We all played role in failure of city school integration

May 11, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JUNE 1960: In the final edition of the Garrison Junior High School newspaper, The Ranger, there are photographs of each of the 14 senior class homerooms. That's me in the last row of Class 9-7, standing behind Danny Bentzen, Michele Winder and Joe Guilford. I'm the one wearing a teen-ager's crewcut and a smile like a crooked laundry line.

The newspaper is now beginning to fade and crumble, not unlike the generation it pictures. I've kept it for these last 44 years, strictly for sentimental reasons. But today it pays to count all faces in the photos, and tabulate them by race, and wonder what happened.

This month is 50 years since the Supreme Court tried to usher in racial integration of the public schools. The decision defined modern America in both triumphant and troubling ways. It attempted to give the nation a conscience on race. It began opening the door to full citizenship for black people. But it so terrified white people, including liberals who talked a good game until it actually reached their own doorsteps, that it sent them scurrying to suburbia and resegregated not only schools but the neighborhoods around them.

In that 1960 class at Garrison, just six years after the beginning of legislated school integration, there were 449 of us graduating -- of whom 290 were white and 159 black. You can see this by counting faces in the homeroom photos. As it happens, this 2-to-1 racial breakdown was a reasonable mathematical reflection of the city itself.

The other day, I went back to the old building, on Garrison Boulevard and Barrington Road in Northwest Baltimore. It's called Garrison Middle School now. In a city that is now roughly 2-to-1 the other way, there are 840 pupils at Garrison, of whom two are white.

Does it matter?

Today, the principal at Garrison is Isiah Hemphill. Years ago, in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Hemphill went to Lombard Junior High. It was all black. Then, Dunbar High. Again, all black. And then to the old University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, specifically set aside for black students.

At that time in his life, Hemphill thought this was fine. It was all he knew. Now he is 56 years old and understands the world better.

"These children," he said, strolling a school hallway and peeking in at a science class, "don't really think about race. It's like, `White people are over there, and we're over here.' It's not a question of liking or not liking them. They just aren't on their radar. And that's unfortunate. It's unfortunate for black and white children, both.

"To compete in this world, to communicate, you have to understand other people's backgrounds. You don't become the complete, universal person without it. You can't understand all the possibilities in life. Your world is strictly that little area around your home, and your school."

Half a century ago, my classmates and I were test-tube babies for integration, incubated the way no previous generation had been, and left to work things out. Were there discomforts? Yes, but mainly the kind of discomforts of any group of strangers -- particularly adolescents -- tossed together.

But there was a kind of exhilaration too: of realizing we had arrived, for the first time, in the heart of the American ideal. Of realizing, five days a week, so many things that made skin color meaningless: ballgames on the playground, struggles with algebra, teachers who were death for everybody. Nobody had to make any brotherhood speeches about it; we all faced the same obstacles, and dealt with them the same way, and this became the fundamental fact of our lives -- not race.

But, while the kids were learning to work things out, their parents did not. White parents expected it to be comfortable right away. When it wasn't, they took off, not waiting around for explanations and not wanting to be the last ones in their panicky neighborhoods trying to get reasonable market value for their homes.

These parents had just come out of a world war with the most murderous racial overtones, and forgot to apply the lessons of that war in their own communities.

The other day, Hemphill came upon a small group of noisy kids -- the usual stuff, just adrenaline run amok on a spring morning -- and the pupils becalmed themselves when they saw him and greeted him quite respectfully.

"These children," he sighed as they drifted into class. "They can be anything. They have so much power. But getting them to believe in themselves ..."

In 1960, Garrison was made up mainly of middle-class white kids and the first generation of blacks on their way to middle class, having finally gotten the beginnings of a chance. Today, records at public school headquarters tell a different story about the school.

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