Lessons learned, shared by City's first black graduate

May 16, 2004|By Donna M. Owens

ON THAT CLEAR, sunny morn in the fall of 1954, when Walter Arthur Gill entered City College as a high school senior, the 17-year-old wasn't thinking about court cases or making history or the now-seminal Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate America's schools.

A stellar art program, not racial politics, had brought him to the so-called Castle on the Hill, then the Ivy League of public high schools locally and nationwide. And this bright young man simply wanted to register and get to class.

But first he had to climb the campus' famous hill - literally and figuratively. And Mr. Gill, dressed in a sport coat and with a side part in his closely cropped hair, had to make this walk alone, though he carried with him the hopes and dreams of African-Americans here and across the country.

As Brown's impact resonated across America, students across the racial spectrum would find themselves called upon to help shoulder the burdens of a nation grappling with race in the classroom and larger society.

So Mr. Gill walked, past the equally youthful white faces of students who neither cheered nor jeered, but stared curiously at the transfer student from all-black Frederick Douglass High School. He walked that day with measured steps, gaze fixed straight ahead, his heart and head insisting he could do this, even though he was too young to fully comprehend that he was, indeed, striding into history.

Though nine other blacks helped integrate City, though the school had students of other ethnicities, Mr. Gill would become what one newspaper termed "the first of his race to graduate."

In a sense, the Greenville, Miss., native had been preparing for this moment all of his life. Academically and artistically talented, he was the first born of college-educated parents and entrepreneurial grandparents who owned several businesses. Lessons in racial pride, scholarship, civic duty, ambition and courage were as commonplace as grits for breakfast.

In the Greenville of his youth, race loomed omnipresent: "white" and "colored" signs, the balcony of the local movie theater where blacks had to sit, the many places they could not go. Still, it was a world Mr. Gill remembers fondly as "a beautiful town, the Queen City of the Delta."

He and his playmates - just as often white as black, he says - fished and swam in the Mississippi, romped in the woods. No name-calling, he says. No adults around to race-bait and keep boys from being boys.

"Being born in the South, you knew who you were and where you belonged," Mr. Gill explains, referencing not so much skin color but support systems. "There was family and community. It seemed like everybody knew you. You knew where to go for help."

When he was 8, the family relocated to Baltimore after his father, a professor with a doctorate in political science, accepted a teaching position at Morgan College. They would settle in Hoes Heights, a black enclave built in the 1930s near what is today 40th Street near Roland Avenue.

Ensconced in this tight-knit black community, Mr. Gill experienced love and support similar to that he'd felt back in Mississippi, the place he returned each summer. The feeling was reinforced at Coppin Demonstration School.

And this foundation provided Mr. Gill with the fortitude and academic tools he would need to survive at City, where many teachers treated him coldly, and his classmates were not unkind but often ambivalent.

City alumni Sidney Krome and Lewis Noonberg recall how at nearby Mervo, students planned protest marches, hoping City boys would join their quest to keep schools white.

"Robert Hammerman [then a young attorney and now a retired judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court] visited me, and asked what I was going to do," recalls Mr. Noonberg, who was senior class president. "Really, I hadn't thought about it." But thanks to a telephone chain Mr. Noonberg initiated, it's believed that few if any City students joined that hateful march.

Yet the City students could not prevent other injustices, or the isolation often felt by Mr. Gill, who lettered in track and earned good grades.

He formed few if any deep friendships at City. Instead, he maintained strong ties with former classmates from grade school and Douglass High - even inviting several buddies and their dates to City's senior week activities.

"Gill and his friends attended all of the graduation events save one," notes the June 11, 1955, Afro-American. "He boycotted the dance in the Dixie Ballroom at the Gwynn Oak Park, when a last-minute restriction was added: He could attend, but couldn't use the park's concessions with other students."

Another slight came hours after the graduation. When he and white classmates went to a local eatery for breakfast, he was refused service. Eventually, the group found a place where everyone could break bread together.

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