An education on desegregation

Series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of landmark Brown decision

January 04, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Half a century ago, Howard County was a small farming community living under a rigid system of racial segregation -- until the U.S. Supreme Court knocked the legal underpinnings from beneath it.

Although the county is transformed, a coalition of community leaders plans to commemorate the May 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision though a series of events starting with an honorary County Council resolution at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

A schedule of events was not available, but a Web site (www.hocobrownvboard.org) listing them is scheduled to be activated tomorrow, said Natalie Woodson, a retired Baltimore school principal and Howard County NAACP member helping to organize the events.

One gathering will feature former students of Howard's first high school built for blacks -- named for Maryland-born freedom fighter Harriet Tubman -- who will recount their memories of segregated schooling.

The Tubman building opened in 1949 after much prodding by the county's black community, whose members insisted it be named for Tubman instead of the school board's choice of "Atholton Colored High School," according to records.

The board agreed to the Tubman name, but never placed it on the building during the 16 years the school was open.

Under segregation, black children were guided into vocational rather than academic courses and were given used textbooks after white schools were finished with them.

In this year's plans, other events will be scheduled through April as the 50-year anniversary approaches May 17.

In May, Woodson said, the post office will cancel mail with a stamp commemorating the event, and the Columbia Association will fly celebratory flags along Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia.

The campaign will culminate May 16 at the Columbia Sheraton, when County Executive James N. Robey will present awards to people "living up to the goals of desegregation," Woodson said.

Woodson, who grew up in Baltimore, knows firsthand what legal segregation meant, the former educator said. "I attended all-black schools in Baltimore" under segregation, she recalled.

As a young teacher, she participated in desegregating Baltimore's Fallstaff Elementary School.

Although children in Howard County's schools are taught the history of Brown vs. Board of Education, the months of commemoration may help history come alive, said Woodson and Mark Stout, social studies curriculum coordinator for county secondary schools.

"Our focus is on the voices of the past," Stout said. "We're looking to get the students involved in hearing the speeches and reading the original documents from the period, including our own Howard Board of Education minutes from the time."

Howard County schools did not fully desegregate until 1965, when Harriet Tubman School closed, and the building was converted into school administration headquarters.

Stout said county students are researching the local history of segregated schools, "and we also talked about developing a speakers bureau for our schools," he said.

At 20, Erica L. McLaughlin is too young to remember legalized segregation. But the University of Maryland, Baltimore County drama student and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People member volunteered to create the Web site for the Howard County Brown vs. Board of Education Planning Commission.

Through elementary school, McLaughlin attended predominantly black schools in Washington, the Hammond High School graduate said.

"I don't think I experienced racism in school, but I did experience segregation" before her family moved to Howard County, McLaughlin said.

"I do think Howard County is unique, but we're not without difficulties," she said, noting that her honors classes at Hammond were nearly all white.

Woodson said she is keenly aware of the trend toward voluntary segregation in schools, but she said the 1954 Supreme Court decision highlights an important difference.

"As long as people segregate themselves according to housing, schools are going to reflect that," she said. "Segregation of people by law is certainly not an appropriate thing."

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