Midtown pupils revisit 1954 for history lesson

Re-enactment marks `Brown' anniversary

May 18, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

"Stop Integration Now!" the flier being handed out at the board meeting read. "Brown v. Board was a horrible decision!"

While board members listened intently, black parents pleaded for their children's safety. Many speakers were jeered.

The charged meeting didn't happen in 1954, when the nine-member Baltimore Board of School Commissioners considered testimony from the public on the Supreme Court's ruling that separate schools were inherently unequal.

The meeting happened last night at a church in Bolton Hill, and all those involved - school board members, parents, students and teachers - were portrayed by pupils and parents at the city's Midtown Academy.

To help make the ramifications of the historic 1954 Brown court ruling more meaningful to pupils, Midtown Academy social studies and English teacher Peter French took advantage of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to re-enact events of a half-century ago in Baltimore.

"We're trying to make history come alive," French said.

The dramatization wasn't exactly like 1954.

Parents portraying school board members called speakers black or African-American, instead of Negro.

Sixth-grader Micole Partee slipped and said "Microsoft" when she meant to say "microscopes." And a cell phone rang during an eighth-grader's heated testimony.

But the heart of the Baltimore school board's decision to follow the Supreme Court ruling and integrate city public schools - and the society-changing importance of Brown - rang true, not because of the authenticity of the re-enactment, but because of the racial makeup of the student actors.

Anti-integrationist "Jemeel Black" was played by eighth-grader Babatunde Salaam, a black child.

"How can you force me to send my child to any old school, especially a white school?" he demanded of the board. "City Councilman James Smith," running for mayor of Baltimore, was played by eighth-grader Michael Mountain, who is white.

In true mayoral fashion, he suggested the school board form a committee to study the issue.

And siblings David and Jeanie Lai, who are Asian, had roles as well.

French didn't have to search far for the multicultural troupe of actors. Midtown Academy is one of the rare city public schools with a diverse student body. "The Brown dream, in a lot of ways, is still unfulfilled," said parent Joe Balter, who played a board member. "This school shows that it can be done."

Families at Midtown are drawn from two distinct communities - mostly white Bolton Hill and heavily black Reservoir Hill.

Parents and pupils at Midtown, a relatively new school operating out of an old church building in Bolton Hill, said their re-enactment, in part, was designed to show gratitude to the court justices and the real 1954 city school board members who paved the way for their integrated school.

"It's basically to thank Brown vs. Board of Education for what they've done," said eighth-grader Ashley Day, 14. "Even though it seems like, then, schools were segregated by law, and now it seems like most schools are segregated by choice."

"I talked a lot with my students about how Brown didn't save the world," French said. "We've still got problems here."

But, "if it can be done here," said parent and "board member" Phillip Farfel, "it can happen across the city."

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