Living and learning in black and white

Success: Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of UMBC, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where whites resisted integration with deadly consequences.

April 18, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Freeman A. Hrabowski III helped mark many civil rights milestones in education last year - the 40th anniversaries of blacks at Clemson University in South Carolina and in the medical school of Duke University, and the 35th anniversary of the integration of Vanderbilt University medical school.

Next month will be the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, started first grade in segregated Birmingham, Ala., schools the year that the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional.

"They told us not to take the brown paper covers off our books," he said at a symposium at UMBC last week marking that 50th anniversary.

"But I did. I saw the stamp that said they came from the white school. My teacher told me, `The book may be second-rate, but you aren't.' "

Hrabowski - who will deliver the school's Low Lecture on the Brown decision May 5 - was extraordinary by any standard. He was only 4 years old when he started first grade, 15 when he went to college. He grew up in Birmingham as it became a cauldron for the turmoil of the civil rights movement that would galvanize the nation.

Despite the Brown decision, his education was segregated through college. But the court decision was a promise dangled before the black community that nurtured him. Everyone knew change was coming, that - for better or worse - the world Hrabowski would encounter was going to be different from the one his parents had endured.

Education was of prime importance in the Hrabowski household. His mother was a teacher specializing in math and English for eighth-graders. His father started as a teacher but found he could make more money as a laborer in Birmingham's steel mills. He worked two other railroad jobs. And he made extra money reading, writing and doing math for the illiterate whites who were often his supervisors.

A year after young Hrabowski started school, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Birmingham bus. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in town. The movement was beginning.

"My parents were always going to meetings of something called the Alabama Christian Movement," he says. "They would take me with them. I would be sitting in the back, doing my math problems, reading a book."

Hrabowski was raised in a remarkable community. He can tick off the doctors, lawyers, business leaders, university presidents and many Ph.D.s that came out of his neighborhood. Among his parents' friends was another family of educators, the Rices. Their daughter, four years younger than Hrabowski, earned a Ph.D. in political science and became provost of Stanford University. Condoleeza Rice is now President Bush's National Security Advisor.

"I'll tell you someone else from Birmingham," Hrabowski says. "Alma Vivien. That's what we called her. She's married to Colin Powell. Her uncle was principal of my high school. He would always stop me in the hallway and give me a math problem to see if I could do them."

In the same school where Hrabowski's mother taught eighth grade, the mother of Angela Davis taught fourth. Davis studied philosophy with Herman Marcuse and became a radical black activist in the 1960s. Six years older than Freeman Hrabowski, Davis left Birmingham to attend an integrated high school in New York under a program run by the American Friends, a nonprofit Quaker group.

"My parents decided not to do that with me," Hrabowski says. But they sent him to Massachusetts in the summers during high school to live with a godparent and attend school. "They wanted me to get used to an integrated setting."

Hrabowski was not among the black students who integrated Birmingham's schools in the early 1960s. "They were treated terribly, spit at, had bottles thrown at them. My parents did not want me to go through that," he says. They kept him in a segregated school.


There were few places where the defenders of segregation fought as fiercely as in Birmingham.

Hrabowski knew the four girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. He remembers learning that a hand of the girl he knew the best, Denise McNair, was blown off and identified by a ring her father had given her. "I had nightmares about that for years."

As he left school to go to the funeral of the girls, Hrabowski says he was stopped by his principal, Alma Powell's father. "He saw I had on a bright-colored tie and he said, `Son, you can't go to a funeral with that tie,' and he knelt down and literally took his tie off and tied it on me.

"The whole time, he was talking to me about the significance of what I was doing ... how I was representing the other students and parents [who couldn't attend], and Alma, and your race.

"It was not just a casual moment. As he tied that tie, he was teaching me about leadership."

King's protests were losing steam because so many demonstrators were in jail. A controversial call went out for children to join the protest and fill the jails. Twelve-year-old Hrabowski wanted to go.

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