Young Poly integrators blazed a trail in civil rights movement

March 03, 2002|By Gregory Kane

EIGHT MEN sat on the stage at the Polytechnic Institute on Thursday. One was Robert Lumsden, the school's former football coach, who taught at Poly for 38 years.

Another was John Clark, who graduated from Poly in the 1960s. The other six were the ones I had come to see and hear. Believe me, I had heard of these guys. They were about one-half of a group of boys who, if there were any justice in the world, would be as famous as the black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

But these men made history first, quietly, in 1952. That was before the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision May 17, 1954. That was before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man and, according to some - wrongly, as it turns out - "started" the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement was in full swing long before Parks' heroic resistance. Groups like the NAACP and the National Urban League had been quietly but effectively hammering body shots to Jim Crow for decades. In September 1952, both organizations delivered another blow right here in Baltimore.

For years, blacks in segregated Baltimore had a choice of three high schools to attend: Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar and George Washington Carver. But Baltimore's Urban League chapter decided it was time for that to end. They selected 13 black boys (some say 14) who had the grades and smarts to enter Poly's "A" course, which crammed five years of academic work into four and allowed graduates to enter college as sophomores.

NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall and an Urban League lawyer pleaded their case before the school board. When it was suggested that Poly's A course curriculum could be duplicated at Douglass, Marshall reminded them that Poly's prestige as one of the top two high schools in the state and one of the best in the country could not be duplicated.

The argument flew. Poly had its first black students nearly two years before the Brown decision. I first met one of them more than 30 years ago, when I was a high school student at the anti-Poly -City College - and enrolled in an Upward Bound program at the Johns Hopkins University.

Victor Dates, one of the original 13, acted as an adviser for the program. Staffers told us about him, because Dates was a quiet man reluctant to toot his own horn. The guy was one of the first black students at Poly, they told us, admitted to the A course and a Maryland Scholastic Association wrestling champion.

Some of the guys in the program, filled with the brash stupidity of the young, considered Dates too conservative. Some even used the "U.T." term to refer to him. But not me. Those phrases kept repeating themselves in my head: "One of the first blacks at Poly. In the A course. MSA wrestling champion." I looked at Dates with something approaching awe.

Now I had a chance to be awed by some of the others who entered Poly with him. Carl Clark, Milton Cornish, Odoch Hawkins, Everette Sherman, William Clark Jr. and Gene Giles sat on the stage and told today's Poly students what it was like.

They talked of things you might expect: the racism, the bigotry, the rigors of Poly's A course in those days, which has been described as several things, the most common among them "brutal." But they told of the support they got from white Poly students and staff who adjusted to the change as if it were no big deal.

Poly's students asked the group intelligent questions, but it took one of the white students to go where none of the others dared: How did they feel about returning to a Poly with a predominantly black student body?

"I am pleased looking out at the faces staring back at me today," said Cornish. Hawkins added that it's the quality of Poly's students - still high after all these years - that counts, not the color.

Gathered in the alumni room after the assembly, Cornish tried to answer a question that even the boldest student might not have asked. All six of the alumni said their neighborhood friends supported their attending Poly. Would that happen now?

"That's the thing that bothers me today," Cornish answered. "It seems if a kid is good in school, he's shunned instead of supported."

"Things were different back then," William Clark added. Cornish said he and his wife had discussed why black students today think of learning as a white thing.

"It's hard to believe," Cornish continued. "I wonder when it became fashionable not to have intellect."

But soon Cornish returned to enjoying the reunion with his schoolmates.

"I don't want this moment to end," he said. "It's great to see these guys again."

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