Baltimore calmly opened schools to blacks in 1954

Remember When

September 01, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The opening of Baltimore's public schools in 1954 presaged )) great social change not only for the state but the nation as well, and it was accomplished here without incident.

On June 3, 1954, before a meeting of the school board that was described by The Evening Sun as being "quiet and lacking in drama," the opinion of City Solicitor Thomas N. Biddison was read stating that the Supreme Court had determined that education as provided by the Baltimore City Code was "unconstitutional and invalid."

The board then unanimously adopted a resolution that said, "Our system should be conformed to a nonsegregated basis to be in effect by the opening of schools in September."

While the change was hailed as "a new era in human relations in Baltimore," there was some initial uneasiness, and John H. Fischer, superintendent of schools, was urged to have training sessions for students and teachers.

Fischer stated that it was better to treat "mixed classes as a natural thing" rather than to create possible tension by discussing "problems of integration."

On the morning of Sept. 7, Baltimoreans read headlines declaring that a Senate committee was weighing possible censure charges against Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Inside the paper, in a news item that was of interest mostly to children, it was reported that "Buffalo Bob" Smith, 36, of the television show "Howdy Doody," was in "good condition and resting comfortably" in New Rochelle, N.Y., after suffering a heart attack.

It was the third day of a heat wave, and temperatures were forecast to edge toward 100 degrees as students prepared to ride streetcars, buses or bicycles, or walk accompanied by parents to the opening of their schools.

"Some 143,000 Baltimore children left summer fun behind them today and marched, some willingly, some unwillingly, to school," reported The Evening Sun that day.

"Thousands of them shared in one of the most profound social changes in the city's history, the opening of every school to members of both white and Negro races, in compliance with the decision of the United States Supreme Court in May," the newspaper reported.

Not unlike other teachers in city schools, Gwendolyn Michaels, a kindergarten teacher at Columbus Elementary School at North Avenue and Washington Street, gathered her new students around her chair and sought to allay their anxieties with a story. They clamored and waved their hands while awaiting her intoning of the magical words: "Once upon a time."

"At least sixteen of the public schools had mixed registration when they opened their doors this morning," said The Evening Sun. "The exact number of schools with white and Negro pupils could not be immediately determined because registration was not tallied according to the race of the students."

There were no ugly protests or demonstrations, and the school day proceeded trouble-free throughout the city.

"But in hundreds of classrooms, in all sections of the city, white and Negro children sat side by side. The children appeared to behave as they would on any other first day of school. If they were aware of the historic importance of the occasion, they did not show it," said The Evening Sun.

For one Baltimore school, integration had taken place a year earlier. "The only school where integration is not a new experience is the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which admitted Negro boys to its 'A' course last year, after a court ruling that no equal course was offered in any Negro School," reported the newspaper.

In contrast to Baltimore's schools, schools in the rest of the state remained segregated until later that year.

"This is, by design, just an ordinary day, and it will be most successful if nobody feels until long afterward that history was made September 7, 1954," said The Evening Sun in an editorial that day.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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