When a loss was not a failure

February 18, 1999|By Edward Orser

WHEN I talk with my University of Maryland, Baltimore County students about the legacy of discrimination, I ask them what they think high school education was like for African-Americans in Baltimore County prior to World War II.

They guess that African-Americans attended segregated schools; that textbooks were inadequate, recycled from white schools; that teachers were paid less than their white counterparts; that school facilities were inferior and that many consisted of one or two classrooms; that schools, nevertheless, were centers of community cohesion and pride, repositories of hopes for advancement for a new African-American generation.

I reply that everything they said would be a correct judgment in evaluating the county's segregated elementary schools. I ask, however, whether they would believe that the county had no high schools for African-Americans, segregated or otherwise.

The question surprises them. They understand that segregation seldom meant "separate but equal," but it never occurs to them that segregation often meant that parallel institutions simply didn't exist.

Actually, the Baltimore County story is a little more complex, though no less arresting. The county's steadfast refusal either to consider integration in its high schools or to afford separate institutions for African-American youths prevailed without apparent institutional discomfort for years, though the policy seemed a flagrant violation of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, which mandated separate but equal accommodations.

In 1926, the school board finally yielded to pressure with a partial remedy: tuition payments allowing pupils who passed an exam to attend segregated high schools in the city. However, those who fell short of the designated score had no option for a public high school education.

In 1935 county African-American parents -- with the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- challenged this system in a series of legal actions under the direction of Thurgood Marshall.

Only in the second year of trying to establish a law practice in his native Baltimore after graduating from Howard University Law School, Marshall had assisted in the spectacular victory by the NAACP legal team that same year in forcing the University of Maryland Law School to integrate. Marshall met with the parents of two pupils whose high school needs were not served by the tuition policy, Lucille Scott and Margaret Williams, both of whom had attended the one-room Colored School No. 21 in Cowdensville, a small African-American community on the county's southwest side.

Both had completed the elementary grades satisfactorily but failed to secure the necessary passing mark on their exams to qualify for county tuition payments. The score, the parents and Marshall contended, was established arbitrarily by school administrators, with the effect that it severely restricted the number of students who qualified.

On Sept. 12, at Marshall's direction, the two girls sought admission to nearby Catonsville High School, where principal David Zimmerman treated them courteously but refused to enroll them because he said it would violate county policy. Marshall used the refusal to instigate the case, designated Williams vs. Zimmerman.

Catonsville resident Louis Diggs, a local authority on the history of African-Americans in Baltimore County, includes a brief interview with Margaret Williams Rose, who lives in the Baltimore area, in his recent book, "In Our Voices: A Folk History in Legacy." In it she recalls, "Mr. Marshall saying to Lucille and [me] that we should not give up hope, that he would file a legal complaint with the Baltimore County Board of Education to have us continue our education in Baltimore County where we lived."

Over several months, Marshall and several assistants combed the county to document the discriminatory aspects of the county's tuition program. However, the case was heard before an unsympathetic county court judge whose 1936 ruling construed the complaint in only the narrowest sense, determining that Ms. Williams was not entitled to redress because she had not achieved a sufficiently high score on the exam.

Marshall's re-argument before the Maryland Court of Appeals received a much more sympathetic hearing for his contention that the county's policy failed to live up to the "separate but equal" dictum, but the panel of judges concluded in 1937 that he had managed to establish a case for broadening the tuition program, not for instituting African-American high schools in the county.

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