Board's historic vote took only 45 seconds

Desegregating the schools

Walter Sondheim Jr. 1908 - 2007

February 16, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

The vote that would change the course of education in Baltimore - and bring about a profound shift in society - took only 45 seconds and involved little discussion, as Walter Sondheim Jr. remembered it.

In 1954, Baltimore's school district was the first south of the Mason-Dixon line to integrate its schools, and the decision came with far fewer protests and less violence than it did in many places.

Over a half-century, Mr. Sondheim would serve on various civic boards and become an influential force in the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore. But history might remember him most for his role in changing education in Maryland - first in 1954, when he led the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners to its quick, unequivocal decision to desegregate, and then in the late 1980s, when he chaired a landmark commission that demanded more accountability for schools statewide.

Either one of those, said Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr., would be among "the most major actions in education in the last century." The integration decision might have been more significant, Mr. Embry said, for the courage it required.

Mr. Sondheim was first appointed to the Baltimore school board in 1948 and was its president when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.

In a 2004 interview published in Maryland Humanities magazine, Mr. Sondheim described how the board asked the city solicitor after Brown if it could legally desegregate the schools, despite local and state laws that required they be segregated.

When the answer came back yes, Mr. Sondheim said, the board seemed united in its decision. Still, he wanted the vote to be unanimous, and he called each member the day before to make sure everyone would vote for desegregation.

"It was the first item to vote on, so I asked for discussion and then for the vote. The whole thing didn't take 45 seconds, and then we went on to the rest of the day's business," he said.

He went to see the mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who was in the hospital, and told him what the board had done.

The state school board president made an attempt to block the city board's decision, saying that the school system should adopt a "go slow" approach. But Mr. Sondheim held firm. He told the state president "that he could come to Baltimore and try to unscramble the egg that we had scrambled if he wanted to," Mr. Sondheim said.

Patricia Welch was one of a handful of black girls chosen to attend the all-white Eastern High School in the fall.

"You were not automatically acculturated. You were looked at. You were stared at. The teachers were not opening and welcoming," she said this week. But it was considered an honor to have been chosen, and so she went, she said, supported by her parents.

Ms. Welch had no idea who Walter Sondheim was at the time. Later, she would become a city teacher and, in the late 1990s, chair of the Baltimore school board.

"I came to learn much later that he was the leader. It took a lot of courage. He became to me the guru, the father of education in the city of Baltimore," said Ms. Welch, now dean of education at Morgan State University.

The experience of desegregation was scary, too, for a white girl named Nancy, who remembers white kids from Southern High School walking in angry protest toward her school, Western, which was integrated.

"It looked like they were coming through the windows," said Nancy S. Grasmick, now the state superintendent of schools. "We were totally intimidated."

She didn't know that the nice man she always saw in the office of Hochschild, Kohn, the department store where she worked part time, was the same man who had led the vote on desegregation.

In later years, Mr. Sondheim would continue to believe that his decision was correct, even as he came to recognize that it had many "unintended consequences."

In the Maryland Humanities interview, he said: "We believed that once kids began to go to school together that we'd immediately start a generation of people who didn't have racial prejudice. How wrong we were."

What followed was the flight of the white and eventually the black middle class from Baltimore. Today, Ms. Welch said, city schools are still segregated and unequal.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Sondheim was asked to chair a commission that looked at making schools more accountable.

The Governor's Commission on School Performance, later known simply as the Sondheim Commission, recommended that the state test students to determine how well schools were performing. The recommendation came amid complaints that school districts kept asking for more money but had little data to prove that the state aid was improving performance.

From the Sondheim report came a series of actions by the state Board of Education that included the establishment of exams known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP. The results showed, by school, what percentage of students had passed the exams.

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