City College stood out on long-ago day

April 07, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

IT HAS been nearly 50 years since that early fall day when John Steele was a City College senior - so long ago that Steele at one time thought the incident happened in the spring.

Several months before - May 17, 1954, to be precise - the Supreme Court had handed down its decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, outlawing segregated public schools.

On that fall day in 1954, students from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School - which back then was working-class and lily-white - left school early in the morning to march to school headquarters - then on 25th Street - not to praise the Brown decision, but to condemn it. They would not, the white students said, go to school with black people.

The Mervo contingent first made a stop at City, a few blocks away. Steele remembers when the Mervo students marched up the hill and exhorted City College students to join in their protest. Steele said some Collegians had learned of the anti-Brown protest and were ready for the Mervo students.

The Brown ruling "wasn't a shocking decision by any means," Steele said. "Most of the students [at City College] who followed that kind of thing thought it was the right decision.

"During the summer or early fall," Steele recalled, "City's senior class president had gotten wind of [the protest] and decided we really needed to do something about it." City College senior class officers started a phone campaign and called other seniors, urging them not to join the protest.

"I don't think there was a single City student involved in that," Steele said.

Newspaper accounts of the event said a handful of City College students joined the protest, as did some students at Polytechnic Institute - which had enrolled its first black students in the fall of 1952. But most City students ignored the protest. The seniors held an assembly thanking students for just saying no to racism. City College alumni sent letters praising the school's students for their progressive stand. The reaction was, considering what was happening elsewhere in Baltimore and throughout the South, the exception, not the rule.

Steele's family arrived in Baltimore in January 1954 after his father took the job as news director for WFBR radio. They had moved from Tulsa, Okla., a city that was not only strictly segregated but also the site of a 1921 race riot that has been called the worst in the nation's history. He remembers the debates he had with his Tulsa friends about the Brown decision, one Steele felt "was 100 percent right." Steele's neighbors in his Gardenville neighborhood in Baltimore shared the anti-Brown sentiments of his Tulsa friends.

For whatever reason, the atmosphere inside the walls of the Castle on the Hill was different. Walter Gill, an African-American, entered City College as a senior in the fall of 1954, just a few months after Brown.

"My recollection is that no one hassled Walter," Steele recollected. "He was just one of the guys." Once African-Americans were added to City College's mix of Italian-, Greek-, Polish-, Irish- and Jewish-Americans, Steele felt the school was better.

"Being able to have that racial diversity added to the richness of the experience there," said Steele, who went on to graduate from the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore School of Law after he left City.

While in college, Steele went to work for the Rouse Co. as an office boy and messenger to help pay his tuition. He stayed with the company through his undergraduate and law school studies. Today, Steele is the vice president and associate general counsel for development at Rouse, which offered him a permanent job after his student days were done.

"I don't think we've realized the full promise of Brown," Steele said. "The resistance to it was disappointing. That resistance took so many different forms. The state of public education in so many urban centers is the result of the resistance to Brown. It's an example of one of the ill effects of a polarized society. I see the same polarization in our society today, and it frightens me."

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