Douglass still struggling

Impact: Pre-Brown alumni of Frederick Douglass High School rue the effects of desegregation on their alma mater.

May 16, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Next month, Charles McDaniels will graduate from Frederick Douglass High School, the alma mater of civil rights attorney and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

McDaniels' graduation date will come 50 years and a month after Marshall, then the chief counsel for the NAACP, won his historic fight to desegregate Douglass and every other public school in America. Marshall argued that integrated schools would offer more academic opportunities for blacks and more social possibilities for both blacks and whites.

But a half-century later, Douglass is just two white students shy of being as segregated as it was when Marshall walked the halls of the original school, which closed in 1954 when the students moved to the current site on Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Instead of improving after Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation, Douglass got worse. But over the past 10 years, the West Baltimore school has slowly begun to better itself, thanks largely to a state intervention tool called reconstitution, and new school leadership.

Dropout rates have fallen to single digits. The graduation rate doubled last year to 56.6 percent, the highest in many years.

Charles McDaniels, who lost both of his parents when he was 8 years old, will graduate from Douglass with honors and go on to Coppin State University in the fall.

"There are a lot of teachers [at Douglass] who really care about the futures of the students that they have in their hands," the 17-year-old said. "And they really strive to give the best education possible."

Blow to tradition

Still, today's Douglass High scarcely resembles the proud place that older alumni fondly remember.

Test scores are low. The building needs repairs. Alumni complain that many of today's students seem not to recognize the community jewel Douglass was. Or worse, they don't care.

"The school was so classy, we called it `the public private school,'" said Rose Hillery Jones, who graduated from segregated Douglass in 1947. "Today, children are profane. When I have occasion to drive by there, all of the worst language that you can hear comes out of their mouths."

Five decades after Brown, many pre-Brown alumni say desegregation was a blow to the tradition of excellence at Douglass - the school that issued diplomas to many of the city's most famous black citizens, including Marshall, NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, jazz great Cab Calloway, former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and Clarence H. Du Burns, the city's first black mayor.

"Desegregation destroyed us," said the Rev. Vernon Dobson, a 1941 Douglass graduate and pastor of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, which has a century-old tradition of civil rights activism.

Integration skimmed off the school's best students and staff and many of those left behind were trapped in poverty.

"We sent our best and brightest to [Baltimore Polytechnic Institute], and City and Western. We sent them to say, `Blacks can learn just as well as the others,'" said Richard Holley, class of 1953 and chairman of the Douglass High School Alumni Association. "And we sent our teachers right along with them. We replaced [racial] segregation with intellectual segregation. And so we have this two-tracked system now."

During a recent discussion in Sharon Blake's American Government class, a group of sophomores, juniors and seniors debated the merits of the Brown decision, and could come to no clear conclusion.

"Why do some people say that nothing's changed?" asked sophomore Alex Stackhouse, 16. "I see change. The white government allows us to shop in the same stores, walk the same streets and sit in class together."

"But then, you can look around in this classroom and see all black people," argued senior Derrian Smith, 17.

"That's 'cause white people don't want to sit in here with us," complained junior Brandon Gillis, 16.

Even Blake, a city schoolteacher for 30 years, laments the dearth of resources for her students - many who come to her already far behind. She would have liked, she said, to have downloaded audio versions of Thurgood Marshall's desegregation speeches during this lesson, and have her government students hear the force in his words, the conviction in his voice. But her classroom, like most at Douglass High, lacks Internet access - something Blake says is probably a staple at schools in Baltimore's wealthier, whiter counties.

Older alumni remember living in Leave it to Beaver-like neighborhoods, with two parents at home, daily chores done happily, nightly family dinners, flower boxes, scrubbed porch steps and widespread respect.

"Many of the students at Douglass came from families that were considered the upper echelon of Baltimore City," said city school board member Camay Murphy, the daughter of Cab Calloway. "Many of the children were children of professional people. There were very high standards that were kept and maintained."

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