John Henry Fischer: 1910-2009

Baltimore schools superintendent oversaw integration without civil disruption after Brown v. Board of Education

December 26, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

John Henry Fischer, who as superintendent of city schools implemented the historic 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision without civil disruption and later became president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 18 at his home in Westwood, Mass.

He was 99.

In a 25th anniversary article on the Brown case published in The Baltimore Sun, Dr. Fischer explained how Baltimore desegregated its schools with little trouble, and pointed to the fact that the city had begun to "reduce certain forms of segregation" well before 1954.

"Black policeman, firefighters and bus drivers had become an accepted part of the local scene. Department stores had dropped their color line, and theaters sold their tickets to anyone able to pay for them," he wrote.

"Blacks occupied places on the school board and senior staff of the school system. Black and white teachers worked together in professional activities, including workshops where they studied the city's ethnic, social and religious communities," he wrote.

"Thus when the same board resolved on June 3, 1954, to desegregate all the public schools in September, it took a long new stride but the direction in which it moved was already well established," Dr. Fischer wrote.

More importantly, Dr. Fischer wrote, parents of children of all races were able "to choose whatever school they desired for their children and no child was required to attend a particular school."

When groups of segregationist protesters appeared at several Southwest Baltimore schools on Sept. 30, 1954, Dr. Fischer recalled that "literally overnight, the community rallied to the school board's support."

He added: "Baltimore's behavior as a community in 1954 remains exemplary" and became "a model for other cities."

Dr. Fischer's work overseeing the integration of the city's school system earned him many honorary degrees from universities and the Hollander Award for Race Relations in 1954.

Dr. Fischer was born in Baltimore and raised near Lake Montebello. He was the son of a plant engineer who worked at Simpson & Doeller Co., a printing company, and a homemaker.

"His mother, Minnie Fischer, ran a bilingual household that cherished its German traditions and American opportunities," said a son, David Hackett Fischer, a professor of American history at Brandeis University who lives in Wayland, Mass.

After graduating from City College in 1927, Dr. Fischer worked for a year as a $14-a-week clerk in the office of a Baltimore seed company.

He graduated from the State Normal School, now Towson University, in 1930, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1940 from the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1949, he earned a master's degree from Columbia University and his doctorate two years later.

He began his teaching career in 1930 at the Montebello School, which he had attended as a seventh- and eighth-grader, and was assigned as a physical-education instructor at Curtis Bay Junior High School three years later.

He then taught science at Hampstead Hill and Patterson Park High School before being appointed vice principal in 1935 of Gwynns Falls High School.

During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard Reserve and helped organize the Civil Defense program in the state.

From 1938 to 1942, he was vice principal at Curtis Bay before going to the old school board headquarters on 25th Street as director of attendance and child guidance.

A year later, he was appointed assistant superintendent in charge of general administration, a position he held until being named deputy superintendent.

When he became superintendent in 1953, he was believed to be one of the youngest chief executives in city school history.

In an interview with The Sun at the time, Dr. Fischer said that his decision to pursue a career in education was influenced by his work with the Boy Scouts.

"It made me realize how much I liked to deal with youngsters," he said. "From the beginning, I knew I would never become a millionaire as a teacher or in any other phase of education. But I thought it was lots of fun. I still do."

Dr. Fischer stepped down as superintendent when he was named dean of Teachers College at Columbia, the nation's largest school of education, in 1959.

He served as president of the college from 1962 until retiring in 1974.

When the tumultuous student protests of 1968 shut down universities across the world, Dr. Fischer invited the protesters at Teachers College into his office and asked them what they wanted.

"They were taken by surprise and were urged to come back with a plan," his son said. "The rebellion ended at Teachers College, and the reforms went on."

Integration was never far from Dr. Fischer's mind, and as de facto segregation increased, he became a leader in the long struggle for what he called the "genuine equality of opportunity" for children "to lead lives of dignity and accomplishment."

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