was bused to Corkran Junior High in Glen Burnie where she was one of two blacks in her seventh-grade class of 30 students. She credits her Harman teachers for helping her adjust.

"Through our teachers we were able to cope," she said. "We were taught to be individuals. We were able to compete."

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