BALTIMORE – John Almacy knew that his friend Dwight Pettit was one of the first black students at Aberdeen High School in 1960.
The two high school friends both lived on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and both played varsity football. Almacy ran Pettit’s successful campaign for an office in the Student Athletic Association.
But it was not until 10 years ago that Almacy learned Pettit had to sue to get into Aberdeen High.
“I didn’t find out what he and his parents had to do to get him into Aberdeen and keep him there,” said Almacy, who is now Pettit’s accountant. “I was shocked.”
Pettit never mentioned the fact that, five years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation, he had to sue to get in to the previously all-white high school. Pettit said he just “hung with the guys” and tried not to “antagonize the situation” by making his race an issue.
But when pressed about his case today, Pettit looks around his Baltimore law office, at the family photographs, diplomas and campaign posters hanging on the walls, and admits that it changed his life.
“I don’t know if I would’ve had the academic preparation,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been inspired to be an attorney.”
The Pettit family moved to Aberdeen in 1958 after George Pettit, an Army engineer, was transferred to the proving ground. County high schools were still mostly segregated, but black students could apply for admission to white schools. The Pettits felt the black school in Havre de Grace was inadequate, so their son Dwight applied for admission to nearby Aberdeen High School.
But the school board rejected his application, citing a “lack of ability and low achievement” based on an assessment test he took in fifth grade, court records said.
The Pettits sued the school system in 1959, and a U.S. District Court overturned the board’s decision in 1960, allowing Dwight to enroll at Aberdeen High.
But that was not the end of his fight.
Pettit, 59, sitting now in his Baltimore law office, recalls the time another football player told him after practice one day, “You’re going to clean the bathrooms every day and empty the trash cans.”
George Pettit told his son to walk away, but Dwight said, “No, Dad. I’ll be OK.”
“I knocked the kid out,” Pettit remembered, laughing proudly as he thumbed through old yearbooks piled on his desk.
“The whole atmosphere changed” after that fight, Pettit said.
His friends said he became pretty popular — the varsity football player and vice president of the Student Athletic Association.
“I don’t think he had to work really hard at it,” said Bessie Gant, a high school friend who was also one of the first black students at Aberdeen High. “He is very charismatic.”
Former football coach Jim Smith said Pettit always got along well with his teammates.
“He had a very good attitude, and he mixed in nicely with the other team players,” Smith said. “He came out, and he belonged.”
But Mildred Pettit said her son is also a fighter. “Dwight’s always been the type of person if he set his mind to do something, he’s going to do it,” she said.
High school lead to law school and then Pettit had to fight again, this time for his father.
George Pettit was repeatedly passed over for promotions at the Army base because he was black and “an activist in working to integrate the schools in Harford County,” court documents said. He constantly filed complaints, but they were all dismissed.
Dwight, fresh out of Howard University Law School, took the discrimination case to the U.S. Court of Claims and won about $100,000 in back pay for his father in 1973 — a day “nothing could supercede,” he said.
“When I stood in that hallowed courthouse with no one behind me but my mother, my father and my wife, and all that history in front of me, and the White House across the street,” he said, “it was like I did everything I could to control the tears before I began.”
Pettit went into politics soon after, becoming a Maryland adviser for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. A handwritten note from Carter hangs framed on a wall office where, true to Pettit’s nature, it is barely noticeable among a clutter of photographs and posters.
Carter recommended Pettit for U.S. Attorney in Maryland in 1978, but the Senate approved another attorney.
In 1984, Pettit chaired Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in Baltimore before making the first of two unsuccessful bids for the 7th Congressional District seat. Those losses and a failed run for state’s attorney in Baltimore City convinced Pettit that he “was not a good money-raiser.”
“I think my experience in civil rights painted a picture to white conservatives that I was more militant than a reasonable politician,” he said.
But the longtime Democrat showed he was not a militant in 2002, when he became an active member of “Democrats for Ehrlich,” filming several commercials in support of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s bid for office.
Ehrlich repaid the favor by appointing Pettit to the Board of Regents for the University System in 2003. For Pettit, the man who once sued a Maryland public school system for admission, the appointment is “one of the great ironies of justice.”
But for Pettit — who said he is about two-thirds finished with his autobiography — the fight continues. In his Baltimore law office, a stack of legal files sitting at his elbow contains civil rights, discrimination and wrongful death cases.
“It was destiny that this would be my life-long struggle,” he said.
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