BROWN vs. BOARD OF EDUCATION: 50 YEARS LATER

'Inherently unequal'

The Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation remains a focus of celebration and debate

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

On May 17, 1954, Baltimore was a gritty blue-collar town that had the bustle of a northern industrial center and the Jim Crow laws and traditions of Dixie.

Whites and blacks sweated together in the city's mills and shipyards, but segregation affected nearly every other aspect of their lives.

Black people could not get a room at the swanky Belvedere Hotel. They could not eat a hamburger at one of the White Coffee Pot restaurants around town or watch a film at the Hippodrome or try on clothing at Hutzler's.

But on this May date, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Baltimore School board quickly announced that it would comply with the ruling, ending one of the city's most fundamental forms of segregation.

On June 3, 1954 - 17 days after the high court's ruling - the board voted unanimously to end school segregation in Baltimore.

"I asked for discussion. There was no discussion. So I called for a vote, and everybody voted for it. That was it," recalled Walter Sondheim Jr., school board president in 1954. "I can't tell you how fast that came up...and we moved on to other matters on the agenda."

The next day, June 4, a headline stripped across the front page of The Sun read: "City To End School Segregation In Fall." A front-page article said the reaction of Southern politicians to the high court's ruling ranged from "bitter criticism and near defiance through milder anger and on to quiet caution."

On June 5, the Baltimore Afro-American, which published bi-weekly, ran an even larger, two-line headline that took up a quarter of the space on the front page: "Board Votes Unanimously to End School Segregation." Its front page included a picture of the nine board members moments after the vote.

An ad that appeared in The Sun the day after the Supreme Court decision captured the racially charged anxiety of the times.

A local real estate firm offered "top dollar" for homes in "changing neighborhoods." The firm bought homes at bargain prices from skittish white homeowners and sold them at inflated prices to blacks. The tactic was known as block busting, and it would contribute to white flight in the wake of Brown.

Predictions of trouble

School officials that summer predicted that there would be trouble in September when schools reopened for the year.

"To be sure, there are a few white persons who see no good in any Negro and a scattering of Negroes who look with distaste or distrust on every white person," schools Superintendent John H. Fischer said in June 1954.

But, he added, "Such people are a small minority among us. Both their numbers and their influence are happily on the decline."

On Sept. 8, 1954, The Sun reported: "A new era in education in Baltimore began yesterday as the public schools opened with white and Negro pupils studying side by side."

The first day of school brought only three complaints to school officials and passed without any serious incidents. However, more serious trouble would come.

An ugly disturbance occurred on Oct. 1 outside Southern High School when 10 black students were "hooted, jeered and roughed" up by white demonstrators, according to an article in The Evening Sun. At Southern, an estimated 500 demonstrators milled in front of the school. Some carried placards that read: "Negroes Not Allowed" and "On Strike."

A near riot occurred when the 10 black students, at the request of their parents, were escorted from the school by police.

The students - nine girls and a boy - stood on the sidewalk across from the school when about 200 jeering protestors began moving toward them. "The 10 students retreated down Warren avenue to Light street, where police stepped between them and sent the two groups in opposite directions," The Evening Sun reported.

In a televised plea, Southern Principal John H. Schwatka said: "Look into your hearts, you Southerners. Examine your consciences. Keep up your courage and sense of decency to prevent another Day of Fear in our community."

Sondheim remembered going to Southern that day. He found the white football team captain and student council president standing in a doorway flanking two black students who had to make their way out of school through the mob.

"They were terrified," Sondheim said of the black students, in a 1993 interview with The Sun. "It was a very touching sight seeing those student leaders standing up for them."

Police arrested six people at Southern that day and warned that more arrests would come for school disruptions. But sporadic protests over desegregation would occur at the school for several more years.

Big step for city

Nevertheless, school desegregation was a major step for a city that had been inching toward integration before Brown became an order.

"Certainly, this was not the only thing that happened during the civil rights movement, so the pressures had begun before that," Sondheim, 95, recalled.

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