BROWN vs. BOARD OF EDUCATION: 50 YEARS LATER

Voices of Brown

May 16, 2004|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,SUN STAFF

Lawrence E. Leak

When Lawrence E. Leak's mother went to register her two seventh-grade sons in the fall of 1965, Queen Anne's County officials automatically signed them up at Kennard High School, the county's historically "colored" secondary school.

But the Leaks, a military family just relocated from Germany, were accustomed to the racially mixed schools of the U.S. Defense Department. They insisted on enrolling their sons at Centreville High.

That fall, 11 years after the Brown decision, the Leak brothers and a third African-American, Kevin Ringold, became the first blacks to integrate secondary schools in Queen Anne's.

"The Supreme Court in 1955 called for `all deliberate speed,' and Queen Anne's County was certainly deliberate," says Leak, 50.

"The administrators went out of their way to make sure we were OK," says Leak, who later became a top official at Towson University, the Maryland State Department of Education and the University of Maryland University College.

"The three of us hung out together in sort of a mutual protection society. Since we were the youngest kids in the school, the older boys found it easy to call us names and push us around. ... But the way we were treated was mixed. Some of the students and teachers were kind."

The Leak brothers' sojourn at Centreville High was short. The family moved west of the Bay Bridge in April 1966.

"We were just getting used to you," the principal told Leak the day he left.

Jo Owen

Jo Owen was teaching at Roland Park Elementary-Junior High when the school navigated the straits of desegregation in the 1960s. It was not an easy trip, says Owen, 80, who taught English and drama.

"It was culture shock for both blacks and whites," says Owen. "We had cafeteria riots and other serious incidents. Some of these kids had never before met kids of the other race, never talked to them. The young whites were particularly fearful."

Owen figured some of the misunderstanding could be alleviated through drama. Aided by Marion Smith, a black music teacher, Owen organized an after-school drama club. Owen opened her club basement to the integrated thespian troupe.

"I can tell you," she says, "that my neighbors had never seen so many black kids."

Owen says she and Smith "would write programs intended to give students a voice to their fears and ambitions."

She also required students to read aloud in front of their classmates. "I did this in every class I had, and then I picked the best of the best. One year it was a young teen-ager named Gregory McGee. "I made Greg realize he could do something the other black boys didn't do - and really be good at it."

One evening about a decade into retirement, Owen got a call from McGee at home.

"'A lot of my friends have died or are into drugs or in jail,' Greg told me. 'But what you did was guide me and send me on another path.' "

Owen says his call "made my 16 years of teaching all worthwhile."

Joel A. Carrington

The transition to integration was particularly difficult at schools such as Northern High, which is surrounded by white neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore.

"We had only a small contingent of blacks," said Joel A. Carrington, who was the second African-American to serve as a Northern assistant principal.

He recalled a time in the 1960s when black students, with the school's blessing, organized an assembly celebrating black history.

But white students planned a boycott unless the school held another gathering - one celebrating white history.

Carrington had an idea. Whites who wanted to boycott the assembly could sit in the cafeteria across a hall.

What happened, Carrington said, was "quite amazing. After about half an hour, when the walls didn't come tumbling down, a few curious white kids ventured across the hall to see what was going on.

"When they didn't return, a few other brave souls" went to the assembly, he said. "By the time the assembly came to a rousing conclusion, there was no one left in the cafeteria."

Carrington, 79, shown above with his wife, Gloria, is long retired from the school system. His 1970 doctoral thesis at the University of Maryland is one of the few detailed studies of the first several years of desegregation in Baltimore schools. "The challenge of desegregation was breaking down misperceptions. That's what we learned in the case of the Northern black history assembly."

Evelyn Chatmon

Evelyn Chatmon had to ride a bus for nearly an hour from her home in Overlea to Loreley Elementary, a two-room schoolhouse with no running water.

Because of the distance students traveled, extracurricular activities when she attended Carver High in Towson - from basketball games to sock hops - were held during the school day. Books had been used by white students, and no foreign languages were offered.

But making up for all Chatmon didn't have were parents, teachers and a community raising her to be proud of her heritage.

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