Quiet, unassuming youth persevered at Mervo

1954: James A. Grove, the first black student at the school, put aside the name-calling and concentrated on 'getting an education.'

May 16, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

To get a high school education, James A. Grove had to walk alone through the racist name-calling and intimidating stares that became as routine each morning as affixing his pocket protector to his neatly pressed shirt.

It was the fall of 1954, a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Grove was the first black student at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Northeast Baltimore. Many of Grove's schoolmates weren't happy to see him.

"You just couldn't walk to school in peace," Grove, 66, recalled. "Guys would get in front of you and they would try to stop you. There was a lot of upheaval that first semester."

Grove wasn't physically harmed, but the possibility of violence was with him each day.

Grove's father was an influential black preacher, the Rev. Eugene Thomas Grove Sr., pastor of Grace Memorial Baptist Church in East Baltimore. The elder Grove, an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wanted his son to attend Mergenthaler.

"My father told me I was going to Mergenthaler because they had the best equipment," said Grove. "So that's where I was going."

After the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the city's black leaders looked for intelligent, well-mannered black students to integrate schools and serve as examples for how blacks could compete in the classroom with whites, said David Terry, a historian for the Maryland State Archives.

"The black brain trust selected the best and brightest to go into these schools to be sure they were putting their best foot forward," Terry said. "Black leaders felt they could destroy myths of black inferiority if these students excelled in white schools."

Grove doesn't know if he was one of those hand-picked students. But he remembers getting words of encouragement from Lillie Mae Jackson, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, who was a family friend in 1953 when his father tried unsuccessfully to get him into Mergenthaler.

"I remember Ms. Lillie Mae Jackson saying I was the perfect student for this because I didn't really let anything bother me," James Grove said. "I was only concerned with getting an education."

In 1952, the Urban League and the NAACP won a battle to get 13 black students into Polytechnic Institute, a city school with a nationally acclaimed science and mathematics program. The board admitted the students after the civil rights groups argued that there was no comparable program in black schools. A year later, the board turned down Grove and other black students who used a similar argument while seeking to enroll in Mergenthaler and Western High School.

The elder Grove wanted his son to learn a trade because it was unlikely the family would be able to send him to college. James Grove chose linotype. Carver High, the black vocational school, offered linotype. But the minister insisted his son go to Mergenthaler, which had a new school building and new equipment and larger classrooms.

A quiet, unassuming youngster - much like the man he is today - Grove said his nonconfrontational manner helped him to deal with comments from schoolmates and concentrate on his studies.

"The things that happened when you were inside [school] was stuff you had to take in stride," he said. "They'd call me names, and I wouldn't even turn around to see who it was."

Before long, Grove took on his father's intense drive. "I don't think I knew what I was in store for that first year, but I told myself, `Whatever they called out, I'd take it,' " he said. "I wasn't going to quit."

Grove said he made a few friends and joined the basketball team. He said teachers treated him well. By the second semester, a couple of other black students had enrolled.

But Grove mainly kept to himself. Outside of school, when the National Guardsmen stopped coming, he walked home alone. If he wanted support, he got it at home from his parents or his six brothers and sisters, or at church.

After graduating from Mergenthaler in 1956, Grove joined the Army. After serving three years, he came back to the Baltimore area and started what would be a 42-year career as a typesetter. Married to his childhood sweetheart, Realtor Katie E. Grove, he lives in Owings Mills. Their son is grown.

Grove retired from Patuxent Publishing in 2001 after 26 years. He said he rarely thinks about his high school days or the animosity.

"I think I was pretty well settled from the beginning before I got there," Grove said. "I don't think it changed me or anything like that. I don't think it shaped my life one way or the other."

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