“Are We Satisfied?”: The Baltimore Plan for School Desegregation
Baltimoreans, perhaps more than the residents of any other major American city, were poised to meet the challenge of school desegregation. The city’s public school system had already grappled with these changes, gradually integrating some teacher activities, adult education classes, and even its premier college preparatory high school: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.(1)
When the Supreme Court’s decision came down on May 17, 1954, many local officials had at least begun thinking about the practical implications. Education officials were confident that civility would win out. The school board had decided to continue with its free choice enrollment system, only changing any stipulation related to race. Effectively, Baltimore parents could select any school for their children to attend, unless there was an issue of overcrowding. Superintendent John Fischer was intent on avoiding any accusation of “social engineering” that might result from forced integration by redistricting or busing. No white students would be forcibly enrolled in the “colored schools,” or vice versa for black students.
The nation’s attention was also focused on Baltimore, one of the first school systems below the Mason-Dixon line to voluntarily desegregate following the ruling. The city schools, with an enrollment of about 141,000 students, officially opened on an integrated basis on September 7, 1954. Only six white students chose to attend formerly all-black schools, none in the secondary grades. Nearly 1,600 African-American students would enter 49 formerly all-white schools, accounting for less 3 percent of total black enrollment.(2)(3) Many, such as Emily Price who transferred to Eastern High School, wanted to take advantage of unique programs that they had no access to before integration. An Afro article from September 11 reported that “Emily plans to take a commercial course in preparation for a stenographic job which she hopes to obtain here after she finishes her education.”(4) However, there was no direct mention of her or any other black student’s experience as they entered these environments.
Not every school could count on as smooth a transition as might have been experienced at specialized institutions with largely middle-class populations, as Eastern and Poly were. White parents from Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School in working class southwest Baltimore employed several tactics to protest the integration of twelve African-American students into the formerly segregated school.(5) After demands for a meeting with system superintendent John Fischer were declined, thirty white women picketed the school and attempted to dissuade students from attending. Their homemade signs included messages such as “Segregation Is Our Heritage” and “Are We Satisfied? No. We Want Our Rights.” The protesters were actually successful in the short run, as only 169 of 587 reported for school that day. However, these efforts fizzled out as the school board showed no signs of yielding to anti-integration sentiment. None of the affected students spoke to reporters, one African-American parent asserted, “My child is going to stay in there,” as others praised the treatment by teachers.(6)
The most highly publicized, and potentially violent, protest occurred at Southern High School. The institution, then located at the corner of William Street and Warren Avenue in Federal Hill, was set to enroll thirty-six African-American students in an overall population of almost 1,800. Baltimore Sun reporters described a chaotic scene taking place outside of the school, on October 1, 1954:
“Hundreds of students participated in picketing, while others circled the building in automobiles, trucks and jeeps, shouting their objections to desegregation.”(7) While most of the protesters were students at the school, women, young children and other whites from the community were also represented. Several small skirmishes in the area led to at least six arrests. Twenty-four-year-old Jack Zimmerman was detained after he struck 14-year old Leon Thompson, a black student who was being escorted from the school by police. Law enforcement and other officials feared that the situation would develop into a full-scale riot, as nearly one thousand anti-integrationists surrounded Southern. Luckily, the nearly fifty police officers in the vicinity were able to keep things largely under control. Walter Sondheim, then president of the city school board, also gave credit to the school’s leadership and student body. In a 1971 interview he said:
“The kids at Southern High School were great! The captain of the football team and the president of the class walked out of Southern High School, I remember seeing them—actually acting as a kind of a body guard escort for colored kids. You know, a magnificent example. The thing brought almost an air of good feeling in Baltimore.”(8)
Sondheim may have employed a bit of revisionist history, especially considering that about half of Southern’s student body had left school to participate in the protests themselves. In both situations, news reporters and local officials were quick to cite the purported influence of the National Association for Advancement of White People. This organization led by Bryant Bowles had gained support through its highly publicized protests against integration in Milford, Delaware. He had since attempted to capitalize on the attention by setting up operations in Baltimore, though the actual impact on local incidents is unclear.(9)
Perhaps the most glaring omission from the varied media accounts of events in Baltimore is the perspective of the students and teachers who were on the front lines of desegregation. Even articles which specifically mention, or have pictures of those participants, hardly give any voice to them. A piece from The New York Times addressed the issues at Southern, featuring the story of Becky Kekenes, a white teacher who had driven two black students away from the mob. The author noted that, “within a few days, she was reduced to tears by a series of goads and insults.” Her perspective was apparently ignored in the local press, while those of the few African-American students at the school were similarly omitted.
The week after the incidents in South Baltimore, tempers around the city were still simmering. Hundreds of white students, primarily from Merganthaler Vocational-Tech High School, left school to march against integration though only three black students were enrolled there. Newspaper reports claimed that these boys were rebuffed by students at City College and Polytechnic, when they attempted to rally support for the “strike.” Heading towards City Hall, the mob of young men carried signs saying “They Go or We Go, Mervo.”(10) They were ultimately dispersed by Police Commissioner Beverly Ober, who had been quite active during the previous week.
After meeting with leaders from the school system and city over the weekend, Ober broadcasted a stern warning over radio and television. The disturbances would no longer be tolerated, and any further action would lead to mass arrests. This announcement, along with similar threats of suspension from several principals, caused the public outcry to settle down. A commission of the state government later praised the black community as “a model of controlled emotions and disciplined calmness” in the face of these various protests.(11) Certainly any organized resistance against white anger could have blown up the proverbial powder keg. Still, many individuals did seek to actively exercise their rights despite the significant risk involved.
Kieffer Mitchell Sr., whose father Clarence Mitchell was the NAACP Washington Bureau director, was one of seven African-American students to transfer into Gwynns Falls Park Junior High in West Baltimore. Clarence later recounted that his son was “struck in the face” by a white man who was there to protest. His account appeared in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, but not in the local press. Mitchell went on to organize a counter-protest against anti-integrationist whites, who had begun targeting his son’s school. Kieffer recalled that he had a lonely experience at the school, where white students were either actively hostile or ignored him altogether.(12) The mixture of fear, anger, and unfamiliarity must have led to many more confrontations, left unreported by those invested in painting a positive picture of the situation.
Describing her experiences at Garrison Junior High School as an African-American in the 1950s, Ruth Stewart remembered:
“That was terrible. You would be walking with your little food, and they would stick their foot out and trip you. And you wouldn’t say anything because you was scared … And they would take my money… take my coat… stuff like that. Not that we weren’t doing stuff to them too, but they had us outnumbered.”
Despite her mother’s warning, Stewart was not prepared to passively absorb the disrespect. She recalled being in several fights during her time at Garrison, largely in response to white students who “would call me all kind’s of black this and the other.” Ultimately, she was expelled from the school.(13) Neither the Sun nor the Afro seemed to address such incidences of interracial violence, though Ruth Stewart’s experience was likely not uncommon in the city schools.G. James Fleming, a Morgan State professor writing in The Journal of Negro Education soon after the 1956 school year, provided a largely statistical analysis of the effectiveness of desegregation in all of Maryland’s county systems. The number of integrated schools in the system increased to 85 during the second full year, and the number of black students in formerly white schools more than doubled to around 4,000. Fleming also cited 300 white students who chose to attend summer school at Douglass High School with about 900 black students, noting, “Again, there was no incident.” The author also quotes Dr. Houston R. Jackson, an African-American assistant superintendent, as saying, “The reception of Negro pupils and teachers has been phenomenal.”(14)
While Baltimore did not experience the type of wide-scale violence and intimidation tactics that plagued integrating districts around the country, it would be naive to conclude that this was a success story for desegregation. White Baltimoreans were much more likely to express their opinions privately, through their school choices and residential mobility. The school population of both races had been increasing steadily through the 1940’s and early 1950’s but that trend would quickly shift. White enrollment began to decrease after 1956, and continued to do so at a rate of nearly 2,000 students per, for the next twenty years.(15)
The city school system would become majority African-American in 1960, just six years after it had desegregated. Certainly more students were in class with those of the other race, but this improvement was minimal as well. In 1961, nearly three quarters of the city’s schools were over 90 percent black or white, a figure that remained steady through the 1970’s.(16) Some, like Garrison Junior High and Clifton Park Junior High School, effectively shifted from completely white to predominantly black student bodies over a ten year period after integration. During the same time frame, the city itself lost about 100,000 white residents to the suburban counties.
Baltimore, once touted as the model for effective school desegregation, ultimately found that the laissez-faire approach could not ensure that children of different races would be educated together. By 1973, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights was threatening to withhold federal funds, charging that the city was not doing enough to integrate its schools. The city was one of eighty-four districts to be targeted by the OCR, hardly an outlier in the difficulties faced by the nation’s public schools. Regardless, Walter Sondheim’s “air of good feeling” did not last long as Baltimore would eventually be seen as a black city, with several pockets of white neighborhoods. Its schools still struggle with segregation today, hampered by many of the same fears and misunderstandings that characterized the nation 60 years ago. (David Armenti)
David Armenti is the Student Research Center Coordinator at the Maryland Historical Society.
Source and further reading:
(1) “A Thorny Path: School Desegregation in Baltimore.” Underbelly, The Maryland Historical Society Blog.
(2) Howell S. Baum. Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. 2010. CornellUniversity Press. MLC 214.23 B35B38, Maryland Historical Society Library.
(3) “Schools List 140,957 Pupil Enrollment.” Baltimore Sun. 17 September, 1954.
(4) “Many Mixed Classes as Schools Open: 600 mixed classes in Baltimore schools.” Baltimore Afro-American. 11 September, 1954.
(5) Baum. Brown in Baltimore. PP. 84-85.
(6) “Pickets Use NAAWP technique.” Baltimore Afro American . 9 October, 1954.
(7) ‘Integration at Southern Stirs Unrest.” Baltimore Sun. 2 October, 1954.
(8) Interview of Walter Sondheim. OH 8044. 1971. Maryland Historical Society Library, Special Collections.
(9) “A Young Mob Tests a City.” Time Magazine. October 11, 1954.
(10) “Student Strike.” The Baltimore Sun. 10 October, 1954.
(11) The Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations. Desegregation in the Baltimore City Schools. July 1955. PAM 6223. Maryland Historical Society Library.
(12) Baum, 87-88.
(13) Ruth Stewart, Baltimore ’68: Riots & Rebirth Collection, University of Baltimore. 2006. http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/stewart.pdf.
(14) G. James Fleming. “Racial Integration in Education in Maryland.” The Journal of Negro Education, Volume 25, No. 3 (Summer 1956).
(15) Baum, Appendiz, Table 1, p. 225.