13 bright teens stood for many

When black teen-agers enrolled at Poly in 1952, they broke a barrier that existed in classrooms and on athletic fields.

February 28, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Carl Clark and Milton Cornish stand in front of the old Baltimore Polytechnic Institute building, joking and laughing over old days that had no hint of humor, days when they bore the burden of a people, as the first black students to walk the storied halls at North Avenue and Calvert Street.

They are much older now, gray-haired, and a few steps slower. But in 1952, they were part of a handpicked group of teens given the task of integrating a city public school.

Two years before the Supreme Court's historic decision in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education, Baltimore took a small step toward ending segregation, and it did so with 13 young men - three sophomores and 10 freshmen.

Though city fathers made the move with no fanfare, relatives and neighbors knew history was being made. What they didn't know is that this would stand as one of the small victories that led to the downfall of the "separate but equal" standard that had held sway in America since before it was made law in 1896.

Cornish, 64, remembers the burden of those years.

"You've got the hopes of your race on your shoulders because people were always asking, `How you doing, Milton? How's school going?'" said Cornish, who lives in Pikesville. "They were really, personally interested. ... You didn't want to fail. You didn't want to let them down."

History will say that by enrolling, they succeeded.

Today, most of the surviving members of the original 13 will gather at the new Poly for a 50th anniversary celebration. It will be the first time they all have been together since their stint as schoolmates. Clark has prepared an audiovisual program. There will be a panel discussion and memories.

They lived it and remember it best.

The Baltimore Urban League had led the effort to integrate Poly, assisted by the powerful local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP combed the city for elite students who would be eligible for Poly's rigorous "A" course, a program so respected that its graduates enrolled at colleges as sophomores.

City leaders responded by saying a similar program could be set up at all-black Frederick Douglass High School at a cost of $78,000. Opponents said that even if the program could be duplicated, it would not have Poly's prestige.

The school board heard the arguments on Sept. 2, 1952. Marshall Levin, who would become a circuit court judge, went first, arguing for the Urban League. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued for the NAACP.

"The Urban League put on such a good case that it was clear to the board members, but not to the people in the room, that a majority of the board was going to vote to admit these boys," said Walter Sondheim, now 93, then a school board member. "My recollection of Thurgood Marshall was that he gave us hell and told us we were scared of doing it, without knowing what we were going to do. ... He irritated me."

Cornish, then 14, has a different memory of Marshall that night.

"He was in there like a whirlwind, just beautiful, beautiful," said Cornish, who left the meeting early to deliver papers for The Afro-American. "He was in there throwing around words I'd never heard before. I said, `Wow.' I went home and looked them up."

At evening's end, the board voted 5-3 against the Douglass option, clearing the way to admit the students. Before adjournment, Poly Principal Wilmer De Huff wondered aloud what would happen if one of the students made the football or basketball team. After all, segregation still reigned.

The 13 enrolled the next week and Gene Giles, 66, made the junior varsity football team. He started on the varsity basketball team. He had a solid, accurate passing arm and played an uptempo style of basketball that contrasted with the plodding, methodical game common at Poly. His teammates embraced him, often walking him to school from his bus stop at North and Greenmount avenues.

The only problem came when Bladensburg High School refused to go against Prince George's County law and play a team that had a black player.

"They [Poly players] said, `No. No. You've made the team. We're behind you,'" said Giles. "It made you feel good."

Dowell Schwartz, quarterback of the varsity football team, said Poly's players didn't make much of Giles being on the field. That was a sharp contrast to what happened when Schwartz, as a quarterback for the Johns Hopkins University, and his black teammates played against teams in the South.

"I can remember players on the other teams ... calling out names, the N-word, and `We're going to kill you.' It was very nasty," said Schwartz, 65, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric vice president. "That was quite a different experience from what I saw at Poly."

What sticks with Giles from those days was the reception he received when he returned to Dunbar High School. Integration at Poly was limited to the "A" course, and Giles had failed algebra his first year. Many Dunbar students turned their backs on him, he said.

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