Poly's first black grad recalls steps to integrate

November 26, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

In the summer of 1955, Carl Clark became the first black student to graduate from Polytechnic Institute.

Fifty years later, Clark returned to Baltimore from his home in Orangeburg, S.C., to pick up the school's Distinguished Alumni Award.

Scores of Poly alumni attended their alma mater's annual alumni dinner Tuesday at Martin's West. Former Poly students were there from every decade going back to the 1930s. At such a gathering, there was no doubt plenty to talk about.

And talk they did. The chattering from nearly 100 tables rose to a din, perhaps the better to drown out the chatter of a 1960 class reunion of alumni from what Poly folks call THAT OTHER SCHOOL, which was taking place in another ballroom just down the hall.

But silence fell over the Poly alumni when Clark took the podium to accept his award and give a short speech. In a year in which the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, perhaps Baltimoreans can be forgiven for celebrating a civil rights milestone of our own, one that began two years before the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"One hundred and twenty-two years ago, the founders of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute created a public school that provided an exceptional education for students in Baltimore," Clark began. Clark then mentioned how the school developed its famous A-course, a rigorous four-year program that left those who completed it ready to enter sophomore year of college after graduating from Poly.

Clark then fast-forwarded nearly 70 years from Poly's founding in 1883 ot the year 1952. Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was then on its run of winning cases against segregated schooling that would culminate in the Brown decision.

But Marshall's focus in 1952 was specifically on Baltimore. And Poly. And the school's prestigious A-course.

Clark said that Marshall told the Baltimore school board that none of the city's all-black high schools - which at the time were Douglass, Dunbar and Carver Vocational-Technical - had a course comparable to Poly's A-course. Nor could one be developed in a segregated system, Marshall argued.

So two years before Brown, without any arm-twisting from the Supreme Court, Baltimoreans took the first baby steps toward dismantling segregated education in our own city. Clark was one of 14 black students admitted to Poly's A-course. He was attending Dunbar at the time.

"My counselors approached me about it," Clark said of how he became interested in applying to Poly. "Applying" at the time meant taking an exam and getting letters of recommendation. Clark passed the exam. He recalls only that most of it was math.

"It has been over 50 years," Clark said of why his memory was foggy about what other subject matters the test covered.

Shortly thereafter, his parents received a letter from Poly officials informing them that he had been accepted into the A-course. After going to the school and getting more details, Clark's parents told him he was Poly-bound.

The attrition rate for the A-course was high for all students. It was no different for the new black ones. Of the 14 admitted to Poly in 1952, three were sophomores and 11 were freshmen. Clark was one of the few black students left when the school year ended in 1955.

"I don't really know," Clark answered when he was asked why he survived the A-course when so many others, black and white, didn't cut it. "I was always very good in math. Most students were finding math the most difficult course. But I didn't find that at all. I guess that helped."

The subject that tripped him up was English. Clark's English teacher flunked him his senior year. He had to pass a summer school course in English at - here's a cruel turnabout for a Poly grad - City College before he got his diploma.

Clark went on to what was then Morgan State College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1958. He earned his master's in physics from Howard University in 1961 and a doctorate in physics from the University of South Carolina in 1976. He taught physics at South Carolina State University from 1960 through 1995, when he returned to Morgan and served as chairman of the physics department and assistant dean of the School of Mathematics and Physics. Clark retired in 2000 and returned to Orangeburg.

Clark recalled how he formed friendships at Poly, where nothing was segregated inside the school, which in the early 1950s was located on North Avenue at Calvert Street. Outside Poly, he and his friends couldn't socialize in a then-rigidly segregated Baltimore. But Poly students of all races in the years 1952-1955, Clark said, had one thing in common, which they share with Poly students in 2005.

"We are all part of this dream that an inner-city school can provide the best education in the state of Maryland," Clark said.

Over 94 percent of Poly's sophomores passed the recent statewide English test, which was the highest percentage in Maryland.

It looks like the dream Clark spoke about is a glorious reality.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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