Black alumni recall integration of Poly

Anniversary: A half-century later, six students return for an emotional walk through history.

March 01, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

History walked into the Polytechnic Institute yesterday, alive with stories of being black and invisible, of being symbols and objects of hate in a time long before any of the 1,100 students in the school's auditorium had been born.

Six of the 13 black students who integrated Poly in 1952 returned to their old school for a 50th anniversary celebration. Many were seeing each other for the first time since their high school days.

"Ah, look who made it all the way from Arizona," said Milton Cornish, smiling broadly and glowing with joy as the former schoolmates held an impromptu reunion in the Alumni Room. Minutes later, while getting a cup of coffee, he said to himself, "Don't get emotional. Man, he came all the way from Arizona. Fantastic."

Odoch Hawkins, "Bucky" to old friends like these, flew in from Scottsdale, Ariz., to share his memories, some quite painful. William Clark Jr. came from Akron, Ohio. Everette Sherman made the trip from Reston, Va. Carl Clark, who pulled together an audio-visual program for the anniversary, flew up from Orangeburg, S.C.

Even Robert Lumsden, 81, their former football coach, was on hand.

In the auditorium, the men met a crowd of students whose jeans, sweat shirts and tennis shoes would have never passed muster in the button-down collar, tie and khaki days of the 1950s. Some of the students laughed as the faces of the 13 men in their Poly days flashed on a projection screen, each one with extremely short hair and what can best be described as the prep look.

"Fifty years ago was a very different time," Hawkins, 62, told the students. "Black folks were pretty much subjugated in a way that is very hard to imagine today."

During the summer before they entered Poly, the men spent 40 hours a week in tutoring sessions aimed at making up the gap in their education. Still, they found themselves lacking in some areas. William Clark Jr., 67, and Gene Giles, 66, failed courses their first year at Poly. Because the integration, led by the Urban League, was restricted to the school's rigorous "A" course, Clark and Giles had to finish at Dunbar High School.

Yet, Giles said, his year at Poly allowed him to teach 10th-grade courses at Dunbar during his senior year.

They learned first-hand the inequity of segregation's doctrine of "separate but equal." Others failed classes in subsequent years, but by then legal segregation had been abolished.

`Biggest obstacle'

"The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was that I was No. 1 in my class. I had skipped [grades] twice," Everette Sherman, 63, said of his experiences in Baltimore's black schools. "I came here and was last in my class."

Hawkins shared a similar story.

"That was my experience, to be a leader in the black school and to come here and be totally lost," said Hawkins, who also hated gym class because the students had to pair off. "I was always left standing in the middle of the class. It used to drive me crazy."

After telling their stories, the men fielded questions from students who wanted to know how teachers treated them, how they felt about returning to a Poly whose student body is predominantly black, and what changes occurred between their enrollment in 1952 and the Supreme Court's historic decision in the 1954 case of Brown vs. the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education.

Carl Clark said he was sitting in a history class the Monday the decision was announced, listening as his teacher and classmates debated the issue. Suddenly, the teacher stopped.

"Wait a minute, now. Mr. Clark hasn't said anything," said Clark, 65. "I said, `I really don't see why you're making a big deal of it because it has already happened.'"

For Hawkins, walking to school after the court decision became an ordeal. Angry mobs descended on Poly for several days to vent their rage, though the black students had been enrolled for two years.

"All of these people were screaming, `Kill the niggers,'" said Hawkins, who remembered one particular woman. "It went to the back of my brain, `That lady doesn't even know me. Why does she want to kill me?'"

After the assembly, students crowded the stage, sought autographs and a few moments with these men who had made history. Vicki Georgia, 16, said the event was "inspirational," much more than she anticipated.

"I thought it was going to be boring," she said.

Apt summation

Cornish, 64, gave the best summation of what Poly experience meant.

"It wasn't that we were just doing this for ourselves or for our parents," he said.

"We were carrying the torch forward not just for us, but for generations to come. And looking at your faces, I would say that we succeeded."

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