Freedom's Classroom

With All Deliberate Speed

The following narrative is adapted from the 1927 study of Theresa Douglas Banks, a Prince George's County educator. Ms. Banks wrote her Master's Thesis on the history of education for black people in Prince George's County covering the period of 1827 to 1946.

Events before, during and after World War II had a signification impact on the progress of education for African-Americans prior to the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision. In her 1927 study of the history education for Negroes in Prince George's County, Theresa Douglas Banks wrote, "buildings were for the most part inadequate, transportation was very limited, and qualified teachers were very difficult to secure because of the low salaries paid."

In previous years, state legislation was passed that also increased the salary of black teachers and improved the conditions of black schools. In her study, Ms. Banks wrote, "The passing of the minimum salary law in 1918; the creation of the State Equalization Fund in 1922; the "Teacher's Certification Law" established in 1924; and the enactment of "Retirement Legislation" in 1920, which was improved upon in 1927 have all contributed to the establishment of better educational conditions for Negro teachers in Maryland and Prince George's County."

In the fall of 1933, parents, whose children attended the all-black Lakeland High School, were successful in their efforts to secure free transportation. This marked the first county-funded transport of black students by bus. Previously, black parents provided their own modes of transportation that included horse and buggy, cars, trains, and walking long distances. Black parents and their Parent Teacher Associations supported transportation to the few high schools. In the fall of 1936, for the first time, the county board of education offered black students free bus transportation to black high schools. This service was offered to students who lived three or more miles from a black high school. Prince George's County was still a segregated school system.

In 1934, a study on transportation expenditures for black and white students reported that of 23 counties in the state of Maryland, only 5.9 percent of eligible black children were being transported by bus to school. This was in comparison to 27.8 percent of white students who received free transportation.

By 1937, black parents around the county continually pressed the Board of Education for increased transportation for their students, including black parents and white supporters from southern area communities of Clinton, TeeBee, and Oxon Hill. The number of black children passing from elementary education to the secondary school level grew each year. "Each succeeding year, as the transportation situation improved, an increased enrollment of high school children is noted," wrote Ms. Banks.

The length of the school term for black students also increased during this period. In 1933, black students attended school 160 days in a term, while white students attended school for 180 days. By 1937, the Maryland State Legislature passed a law that required 180 days or nine months of school for all children. However, this was not implemented in Prince George's County until the 1940-1941 school year.

Along with transportation and the length of school terms, there were also significant differences in the amount of money spent to education black and white students. Prince George's County high schools spent an average of $82.35 per pupil for white students, and $44.34 for black students in the 1933-34 school year.

Community activists through out the state, concerned about the disparities between educational opportunities for black students, began the initial process of using the judicial system to challenge the constitutionality of a segregated school system in Maryland.

On December 8, 1936, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed suit against the Montgomery County Board of Education seeking equal pay in teacher salaries. Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston and Leon Ransome were the attorneys representing the NAACP.

"In Prince George's County, Evelyn Elise Cook was the plaintiff for the Prince George's County Teacher's Association," wrote Banks in her 1927 study.

In 1944, the United States District Court of Baltimore, (Judge Chestnut Mills presiding), declared "there should be no discrimination as to salary of school teachers because of race or color."

The pursuit of equal education was not without consequences. Some black teachers were fired, asked to resign, or denied contract renewals for the next school year.

By the late 1940s, the county saw an increase in the consolidation of the old Rosenwald schools into larger brick buildings. The school system also began offering an immunization program for children entering the first grade. Five black physicians were recruited to help administer vaccinations for diphtheria and smallpox to black students.

While the limited number of well-trained teachers continued to be a problem, the better paying jobs offered by war-related industries added to the shortage. At a special session, the state legislature enacted a law that provided for "all teaching personnel receiving less than $3,000 a year…to receive in addition to their regular salary a bonus of $20 monthly for each school month, beginning in May 1, 1944, and continuing up to June 30, 1945."

The problem of transportation continued to be a major issue for black parents through the 1940s and into the early 50s. Black children would continue to be bused to all-black schools, which suffered from continual limitations in access to resources, personnel and school buildings. The ride would most pass schools in their communities attended by white students. It would take the landmark case of "Brown versus Board" before the demise of the segregated school would begin, and for Prince George's County, it would also take another twenty years before its resolution would be nearly complete.

"In 1953-54, the county's 24 black schools were headed by a black supervisor whose office was separate from the offices of the supervisors of the white schools. The black supervisor reported directly to the white superintendent of schools. The superintendent of schools, in turn, was responsible to the seven-member county board of education on which one black served." - Long Days Journey

On May 17, 1954, the Washington Post newspaper reported on the impact of the Brown vs Board decision on local jurisdictions. Prince George's County had an enrollment of 36,307 white students and 5,764 black students. There were no desegregated schools in the county at that time. The schools at Clinton and Rosaryville were among the 24 all-black schools reported at the time.

Again, in the 1954-55 school year, all the schools in the county were segregated and that segregation was complete, extending to bus transportation, school staff, and administrative meetings. As reported in Long Day's Journey, "Black and white teachers had separate professional associations and parents belonged to either a white or black PTA."

The initial reaction by the state of Maryland and the county, to the Brown vs Board Decision, was to conduct schools as usual and to wait until the Supreme Court defined how the desegregation of public schools was to be implemented. William Schmidt, Superintendent of Public Schools in Prince George's County, wrote to his staff, "I expect to operate our school system during the 1954-55 term on the same basis that the schools have been operated on during the 1953-54 terms."

On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court held that the lower courts would be responsible for requiring compliance with the May 17th ruling and that jurisdictions would make a "good faith" effort towards compliance at its" earliest practicable date."

At the direction of the School Board, a fact-finding committee was appointed to study the issue of school desegregation in the county. The committee was composed of 17 whites and 5 blacks. It submitted the results of its findings to the Board of Education on July 21, 1955. The report addressed a number of issues, among them a groundless fear that black children would spread communicable diseases to white children, a recommendation that, as much as possible, children should be permitted to attend the schools closest to their homes, that plans for future school construction be re-examined in consideration of the Brown vs Board decision, and that the teaching and administrative staff be included in any desegregation plans.

"On July 25, 1955, the board voted to receive the committee's report and release it to the press with a notice that the statements contained therein did not "presently represent the policy of the Board. The Board decided, however, to withhold exhibit E from the press and the public. This exhibit revealed that nearly half of the schools in the county could be desegregated under a pupil assignment plan that was nominally nondiscriminatory."

Instead on April 10, 1956, the Board of Education adopted a policy of "freedom of choice," a policy that remained in effect until 1965. As recorded in Long Day's Journey, "The Board's policy statement had the effect of ratifying the continuance of segregated buses and segregated bus routes and did not offer any assurance to parents that necessary transportation would be provided if they transferred their children in accordance with the policy."

The report went to say, "the Board retained the dual set of attendance boundaries that placed black and white students in separate schools. The boundaries were racial rather than geographic in that black children were assigned to and had to enroll in a "Negro" school even if they lived closer to a "white" school."

Desegregation of schools were only accomplished insofar as black parents were able to successfully request, persevere and ultimately receive approval for a student transfer, were they able to send their children to a closer school