School offers history lesson

Ruling: Former students, teachers recall Harford's struggle with integration.

April 25, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fifty years ago next month, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in the public school system, marking the long process of desegregating America's public schools.

Yesterday, several dozen residents gathered inside the one-room, wood-frame building that until 1946 served as the Hosanna School in Darlington, Harford's first public school for African-Americans.

Established in 1867 by the Freedman's Bureau, Hosanna is now a museum and national historic landmark. Yesterday, it served as a backdrop for 10 panelists who shared their experiences as students, teachers and administrators during a time that changed the course of the county and nation.

"Even though the doctrine before this decision said `separate but equal,' we were separate and very unequal," said Christine Tolbert, Hosanna Community House's executive director and a former Hosanna student. She helped organize the roundtable discussion.

A historical preservationist, Tolbert recently came across an official evaluation of Harford County's public schools written in 1946 by county administrators. What she found, she said, served as justification for the low educational standards set for blacks at that time.

"They justified not having a broad curriculum for black students, because, according to them, black students were only going to be farmers or maids. So there was no point in giving us higher education," she said. "Well, we've come a long way."

One of Stephen C. Moore III's earliest memories is walking with his father from their house on 8th Street in Bel Air across U.S. 1 to Bel Air High School. The year was 1953. "He said, `One day I want you to go to this school,'" Moore, 58, recalled. "He certainly did make good on his promise."

Moore's father, Stephen C. Moore Jr., was a public school teacher and administrator who fought his employer to make it happen. He hired an attorney and sued Harford's Board of Education. He took his case to court and won his son's right to go to school across the street from where they lived.

In 1957, as a sixth-grader at Bel Air Elementary School, Moore became the first black student to go to a Harford County public school once reserved for whites.

"It's difficult to be one or two among a room of many. But it's rough to be the only one in the whole school," he said. The only other African-Americans in the school, he said, were the cooks.

Maurice Dorsey was a year behind Moore at Bel Air High School. He was the only black student in a class of 460. Although his experience with the other students was positive - he was voted Friendliest in the Class by his senior classmates - the experience of having to ride in the back of the school bus, in the seat above the back wheel, was a painful one.

"It's much more difficult to look back and remember it now as an adult, then when it was happening as a child," said Dorsey, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.

William Brown, who won a gold medal in track and field at the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, attended Harford's segregated schools his entire life. "I can remember a building with four rooms, similar to this one, with six grades and two teachers. I can remember my sister having to repeat the sixth grade, twice, because there was no high school. You either had to go to Baltimore or Havre de Grace. I can remember graduating, serving this country for four years, and then attending Morgan State, because my principal, Stephen C. Moore Jr., inspired me to go to college," he said.

As a coach at the all-black Central Consolidated High School, now Hickory Elementary School, Brown often had to ask for permission to use nearby fields for practice.

Shirley Rose began teaching physical education at Central Consolidated in 1952. Brown was her mentor and the school's other physical education teacher and coach. When integration began, "It was like Santa Claus coming. ... We had one gymnasium no bigger than this room. ... At the other schools, you'd walk in and see all the equipment, all the supplies."

Dwight Pettit, now an attorney, attended Aberdeen High School after his father won a federal lawsuit to send him there. Pettit attributes his easy transition to his coach, Jim Smith, and to his principal, J. Walter Potter, who also attended yesterday's discussion.

Potter was principal of Aberdeen High when the county implemented its "stairstep" integration plan, where one black student was placed in each high school grade.

Pettit was recently appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

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