111 W. Montgomery Avenue
Rockville, Maryland 20850
“HOW ARE WE GOING TO MAKE
ONE SCHOOL SYSTEM OUT OF TWO?”
After the Verdict, 1954-1955
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
~U.S. Supreme Court ruling: Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas
May 17, 1954
“I was principal then at the Rock Terrace School, and it came over the radio that the Supreme Court had issued the decree. And so I immediately went in the corridor and just began saying into each classroom that the decree had been handed down. And one little boy was sitting there and said, ‘Why are you so happy about that? Won’t that mean that you’ll lose your job?’ And so I said that, you know, ‘I really don’t care.’ And he said, ‘You don’t?’ and shook his head in disbelief.”
~Margaret Taylor Jones
In August of 1954, in response to the verdict, the Montgomery County Board of Education established a special Advisory Committee on Integration, charged with formulating a plan for the desegregation of the schools in line with the new law of the land. Superintendent of Schools Forbes Norris, who had recently taken the job in the wake of longtime Superintendent of Schools Edwin Broome, took a firm line on the necessity of desegregation.
“…one thing that the Montgomery County school system did– and that’s Superintendent Norris, I believe, I’ll give him credit for it– he moved ahead. If you recall, Montgomery County moved ahead with that integration program. The best that they knew how.”
“Montgomery County was the first county in Maryland to integrate its schools. They decided to get ready for integration and set up committees of community leaders and school professionals. Everybody was nervous; it was a 360-degree turn in our lives. We had never had an integrated life. How were we going to make one school system out of two?”
~Nina Honemond Clarke, as quoted in the Montgomery Gazette, 2004
Nina Honemond Clarke, a young teacher at Sandy Spring elementary, was assigned to that committee, as was Rose Kramer, a member of the School Board. There was not much direction at first, as weeks of inaction turned into months, and no agreement was forthcoming on how to tackle the issue.
“I began pushing my board to take this [Supreme Court] decision very seriously and take it as an opportunity to improve our system,” said Kramer, 86. The board, she said, was reluctant. It formed a commission, then recommended that the idea be tried one grade at a time every two years. “My God,” she said she exploded at her colleagues, “it will take us 24 years to achieve this.”
~Rose Kramer, as quoted in the Washington Post, 1998
“There were some people on the Board of Education who were not quite in favor of integration. Several of them gave all kinds of different excuses: let’s do it one grade at a time– that was from kindergarten through 12th grade… Somebody else said, ‘Oh, we don’t have room in the white schools to take any black children in.’ Somebody else said, ‘Well, they’re not going to get along. This is not the time. Let’s wait,’ and things like that.”
~Nina Honemond Clarke
By March of 1955, the majority opinion of the committee favored a 12-year integration plan, introducing black students only at the first grade level each year. Meanwhile, the PTA from the black communities joined the minority opinion advocating for an aggressive 3-year comprehensive integration, insisting that “the present school buildings are in no condition to stand a gradualistic approach to integration because of sub-standard conditions” (from the Montgomery County Sentinel, March 10, 1955). Still there was resistance.
By April 1955, the Advisory Committee on Integration voted to approve the following plan for the first phase in the down county area, to be implemented in the fall of 1955:
While in writing the plan seemed fair and straightforward, the details quickly became a battleground:
“In 1955 they decided that they would do away with the small negro schools down-county. So they just decided that those children would go into the schools that were nearest their homes… They had decided (and they– meaning somebody in the central office– because we who were black had nothing to do with it) that no school should have no more than 33 ⅓% black population.
…A good example of how tedious it was is that the West Rockville School was just ¼ mile from the Rock Terrace School anyway, so there it meant that when you drew boundaries, we got 35% of the children [that] would have gone into West Rockville, and they kept hammering away, ‘You cannot have more than 33 ⅓%,’ you know, and so what are we going to do– kill some kids– you know? It was really a very terrible experience… I blew up and said that if you’ve got a plan, then pull your plan out. Don’t sit here and tell us to make a plan, when you’ve already got a plan!”
~Margaret Taylor Jones
“[A school would say]: ‘Well I can take three [black students] in the first grade and one in the seventh grade, but I can’t take any in between.’ Well, the [black] parents [were] opposed to their families being broken up like that…But I would say this, ‘O.K., you don’t have room enough in this class –fifth grade, so to speak– for a black child. But if some white child moves into this community and they’re in the fifth grade, what are you going to do? You’ve got to find a place for him. So you have a place for this black child.’ And this is the way we discussed it.”
By summer of 1955, the State Superintendent and Maryland Attorney General had confirmed to the School Board that legal barriers to desegregation had been removed from the Maryland books. Montgomery Junior College began to accept black students. The Montgomery County Recreation Department opened all 49 recreation centers to an integrated public and buses were no longer segregated. The plan for the integration of the down-county schools was in place for fall 1955, despite PTA votes that disagreed with specifics, alternative proposals from Board of Education members, and parent protests demanding that County authorities be overruled. The first day of school for Montgomery County students in September of 1955 was full of potential or fraught with peril, depending on one’s point of view.