“IF THEY HAD LEFT IT TO THE CHILDREN,

WE WOULD HAVE BEEN FINE”

The Integration Process and Experience, 1955-1961

 

 

Phase 1 of the Montgomery County integration plan involved assigning 330 black students from the four closed elementary schools to thirteen different formerly-white-only schools. In addition, 160 black students were invited to attend nine different previously-white-only junior and senior high schools. Although the Supreme Court ruling did not specify that teachers be integrated as well as students, six black teachers moved to down-county formerly all-white schools, including Nina Honemond Clarke.

 

“We had all of that [hostility] but we didn’t have too much trouble with the children. If they had left it to the children, we would have been fine. It was the adults that made things difficult. We had to– I didn’t have any trouble. I’m going to tell you the positive truth. I was sent to a school here in Rockville: Hungerford [Elementary]. Those parents were so good to me… There might have been some black teachers who had trouble in some communities. I know when black teachers first went into the white schools, there were many parents who didn’t want their children in a black teacher’s room. Oh no. […] We had to prove ourselves. At the end of about the first year, we had proven ourselves… We had come through the hard way. We knew how to teach school. We knew how to work with children.”

~Nina Honemond Clarke

 

The reluctance to integrate did not come from white families alone. There were tensions on both sides, as well as difficulties that arose when one child from a black family was invited to a white school, while his or her siblings were not.

 

“There were [negro] parents up the Seneca River there who were leery of sending their children into the school, and rightly so, because for years there had been friction between the people who lived along the river and those who worked in the barrel factory; and these were white people, and the negro parents knew that to introduce a third element would be friction.”

~Margaret Taylor Jones

 

“There were three of them that went to Rockville Junior High over here. It was my daughter Camille Clarke, [Clarence] ‘Butch’ Israel, and Joanne Clagett– just the three of them integrated the school here in Rockville… It was something adults should have done, but children had to.”

~Nina Honemond Clarke

 

There were accusations from parents that the black students would hold the white students back, that they hadn’t learned at the same level. In a 1956 press release, Superintendent Norris stated, “The annual testing program which has been given in all of our schools for many years shows an unmistakable difference between the average academic achievements of our white and Negro pupils.” He went on to establish the many-faceted reasons for the difference, though he neglected to mention the enormous disparity in the lack of funding, resources, and adequate space given to the black schools from the beginning. Despite these disadvantages, the majority of black children succeeded in integrated schools, quickly rendering all misgivings unwarranted.

 

“So, when integration came about we did have better things, we had better resources, and we had better materials. Although sometimes I’m not too sure about the attitudes of the [white] teachers… You know how they are. Because there were a lot of issues that affect the education of black children. And one of them is positive or negative attitudes of teachers.”

~Geneva Mason

 

Though there was some of the anticipated resistance to integration, on the whole the process down-county had gone smoothly. In April of 1956 the School Board adopted Superintendent Norris’s plan for Phase 2 of integration, involving the up-county schools. Here, they ran into some trouble. 

 

“In the up-county, the only real difficulty we had was at Poolesville, and there, there was a big demonstration on the day the school opened… I know one [workman] came past and he said that most of the trouble was caused by outsiders, and that they were really upset, the people who had lived there for a long time, to have this kind of stigma attached to Poolesville because they would not have taken to the streets like that, and that they noticed from the tags– the license plates– that these were not even Marylanders who were really there demonstrating.”

~Margaret Taylor Jones

 

“And then too, up at Poolesville, they was having trouble. It was a bunch of outside people. Came up one time there and started trouble. They had to have them turned back. They came from the Southern states. They had trouble with that.”

~Geneva Mason

 

“Some of the Board of Education people would say, ‘Let’s… not have integration right away.’ It was a lot of people– some of the big business people– they would go sit on the council or go to all these meetings and say we’re too slow, and on the other hand there were the people in Poolesville that said ‘We’re going to the Board of Education because we don’t want this process’… We even had people coming up from the South, because the Poolesville people were already resistant so this is what they wanted, so they came up. But when [Connie Morella] went to Poolesville, she was the person who tried to make the parents feel comfortable when the kids came in.”

~Doris Hackey

“Connie Morella told me she was a young, beginning teacher assigned to Poolesville when there were parent protests about integrating… She got very frightened, but those were, you know, isolated things in certain areas, and maybe again there wasn’t enough preparation.”

~Rose Kramer

 

The protest at Poolesville was mild compared with the threats of violence coming from states in the deep South, but in fact may have been bolstered by anti-integration activists looking to incite public resistance to the ruling, as suggested by several witnesses. A minority of white parents in Poolesville did initially refuse to send their children to the schools for the first few days of the semester, but relented quickly when Superintendent Norris threatened to take them to court for violation of attendance laws.

 

“I got this, well, from one of the policemen who was on the police force who was detailed to go up there [to Poolesville High School], to be there, when those students came in. The students got off [the bus]. The white parents were there. And the white parents blocked the door… And this particular policeman stepped up and said, ‘I’m sorry. You must step aside, because the students must get in. They have to go to classes.’ And they parted and let them in.”

~Edith Throckmorton

 

At the end of the school year in 1956, a group of teachers at Longview Elementary (where Edith Throckmorton was principal) discussed their experience with the integration process so far. Notes were kept by the secretary, documenting their comments:

 

Excerpt from Longview Faculty Minute Book. Source: Montgomery County Archives

 

“Inez [McAbee] discussed community pressures. She said she had an enjoyable year so far. One case of resentment was built up (Rollingwood). There was a question session. Many asked silly questions anticipating trouble. Many parents turned out the first day. There were some pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Parents of three in her room asked to be changed. The principal had to use his judgment in each case or the parents would have gotten out of line.”

“A pressure group  held a meeting in the Fire Department in Kensington.  They tried to stir up something because things were working smoothly.”

~Longview Elementary School Faculty Minutes

 

By May of 1956, the School Board voted to implement Phase 3 of the plan, in which black families were allowed to request transfers to schools nearer their residence (this plan continued into the 1957-58 school year). Dr. Norris resigned from his position, possibly due in part to the constant criticism of his efforts, particularly in the case of the Poolesville protests. Dr. Charles Whittier was appointed the new Superintendent of Schools in May of 1957. Though steady, the integration process had been unnecessarily slow, with less than 40% of black children attending integrated schools by 1958. Under Dr. Whittier’s leadership, acceleration occurred, so that  72% were integrated by the end of the 1961 school year, at which point the remaining black schools were closed.

 

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