History Lesson

A documentary by two student filmmakers tells the tale of Poly's peacful intergration_two years before Brown v. Board of Education


It's the kind of bright, photogenic Saturday morning that would seem ideal for shooting a movie. But filmmakers Kevin Tolson and Sam McLaughlin are instead tucked away in a high school history office, hunched over an Apple computer. The seniors at Polytechnic Institute are patiently sifting through digital images - a task that appears to have all the drama of an IT appointment.

Look closer, though, and it's clear the creative process is in full bloom.

"A lot of this is based on gut instinct," Tolson, 18, says as he sorts through pictures from the 1950s. "We try to see what looks right, and then we go at it. What you want is for other people to feel the emotions we feel as we made the film."

They'd like their film, Blazing a Trail Before Brown, to provoke shock, anger, hope, pride - and perhaps even win a national scholastic competition. The 10-minute documentary tells the story of the pioneering integration of their own school, developed primarily through interviews with people who experienced it.

Although many Baltimoreans already know this groundbreaking local history, it also has significance nationally. When Poly admitted black students in September 1952, it was among the first - possibly the first - public high school south of the Mason-Dixon line to integrate its student body.

"We know we were the first in the state," Tolson says. "When I contacted the Library of Congress, they had no knowledge of any schools integrating before we did in 1952. But they also gave me a hint to check Brownsville, Texas." (He did, but it's unclear exactly what date integration might have taken place there.)

Poly's story, though, is clear, and as told in Blazing a Trail, it highlights the lesser known work of early civil rights activists. Two years before the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended "separate but equal" schooling, Poly's all-male, all-white "A" course was opened, peacefully, to black students.

There were no protests, no epithets hurled at those teenagers as they walked into the school, then on North Avenue. When the Baltimore Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded the school board that the "A" course was the only such rigorous and prestigious pre-engineering program in the city, the members voted 5-3 to admit blacks less than a week before school opened. Thirteen black students entered that September.

Now, 54 years later, Tolson and McLaughlin, 17, have revisited that time. And they've entered Blazing a Trail in National History Day's scholastic competition, an annual contest in which students find imaginative ways to investigate and present history.

The first hurdle is to impress the district judges at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus Saturday. Next, the film will vie for a state title. Last year, McLaughlin and Tolson advanced to the national competition, held at College Park, with a documentary tracing the West African roots of jazz and blues.

Expansive research

Making this film has taken them to new levels of research. They've interviewed several of Poly's pioneering African-American students, as well as 97-year-old civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr., who served on the school board in 1952. They've located archival photos and film footage of such subjects as segregated drinking fountains and freedom marches.

In doing so, they've shown the kind of initiative that can make a teacher feel all warm and fuzzy.

"What high school kid calls the Library of Congress and contacts the Urban League?" asks Dennis Jutras, chairman of Poly's history department and adviser on this project. "When most kids think of history research, they go to a Web site and download information."

But these kids have always been a little different.

Tolson and McLaughlin met in Baltimore's National Academic League tournaments. Both served as captains of their middle-school teams - McLaughlin at Glenmount and Tolson at Hamilton. They've been buddies since 2002, when they took a summer math course as a tune-up for beginning the Ingenuity Project, a curriculum offered at Poly that's geared toward high achievement in math, science and research.

Last year's film on jazz, though, was their first collaboration.

"Some people describe us as yin and yang," McLaughlin says. "Kevin's really cool-headed and he sort of keeps me on track. I tend to lose focus easier than he does."

"Sam's more willing to take the risks of editing than I would be," Tolson says. "We have a great chemistry with his innovativeness and my attention to detail."

A contrast

Their film opens with the tumult in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling: race riots in Little Rock, Ark., Ruby Bridges' sobering first day of elementary school in New Orleans. This is the desegregation history everyone knows, scenes featuring federal marshals and an ugly soundtrack of threats.

Poly, however, was different. Not only was its desegregation "under the national radar," as Jutras puts it, but it proceeded calmly.

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