WASHINGTON – Rachel Polk was one of five black students, the “best and the brightest,” who were chosen decades ago as a test group to integrate Wicomico High School.
“I was very excited,” Polk said. “Who didn’t want to be the best and the brightest?”
But when she got on the bus that first day, she was not allowed to sit with the white children — the driver “had another seat for me,” she recalled. At school, she was forced to sit in the back of the classroom, and teachers refused to give her A’s. She remembered one of the other black students had a nervous breakdown.
Polk’s pioneering — and Wicomico County’s first tentative steps toward desegregation — came in 1964, a full decade after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in schools and ordered them to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Deliberate speed meant different things to different Maryland school districts — a few integrated quickly, others gradually, and some had to be forced.
Baltimore City began integrating even before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wicomico County would integrate its schools a year after Polk’s test group was admitted, while a 12-year Harford County plan to phase in integration was short-circuited by a student’s lawsuit.
Historians and former students attributed the different pace of integration in Maryland to the varied culture and demographics throughout the state.
“Maryland is a schizophrenic state,” said John Wennersten, an Eastern Shore historian.
All agree that the process was most volatile on the Eastern Shore.
“There was tension,” said H. DeWayne Whittington, a black principal at the time, who later became the first black superintendent in Somerset County. “I had teachers walk out, and kids would walk out of activities, and saying things that just weren’t true.”
The Shore was still “very much a Southern-oriented area” in the 1960s, said Ronald Walters, a politics and African-American studies professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “It was Southern, it was rural, it was agricultural.”
But across the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore City wasted no time integrating its schools.
“I don’t think the Baltimore City School Board was particularly happy about running a segregated system,” said Walter Sondheim, the board president at the time.
The board voted to desegregate two weeks after the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision on May 17, 1954. But two years earlier, the board let several black students attend an engineering course at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute after a court found that the segregated school had no “separate but equal” program.
Baltimore City was more progressive because it was home to many prominent black families and civil rights leaders, historians said.
“I think Baltimore City is its own case . . . with the tradition of African-American leadership and the strength of the African-American leadership,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor at the University of Maryland law school.
That does not mean integration went smoothly at first. Students at Southern High School walked out in protest, and someone burned a cross on Sondheim’s lawn. But Sondheim said police handled the situation well, and the school board did not back down.
Other school districts were caught somewhere between Baltimore’s urgency and the Eastern Shore’s lethargy, with most opting to integrate gradually.
In Harford County, Dwight Pettit had to sue to get into Aberdeen High School in 1959. The school system had planned to phase in integration over 12 years, with black students allowed to apply for admission to white schools during the interim.
Pettit sued after the board rejected his application, citing a “lack of ability and low achievement” on an assessment test he took in fifth grade, court records said. A U.S. District Court sided with Pettit in 1960, saying the county could not deny access to black students.
Integration was easier in Western Maryland and other parts of the state, like Montgomery County, because black and white students had grown up together in more rural communities, said former students and teachers.
“Because there were so few of us and the school was so large, I can’t say that I personally heard anything negative,” said Mary Louise Jones, a black student who integrated Allegany High School in 1955. “I already knew several kids who were attending school there because they lived in my neighborhood.”
Warrick Hill, a 1945 graduate of Rockville Colored High School and a teacher during integration, said he often interacted with white children before integration.
“During the weekends, that is when we socialized,” he said. “In the weekends in the winter time, we went sledding together, but on Monday morning they rode the bus to school, and we walked.”
On the Eastern Shore, Polk said she did not have the benefit of that interaction and was shocked by her reception at the white school.
“I found the entire experience to be the worst that I had ever experienced in my young life at the time,” she said. “I was totally naive. I did not expect the rejection.”
Even after school officials fully integrated Wicomico High the next year, Polk said unequal treatment lingered and black students protested with sit-ins.
Tensions continued through the decade. The Shore was a “hotbed of activity” during the civil rights movement, Walters said, especially in areas like Cambridge where the National Guard was sent to keep the peace between whites and black fighting in the streets.
“Wicomico County, let’s just say the Eastern Shore — because I was born here so I can say that — has always been resistant to change,” Polk said.
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