American Studies - History
3 May 1996
School desegregation in Prince George's County, Maryland, should have been easy. After all, the county did not have to cope with overt racism in both its citizens and its elected officials or about this racism turning into organized violence directed at the teenage would-be school integrators, as did the states of the Deep South. The task facing the Prince George's County board of education and Superintendent William Schmidt after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, therefore, seemed to be fairly simple: eliminate the county's segregated dual school system and replace it with an integrated, unitary school system. Yet it was not until 1973, nearly 20 years after Brown, that the county finally implemented a desegregation plan comprehensive enough to please the federal courts and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. School integration in Prince George's County was complicated by covert racist attitudes, by segregated housing patterns, and by the "white flight" phenomenon of whites fleeing predominately black areas in and around cities for predominately white areas deeper in the suburbs.
From its beginnings, Maryland's attitudes towards African-Americans were vaguely hostile. The 1715 state constitution enforced slavery, although Maryland was never a large slave-holding state; racist attitudes continued into the 19th century, when Know-Nothingism took firm root in the state. During the Civil War, Maryland was divided between its slave-holding, which naturally allied it with the Confederacy, and its proximity to Washington, DC, which made it remain in the Union. A local publication noted, however, that "most Prince George's loyalties were with the Confederacy" and that the County seat newspaper "was denied use of the U.S. mails because of its Southern leanings." When a new State constitution that abolished slavery was sent to Maryland voters in 1864, the state as a whole only narrowly approved it; however, Prince George's County decisively rejected it, 1,293 votes against to only 149 for.
The years following World War II were years of unprecedented growth for Prince George's County. The population more than doubled from 1940 to 1950 and more than tripled from 1950 to 1970. By 1970 the county's population of 660,000 was the second largest in the Washington metropolitan area, second only to the District of Columbia. The black population, after a decline at the turn of the century, was also on the rise, and by 1970 55% of all Washington-area suburban blacks lived in Prince George's County. Although the county's blacks and whites were "generally more alike socioeconomically than blacks and whites in any other major Washington suburb," they tended to live apart from each other. This separation in housing can be attributed in large part to the practices of "blockbusting," in which white homeowners are persuaded to sell their homes at a loss by being told that blacks are planning to move into the area, and "steering," in which prospective white home buyers are steered towards homes in white neighborhoods and prospective black home buyers are steered towards homes in black neighborhoods. These practices continued throughout the first half of the 20th century; as Gary Orfield wrote, "Only in the late 1960s did the Department of Housing and Urban Development begin to act against segregation in public housing." By that time the impact on the racial composition of the county's public schools had already been made.
When the Supreme Court announced in its unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in public education, Prince George's County public schools operated under a dual system that was in keeping with an 1872 Maryland law requiring the separate education of black and white children. The system in Prince George's County was completely segregated. Students attended segregated schools. The buses were also segregated, even though buses carrying black students and buses carrying white students often traveled over the same roads. Teachers were assigned to schools on a segregated basis, teaching only students of their own race and almost always reporting to supervisors of their own race, although some black teachers reported to white supervisors. If the superintendent had to address all the teachers in the system, he did so in separate meetings for black and white teachers.
After the Supreme Court made its decision in Brown, the Maryland state school board released a statement confirming that it would stand by the decision but noting that it would need an "effective date" to be set by the tribunal before it created and implemented a plan for integration. The Prince George's County superintendent, William Schmidt, issued a statement a few days later declaring that he expected "to operate [the Prince George's County] school system during the 1954-55 term on the same basis that the schools have been operated during the 1953-54 term." Another year would pass before the Supreme Court required school systems to integrate "with all deliberate speed." During that year, Prince George's County did little to prepare or implement a plan for desegregation, aside from appointing 17 local whites and 5 local blacks to the "Fact-Finding Committee to Study the Problems of Desegregation in Prince George's County." On July 21, 1955, the committee submitted the findings of its study to the county board of education. A major section of the report was devoted to showing the possible results of assigning students to schools "without regard to race." These results were based on "pupil `assignments' that were only nominally nondiscriminatory" but they still showed that 47 of the 106 schools slated to operate in 1955-1956 could be desegregated and that this desegregation would actually require more teachers, stamping out the fear that some teachers might have to be fired if the dual school system was consolidated into a unitary system. The committee did not outline a specific desegregation plan; however, it did suggest that "insofar as it is administratively and economically possible, pupils irrespective of race, should be allowed to attend the school closest to their homes" and that "the present policy of fixed school boundaries can be continued, but on an integrated basis. . . ." The committee also advised the board of education to take desegregation into account when building new schools and to desegregate teachers and staff along with students.
For the 1955-1956 school year, the board decided to adopt a "freedom of choice" plan similar to those adopted by many other Southern and border states. With a few relatively insignificant changes, the Prince George's County school system operated under this plan from the 1955-1956 school year to the 1964-1965 school year. The freedom of choice plan automatically registered students in the school that they would have attended under the old system, but they could choose to attend the school of their choice, provided that their parents specifically request a transfer. Allowing students to attend the school of their choice could have produced a fair amount of desegregation on its own. The stipulation that parents specifically request a transfer, however, meant that blacks would be placed in black schools and whites would be placed in white schools unless the parents demanded otherwise, therefore placing the burden of changing the status quo on the parents. In addition, the board seemed to go out of its way to make transferring difficult. The steps parents had to go through to request a transfer were not well publicized and transfers were only accepted during a limited time period. Even if a parent sent in a transfer request on time, it could still be one of the many requests that were denied by the board. Despite these obstacles, the number of black students enrolling in formerly all-white schools steadily grew in the 10 years the plan was in action, although the vast majority still attended all-black schools.
In implementing the freedom of choice plan and also in some of its later school constructions, the board stated that it "based its action on certain recommendations suggested by [the] Fact-Finding Committee. . . ." Most parts of the plan, however, either did not particularly support or actually directly contradicted the recommendations of the Fact-Finding Committee. The distinct possibility that a black student might be transported past a closer all-white school in order to attend an all-black school still existed. There was not even a guarantee that a student who requested a transfer to a closer school would have the transfer granted. And the Fact-Finding Committee did not want to have the burden of changing that status quo placed on black parents; as one white member of the committee stated, "We felt that the initiative for desegregation should come from the school system rather than from Negro parents." The board also did not take desegregation into account when planning the building of new schools and additions to old ones, as specifically requested by the Committee. No wonder members of the Committee felt that they and their report "had been used as window-dressing. . . ."
In reviewing the steps the board took towards achieving desegregation through the freedom of choice plan, it seems quite plausible that the board's actions were influenced by covert racist attitudes. The Fact-Finding Committee gave the board some broad guidelines to follow in creating a desegregation plan. A plan that followed these guidelines would have made some significant steps towards integration of both students and faculty while avoiding the elimination of many jobs and perhaps even creating new ones. Yet the board either ignored or specifically went against most of the guidelines when creating its plan. It then made the most important tool for achieving integration - the parent-requested transfer - difficult to obtain by not publicizing the directions for requesting a transfer well and by rejecting a significant number of requests that did follow the directions. Perhaps the board's most suspicious action was that of withholding a major section of the Fact-Finding Committee's report from the media and the public, the section that showed that a desegregation plan that was "only nominally nondiscriminatory" could still integrate almost half the county's schools in its first year. The idea that the board withheld this portion of the report to cover up its racist attitudes and prevent a public outcry over the relative slowness of the board's desegregation plan does not seem too far-fetched. One thing is clear: the board did not move as quickly to desegregate as, according to the Fact-Finding Committee, it could have, and it never disclosed the reason for this slowness.
In the early 1960s, a combination of events on both the local and national level forced Prince George's County to reevaluate its freedom of choice desegregation plan and draw up a new one. On the local level, many black parents started pressuring the school board to change the freedom of choice plan to one that was more fair to black children. For example, in response to a proposed transfer of black students from Lakeland Junior High School to Mary Bethune Junior High in 1961, 500 black parents signed a letter asking why black students had to specifically ask to be transferred to a predominately white school if it were closer to their home when white students did not have to do so. The county board of education was also pressured by the Maryland state board of education, by the Prince George's Citizens Education Committee, and by the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to change its plan.
In addition to local pressures, events on the national scene started to turn Prince George's County away from the freedom of choice plan. Perhaps the strongest force on the national scene was that of the Supreme Court. The Court had initiated school desegregation with its Brown decision in 1954 and it continued to guide school districts on the way towards integration. With each decision, the Supreme Court decided the way school desegregation in the country would go, and by the 1960s it was clearly moving away from freedom of choice plans. As one scholar wrote:
By the mid-1960s the Supreme Court rejected the use of freedom of choice plans, arguing that these plans were a subterfuge for keeping the races separated. . . .Between 1965 and 1971 the Supreme Court made clear that schools must desegregate and desegregate immediately.
Legislative action was also an important force in leading school systems towards integration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) the power to withhold federal funds from school districts operating on a segregated basis. This became a real threat when the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) allocated substantial federal funding for use by local school districts. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, HEW became a major influence in requiring school districts throughout the South and the border states to desegregate.
HEW first entered the Prince George's County picture in December 1964, when it released broad desegregation guidelines, urging school districts to "implement attendance zones that were `unitary' in nature," instead of being based on race, and supporting the concept of neighborhood schools. In response, Prince George's County revised its policy to one that was, at least on the policy statement level, compliant with HEW guidelines:
1. School attendance areas shall be established for every school without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.
2. In establishing attendance areas, there will be no gerrymandering or establishing of other unnatural boundaries.
In practice, however, the policy was not quite as compliant as it appeared on paper. For example, during the 1965-1966 school year Glenarden Woods Elementary School became, under the new unitary attendance zone, an all-black school that was 42 students under capacity, while Dodge Park Elementary, less than a mile away and with a black student enrollment of only 0.1%, was 62 students over capacity. Yet for some reason, the school board did not send students from Dodge Park to Glenarden Woods. This was not an isolated case among the eight schools organized that school year under unitary attendance zones. A study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights discovered that "six of the eight so-called `unitary' schools, for the 1965-66 school year, had classroom vacancies while nearby, predominantly white schools were overcrowded." In establishing the unitary attendance zones, it seems, the board of education used the existing segregation in housing to minimize both desegregation and outcry from HEW. The eight unitary schools were located in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, allowing the board of education to say that they followed HEW guidelines while still ensuring that most white students attended schools that were 95% or more white. This situation can easily be seen as another attempt by the members of the school board to cover up conscious or unconscious racist tendencies. In any case, it is a clear example of how the existing segregated housing patterns influenced school desegregation.
As the 1960s rolled on, HEW made it clear to the board of education that it would have to do more than just pretend to comply with HEW guidelines. HEW's policy in the late 1960s was shaped by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education (1966):
In this circuit, therefore, the location of Negro schools with Negro faculties in Negro neighborhoods and white schools in white neighborhoods cannot be described as an unfortunate fortuity. It came into existence as state action and continues to exist as racial gerrymandering made possible by the dual system.
In January 1968, Lloyd Henderson, Education Branch Chief with the Office of Civil Rights of the Office of Education, notified the superintendent that if the school system did not complete a reorganization that "would have required affirmative policies such as new attendance zones and busing to eliminate a number of all-black schools," the system could be subject to "noncompliance proceedings." Noncompliance proceedings carried the threat of a possible cutoff of substantial federal funds if the system was found to be noncompliant with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
To complicate matters even further for Prince George's County, the HEW crackdown came just at a time when large numbers of blacks were moving across the border from the District of Columbia into the county's central corridor. This migration on its own might have helped integration, but it was coupled with a second "white flight." Many whites resided in the county's central corridor, where they had moved during the first white flight in the 1940s and 1950s to escape blacks in the cities; now, whites started to move away from the county's central corridor and into the outlying, predominately white areas. Had the whites remained in the newly black areas, segregated housing patterns might have disappeared. Because they moved into areas that were already mostly white, however, the patterns remained. Fortunately for blacks practices such as blockbusting that had produced much of the segregated housing visible in the 1960s became illegal in 1968 as a result of the Fair Housing Act, but as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted, "[t]he act probably came too late to provide relief from the situation that had developed in Prince George's County." The segregation in housing became very important because, as a result of the HEW guidelines, Prince George's County was turning more and more to the "neighborhood school" concept, in which students attended a nearby school regardless of race. The segregated housing patterns, however, meant that even the bona fide neighborhood schools, filled without regard to race, often had an overwhelming majority of one race. Had the county's housing patterns been non-segregated, the neighborhood schools plan might have worked nicely. but the plan ultimately failed because of the segregated housing patterns. White flight exacerbated the existing problems by further segregating county housing instead of furthering the cause of integrated housing.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Prince George's County continued to struggle to meet HEW's guidelines for segregation. The process was made even more difficult by the fact that the guidelines frequently changed in response to new court decisions. The county would often prepare and successfully implement a desegregation plan that met HEW guidelines, only to learn soon after implementation that the guidelines had changed and the plan was no longer compliant. In a meeting with an HEW official, Superintendent Schmidt expressed his frustration with these frequent changes:
Mr. Schmidt [Superintendent]: People were sold that the neighborhood school concept would be the end of the desegregation problems. Now you are saying that it is not enough. . . .We are merely asking: Will we never be through? It would look like we will never solve the problem, because there will be change from year to year. . .
Mr. Mamarella [HEW Official]: Laws like this went out for particular times and specific periods. Times change and conditions change.
Eventually Prince George's County lost the battle to keep up with HEW guidelines. HEW initiated noncompliance proceedings against the county's school system in 1971 and found it to be noncompliant, although federal funds were never cut off. More significant was a 1971 case in which a group of black parents led by Sylvester Vaughns sued the school board for noncompliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Judge Frank Kaufman found that the school system illegally segregated blacks and ordered the county to come up with a desegregation plan utilizing busing to achieve racial balance, making the county school system the largest system in the country to use such a plan. The plan was to be implemented on January 29, 1973, the first day of the second semester.
The demand that Prince George's County implement a busing plan to achieve integration was far from uncommon for the time. Starting with the Supreme Court's 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which allowed Charlotte-Mecklenburg's busing plan for integration to stay in place, courts had turned increasingly to busing as a last resort for school systems in which other means of desegregation had failed. Busing was the subject of much heated debate at the time. George Wallace enjoyed some support during his campaign for president in 1972 when a major part of his platform was opposition to busing. Congress repeatedly tried to pass constitutional amendments prohibiting busing. The opposition to busing stemmed from the feeling that, in the words of President Richard Nixon, "[m]any lower court decisions [to implement busing] have gone far beyond. . .what the Supreme Court said is necessary. . . ." Those who opposed busing also argued that it is harmful to children as well as significantly more expensive. This opposition, somewhat surprisingly, included many blacks. A 1974 Gallup poll showed that less than 25% of the general population and only 32% of blacks supported forced busing to achieve integration. Advocates of busing noted that federal courts only used busing as a last resort desegregation plan, that schools often "utilize busing to protect young children" even if it is not needed for desegregation purposes, and that the additional cost for busing is relatively minor. The NAACP, one of the main groups that supported busing, realized that the issue had "diverted attention from the urgent need to eradicate racism. `Instead of cursing the disease (segregation),' as Father Hesburgh has aptly stated, `we curse the medicine, we curse the doctors.'"
Given the controversy raging over busing, simply the fact that the nation's 10th largest school system planned to use busing for integration was cause enough for nationwide attention. Because Prince George's County decided to implement the plan mid-school-year, the attention was even greater. Many observers agreed with the statement that "[w]hen the nation's tenth largest school district implements a vast desegregation plan in the middle of the school year, it would seem to be asking for trouble." The first day of desegregation, called "D (for desegregation) Day", actually went surprisingly smoothly. Many schools went out of their way to make the new students welcome; Newsweek reported that "[y]oungsters arriving at the Seat Pleasant Elementary School were draped with Hawaiian leis, while new arrivals at Greendale Elementary were handed pencils embossed `Welcome to Greendale School.'" Most school personnel noted that "the children were more relaxed than the adults on the first day of desegregation." One child, asked by a newsman as he stepped off his bus how he liked his new school, replied "I don't know yet, I haven't been in it yet," drawing giggles from some of the other children.
Yet D Day was not without its opposition and its problems. 15,000 people showed up at a rally on Super Bowl Sunday to protest the planned desegregation. Some mothers "planted a cardboard tombstone reading: `Here Lies Democracy, Freedom and Justice, 1776-1973.'" Members of parent groups such as Taxpayers Against Busing kept their children at home for the day to protest the desegregation; however, they were in the minority, as absenteeism was only 5% above normal. In addition to these protests, there were a number of glitches that officials said "were typical of the operational snags experienced on the first day of a school year," such as children missing buses, one bus that did not pick up 50 black students, and students assigned to the wrong classes.
During the months following implementation of the busing plan, schools stayed desegregated and standardized test scores rose; however, these gains came with short-term and long-term physical and psychological effects. For many students, a mid-year school switch was somewhat disorienting. Busing broke up friendships and school sports teams. Students had learn to direct their school spirit towards a different school; "At one basketball game," Newsweek noted, "students who had just been transferred to Fairmont Heights High School were still rooting for their old alma mater, Bladensburg High." Teachers and staff also noticed many long-term effects on students. The number of conflicts and assaults, some quite serious, rose significantly, especially in the month of March 1973, when an average of 9.3 student assaults were reported system-wide each day. The number of suspensions, especially those given to black students, rose, a trend which concerned black parents who feared that school officials might "see suspension and expulsion as a way to get around the court order." In addition, many black students seemed to be struggling with the fact that they were not really wanted at their new school and with negative stereotypes of blacks as troublemakers. Teachers noticed changes in many of the black students bused to white school:
Personally, I feel that a lot of the faculty's resentment [over the court-ordered desegregation] was taken out on the kids bused in here. . . .
The black kids have gotten very defensive in this environment and justifiably so. You treat a child like he's nothing and then expect him to behave, good God!! The kids are just completely untrusting of anyone around them. They won't go to class, they walk the halls and talk back to teachers. The really sad thing is that these kids were not this way when they first arrived. I've watched the change in them.
By 1974, the twentieth anniversary of Brown, Prince George's County was finally operating under a workable desegregation plan, albeit at a great price: the spirit of countless black students. Black students in the South paid a similar price for desegregation, but the cause was much easier to identify - in most cases, a governor or an angry mob blocking the entrance to a school. The causes of the difficulties Prince George's County encountered in desegregating its schools are not as readily identifiable. One thing is clear: Prince George's County turned to a busing plan as a last resort, only after a freedom of choice plan and a neighborhood school plan had failed. Some fairly suspicious decisions in the 1950s by the board of education, decisions that could have been influenced consciously or unconsciously by covert racism, probably led to the demise of the freedom of choice plan. By the time the county turned to the neighborhood school plan, segregated housing patterns and white flight had divided the county into strictly "black" and "white" sections, meaning that true neighborhood schools would continue to be segregated and therefore noncompliant with HEW requirements. Clearly if these three forces had not been so strong and so influential, school desegregation in the county would have progressed more rapidly. The unexpected footdragging that went on in Prince George's County was a direct result of these three dominating forces.