Center Stage highlights Brown decision

Presentation looks back at '54 high court ruling and impact of integration

May 04, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The stage company was made up of modern-day judges, journalists and students - products of school systems without racial barriers. But their words evoked a time when skin color dictated educational opportunities.

In a Center Stage production, Brown v. Board Revisited: A Commemoration and Community Forum, a cast that included leaders from Baltimore's legal and media communities offered a look back at the Supreme Court's 1954 decision to integrate schools.

"We are ready for integration," said Elizabeth M. Hewlett, chairwoman of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission and a cast member, reading the text of a newspaper article printed in Baltimore's Afro-American a half-century ago. "We have been ready since we were born."

The production, using original court arguments and newspaper articles from the Afro and The Sun to retell the landmark school ruling, was created by playwright Jerome Hairston and volunteer law students.

The idea for the presentation - one of many events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the decision - was hatched a year ago by Harry S. Johnson, president of the Maryland State Bar Association, and Michael Ross, managing director of Center Stage. Resident Center Stage adviser Gavin Witt was director.

The hourlong performance included video interviews with black and white Baltimoreans who attended segregated schools and witnessed desegregation efforts.

Cole Wiggins, a 1956 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, recalled living in his "cocoon" of black schools, churches and markets. Alan Katz, a 1957 graduate of City College, said that when students at other white high schools protested integration and staged walkouts, most students at his school supported the court ruling. "We were not afraid of integration," he said.

About 400 people attended the free performance - fewer than anticipated, after 600 tickets had been distributed. A theater spokesman blamed rainy weather.

After the readings, audience members were invited to discuss what they heard. One man asked the lineup of lawyers and judges on stage if they thought desegregation had contributed to a weakening of city schools.

"Absolutely not," said Larry S. Gibson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "What Brown v. Board was about was elimination of legal discrimination. ... Before that, blacks and whites couldn't play tennis together in Druid Hill Park. It was about getting the law off our backs."

For the Hargrove family of Mount Washington, the production was a bonding experience. Beth Woodland-Hargrove, 49, and John R. Hargrove Jr., 50, who is the son of the late federal and state judge, said they benefited from the decision in that they attended integrated schools in Howard County and Baltimore City.

Their daughter, Sydney Hargrove, 16, a junior at Friends School in Baltimore, said the production was better than any chapter in a history book. "It made it more real," she said. "I have a better understanding of the decision now."

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