COMING UP soon: the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.
It was on May 17, 1954, that the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in America's schools, proclaiming the doctrine of "separate but equal" established in Plessy vs. Ferguson 58 years earlier "inherently unequal." The news media will deluge you with anniversary stories that day and, indeed, the entire week. But a decision that momentous should be looked at throughout the entire school year, shouldn't it?
I'll attempt to do that in this and several columns in the future. Some will explore the impact on current students. In others, students who were in school then - baby boomers now in their 50s and 60s - will recall how, and if, Brown vs. Board of Education changed their views on race relations.
Several questions need answering. Was the Brown decision the educational boon to blacks the lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund - who argued the case - swore it would be? Or was it, judging from most of Baltimore's schools - still, for the most part, as segregated as they were in 1954 - a pitiable failure?
Fifty years ago, in November 1953, not one black student could be found at then all-male City College. That changed in September 1954 when, according to current City College Principal Joe Wilson, Walter Gill became the first African-American to enter the school.
Candido Brown didn't have the foggiest notion of this history when, in the spring of 2000, he frantically tried to find a way to get himself enrolled in City College. Brown, now 17, was an eighth-grader at Northeast Middle School then, an admitted goof-off and clown who spent his days cutting the fool with friends, not studying and bringing home grades like 55 and 60 on his tests.
"I never had that person in my life," Brown recalled, "who said, `You need to be focused. You need to get this done.'" Brown decided to get things done himself. He realized other students would be going to places like City and the school's esteemed rival, Polytechnic Institute. Where, Brown wondered, would he be going to high school? He decided, after a visit, that school would be City College.
"It was known to be a good school," Brown said. "It had lots of prestige. I considered it to be a challenge. And I loved the atmosphere of the school."
But Brown's academic performance had caught up with him. His grades weren't good enough to get him into City. It was a summer "transitional program" - designed to lift those students just below the borderline in reading and math levels up to par - that got him into the Castle on the Hill. Brown doesn't regret it.
"I love this school," he proclaimed while sitting in Wilson's office for an interview. "I love the diversity. I love all the types of people. I couldn't see myself being anyplace else."
Brown was referring to the student body. City College went from an all-white and all-male ethnic enclave of Jewish-, Greek-, Italian-, Irish-, Polish-Americans to an all-male melting pot of those groups plus African-, Asian-, Hispanic- and Native Americans. In the late 1970s, the school went coed. Brown said the ethnic diversity remains. He got a further taste of that diversity when City's Alumni Association sent him to Mexico last year and Costa Rica this year to study Spanish. He met people from several countries.
It was the famous 1954 case, Brown believes, that made City College the diverse place it is today. But education problems among African-Americans still exist. Many have lamented the high dropout rate of black males in Baltimore high schools, and the low numbers of black males at City. Brown, an African-American male who got into City by the skin of his teeth but has excelled (he said he makes 90s and 95s now), may be uniquely qualified to address that issue.
"Many black males don't aim high," Brown said. "They're not coming to City because they feel they aren't good enough. You can't expect to get into City without making good grades."
In other words, the doors of City aren't barred to black males. Brown made it in by busting his hump in the fourth quarter of his eighth-grade year and during the transition program. Today he's the senior class president, the founder and president of Slack - an organization dedicated to educating students about the perils of drugs, unsafe sex and alcohol - president of a student Christian organization called Grace and president of the SAT Prep Club and the Yoga Club. Quite a resume for a guy who was almost a middle school washout.
Fifty years ago, legalized segregation kept black males out of City College. What's keeping them out in 2003?