Changing the course of education

WAY BACK WHEN

In early '50s, Levin argued to let blacks enroll in Poly

Way Back When

February 14, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The recent death of former Circuit Court Judge Marshall A. Levin recalled his role in a crucial case that resulted in the partial desegregation of a Baltimore high school in 1952 - two years before the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling put an end to segregated schools across the nation.

Levin, then a young practicing attorney, counted among his clients the Afro-American and Baltimore Urban League.

It was the league's case seeking admission for 13 qualified black students to the highly esteemed pre-engineering "A" course at Polytechnic Institute that brought Levin before the Board of School Commissioners on Sept. 2, 1952. The "A" course, the only one of its kind in the country, gave students five years of schooling in four years and, after graduation, allowed them to enter college as sophomores.

Levin was joined in his efforts by Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"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 admit these boys. My recollection of Thurgood Marshall was that he gave us hell and told us we were scared of doing it. ... He irritated me," former school board member Walter Sondheim Jr., a participant in the historic case, told The Sun in an interview several years ago.

"It really was Marshall Levin's case, he was brilliant, and not Thurgood Marshall's," Sondheim said at the time of Levin's death on Feb. 1.

The background of the case centered on the fact that the 1952-era school board was still adhering to an 1879 city law that required the board to "organize separate schools" for children of color.

William Lemmel, superintendent of city schools, reported that an alternative "A" course with a $78,000 investment could be established for black students at Frederick Douglass High School.

Roszel Thomsen, president of the school board, told reporters, "The only real question before the school board is whether the proposed curriculum in one of the Negro schools will be substantially equal to the Polytechnic `A' course."

"In the case of the Poly admissions the School Board decided that while separate schools were still the rule, it could not set up a segregated `A' course for Negroes that would meet the latest requirements under the `separate but equal' doctrine," reported The Sun in 1959. "The Supreme Court by 1952 had made clear that if there was to be segregation, the colored schools would truly have to be equal to the white ones."

Levin, who opposed the alternative plan, based his objections on the fact that the quality, and more importantly the prestige, of the Poly course could not be replicated elsewhere.

Robert H. Roy, a professor of engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, bolstered Levin's argument when he told The Sun, "One does not set up equal facilities by creating something identical in form but not in spirit."

Marshall was the last to speak at the end of the four-hour meeting, and explained that the proposed second course at Douglass represented a gamble. "And a gamble is not what I consider equality," he said.

The board voted 5-3 against the Douglass plan and the 13 students began school at Poly six days later.

"Thus, Negroes and whites will be attending the same school for the first time in the history of public education in Maryland," The Evening Sun reported the next day.

"What happened at Poly made the integration that followed Brown vs. Board of Education easier in Maryland. It was a very important step," said Larry Gibson, a Baltimore lawyer.

"What must impress everybody is the conscientiousness and restraint with which this difficult and potentially explosive matter has been handled, not only by the School Board but those who appeared before it," The Sun editorialized. "It provides an example for all who will be concerned with the coming experiment: the students themselves, their parents, the school authorities, and the general public."

Reflecting on those momentous events years later, Levin told a Sun reporter, "We knew we were a part of history, and so it's still satisfying after all these years."

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