Prince George's executive wants to put end to busing Desegregation pioneer says practice outdated

December 10, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Wayne K. Curry remembers the summer 38 years ago when his father told him and his brother Daryl they would be leaving their all-black elementary school for the all-white school closer to home.

"My brother and I collaborated at night in our darkened bedroom in whispers: 'Dad must be out of his mind. He can't be serious.' "

The boys were Eugene "Bull" Curry's "little experiment in desegregation," as his son puts it, crossing the racial barrier in Prince George's County more than a decade before a federal judge would order school officials to integrate their mostly white system through busing.

Today, County Executive Wayne Curry, 46, will take the witness stand to ask a federal judge to end the court-ordered busing that has been in place in Prince George's for 25 years.

Curry, members of the school board and other top county officials -- most of whom are African-Americans -- believe busing is an anachronism in a county and school system where blacks now represent the majority.

"We can protect ourselves," Curry said.

Virtually no one is arguing otherwise. The other side in the case -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the seven parents it represents -- are hoping the judge will put pressure on the state and county to spend more money on Maryland's largest school system, but they are not asking that busing be continued.

While he will argue for busing's demise, Curry is grateful to those of his parents' generation who challenged government-sanctioned segregation and used the courts to bring about equality.

And although he had finished college by 1972 -- when the busing order was issued -- Curry said he knows all about the pain of isolation and the sting of hate that goes with being a pioneer.

The second child in a family of five boys and a girl, Curry moved to Prince George's from Brooklyn, N.Y., before he was 1.

His parents couldn't buy a house in the center of Cheverly, a community of tree-lined streets and two-story brick houses, because they were black. Instead, they settled across the railroad tracks in an area called South Cheverly.

In 1959, Bull Curry, a former Army drill sergeant and an industrial arts teacher in Prince George's "colored" schools, decided his sons belonged in Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary, where all the white Cheverly youngsters went.

"We wanted them to have the best that was available to them," the boys' mother, Juliette Curry, told a reporter in 1994. "It didn't make sense. I lived in the town. The school's in the town."

Wayne Curry said his father, a stubborn man, went to school officials to demand that his boys attend the school closest to home. Administrators threatened to fire him.

Bull Curry, his son said, didn't back down: "You either put them in there, or I'll sue you. If you fire me, I'll sue you twice."

The school system blinked.

The move to integrate Cheverly-Tuxedo -- popular talk in the Curry neighborhood at the beginning of the summer -- died out. By the day school opened, Wayne, Daryl and another youngster were the only children from the neighborhood.

That first day, the Curry boys sat in the auditorium with their parents, waiting for their classroom assignments.

"They do sixth-graders, then fifth-graders, so my brother goes off, then they get down to fourth-graders. They call my name and I just sit there," Curry said, chuckling. "My father looks at me, like, 'What are you doing? Go get in line.'

"I said, 'Dad, you're not serious about this. You're not going to leave me here. I don't see any of the guys I go to school with. I don't see many guys who look like me.' "

Like the school board, the young Curry bent to Bull's will.

"There were things that were less than ideal," Curry said of the loneliness caused by his father's experiment.

The Curry boys sometimes found themselves in social limbo, not taking part in school activities with their neighborhood friends and not being invited to social events by their classmates.

"Not going to your classmate's birthday party is kind of weird in elementary school," Curry said.

Crosses were burned in front of the school. The boys were followed and taunted. Bull Curry told his boys, "Don't let me catch you fighting in the streets."

"There would be these fights, you wouldn't have any choice," his son recalled. "You're not going to succumb or be victimized. You just prayed the old man wouldn't hear about it."

Bull's boys developed different styles to deal with the confrontations. For Wayne -- who later became a millionaire lawyer and the nation's first black elected chief executive of a county -- it was the art of the schmooze.

"I was very small and [Daryl] was very big. I always did things with my mouth. I was a fast talker. [Daryl] was always, 'Let's resolve things in the most efficient way, which is now and with these,' " Curry said, holding up clenched fists.

The Curry boys also learned the many ways racism could bedevil a person.

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