During the era of slavery educating African American people was of little concern to the white population. It was illegal in some states to teach an African American person to read or write. And even in states where teaching African Americans was not forbade, few opportunities to gain an education were available. White attitudes toward black education varied by region, religion, and time period. For instance, Quakers believe in equal education for everyone. As a result the free black community living in Sandy Spring, a largely Quaker district in central Montgomery County, benefitted from their efforts. However, many white benefactors took a paternalistic view and encouraged a vocational (as opposed to academic) curriculum, assuming (incorrectly) that such jobs were the highest that African Americans could aspire to. In general, however, the prevailing attitude was one of a mixture of contempt for blacks' intellectual abilities, and fear that a real education would disrupt the status quo.
In fact, after the Civil War when African American gained the right to vote, illiteracy was used as a way to disenfranchise black voters. In many southern states, you were required to take a literacy test and if you couldn't read you were not allowed to vote. Obtaining an education was seen as a way to obtain a better quality of life, and the struggle to attain one made an education prized that much more. Many Montgomery County teachers and students recall the emphasis put on schooling by their parents, and much was sacrificed to meet that goal.
It was not until 1872 that Maryland law provided for the construction of public schools for black students. However, the Montgomery County school board resisted the construction and maintenance of black schools - a problem that lasted up until the 1940s. Communities that requested schools often faced stalling tactics. In addition, the county would not purchase land for black schools the way they did for the white population. Instead, the African American community had to find and pay for school land themselves. Once school were built, repairs to crumbling and inadequate buildings were refused, and some schools that completely burned down were ignored for years, forcing teachers to find other places to hold class. Churches that hosted neighborhood schools were often denied rent by the county. The academic calendar was months shorter than that of the white schools; teacher qualifications were ignored, and the official wage scale was much lower.
In the late 19th century many schools - black and white - in rural communities around the county were simple, one-room affairs, but white schools were given the funds to rebuild and expand as necessary while black schools were neglected. African Americans often received used textbooks and supplies (and even buildings) that were deemed no longer fit for use by white children. Out of their meager salaries - which were far lower than those of white teachers - teachers at the colored schools had to pay for their own transportation and/or room and board. Adding insult to injury, black schools were faced with frequent shortages and abrupt terminations of the school year. While white students and teachers attended school for a full nine months each year, the school board sometimes closed black schools as early as March, meaning classes were suspended and staff wages halted. Often no excuse was offered other than 'funds were low.' Despite these restrictive circumstances, teachers and parents gave much of their own time and money to provide as quality an education as was possible.
Conditions began to improve somewhat in the 20th century. In 1917 Julius Rosenwald, a director with Sears, Roebuck & Co., started a foundation to match funds raised for black schools in Southern states. Not surprisingly, Montgomery County's Board of Education did not contribute matching funds. However, the Rosenwald Fund was still a boon for black community - now they only had to raise half the money they would have previously. Rosenwald schools - which were frame buildings, painted yellow with brown trim - conformed to a standard of construction that was considerably higher than that of many existing schools. The fifteen elementary schools built in Montgomery County with Rosenwald funds were a far cry from the spacious brick buildings that housed most white elementary schools, but were still an improvement over the one room shacks where so many African American children were taught.
It was not until 1954 that a federal Supreme Court decision finally forced the hands of the State of Maryland, and Montgomery County, to provide equal education. In the now famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas decision, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. A year later, on May 31, 1955, the Court added its second unanimous opinion on the case dictating that all school districts proceed with desegregation with due speed. The speed of integrating Maryland's schools differed greatly by region. Baltimore City had already begun planning for desegregation before the Brown v. Board of Education decision was made. Some southern counties took over ten years to fully implement integration. In Montgomery County, public reaction was mixed. With some factions insisting that integration take place immediately and in full, with others demanding the process be slow and cautious, the Montgomery County Board of Education decided to analyze the situation - in other words, to stall and wait.
In June of 1955, the Maryland Attorney General declared that all legal obstacles to desegregation had indeed been removed. As its first step, the Montgomery County Board of Education appointed a nineteen member advisory committee on integration. Eight of its members were black, including Parlett Moore, the principal of Lincoln Junior High School, and Noah E. Clarke, who helped start the first black secondary school. Both the Board and the Committee were divided on the speed with which integration should take place. Some members of the (all white) School Board seemed willing to stall integration into oblivion; it was suggested that the process take place one grade at a time, with one year in between for evaluation. Board member Rose Kramer, pointing out that this would take 24 years, was able to put an end to this plan. The Committee majority recommended gradualism, but three minority reports (in addition to several white and black school PTA group resolutions) urged a full and immediate integration. Gradualism won.
In 1961 the Montgomery County Public School System was declared fully integrated. Even then - as the School Board admitted - there were still a number of all-white schools, and some schools were considered "integrated" only by the black faculty assigned to them. Although schools were considered desegregated, housing and most other public services were not, and some schools had no African American residents in their district. As a result, school districts remained segregated for several years. Even after Maryland's Fair Housing law was passed in 1971, neighborhood integration remains a problem our schools still face today.