Articles > People & Politics
The Decision That Changed Everything
Fifty Years Ago, the Supreme Court Struck Down Laws That Sent Black and White Children to Separate Schools. The Ruling Brought Hope and Fear, Prompted Acts of Cruelty and Courage, and Began to Change the Way We Learn and Work and Live Together.
The staff at the Supreme Court began to sense that something was afoot early on the morning of May 17, 1954. In the basement print shop, one of the clerks noticed copies of an opinion in a large package. Mysteriously, the package was not marked with a case-docket number.
Someone else spotted Justice Robert Jackson on his way into the court. Jackson had suffered a severe heart attack seven weeks before and had not been expected to leave his hospital bed for some time.
At noon the nine justices donned their robes and convened for what looked to be a quiet session. Chief Justice Earl Warren greeted dozens of lawyers who were being admitted into the Supreme Court bar. Three routine opinions were read.
A few minutes before 1 o'clock, the clerk of the court sent a message to the press room: The school-segregation ruling was about to be read.
For the better part of two years, the court had been wrestling with the question of whether segregated schools were constitutional. Laws in 17 Southern states and the District of Columbia mandated that blacks and whites attend separate schools; another four states allowed school districts to segregate children. A ruling that such laws violated the Constitution would strike at the heart of the dual society that had existed since the Civil War.
At 52 minutes past noon, Warren began to read the court's ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. A few years before, seven-year-old Linda Brown, the daughter of a black pastor, had been denied entrance to a white school in Topeka. Her family, with other blacks and the help of NAACP lawyers, had brought the case to the Supreme Court.
This was the first major ruling for the 63-year-old Warren, who had arrived at the Supreme Court only months before and taken on what historians would call "the case of the century." Flanked by his colleagues in a purposeful show of support, he declared in a firm voice that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The ruling set the stage for the sweeping civil-rights laws of the 1960s and inspired people to take to the streets to demand that all barriers between the races come down. After Brown, nothing would be the same.
JIM CROW'S LAST STAND
Washington after World War II was still a Southern town. Jim Crow segregation prevailed in DC and the surrounding area. Restaurants refused to serve blacks. Beginning in 1948, the National Theatre closed for four years rather than desegregate.
Segregation in DC was more genteel than in most of the South. Blacks here didn't ride in the back of buses or drink from public "colored only" water fountains. Discrimination was more subtle. "If you were in Atlanta, hotels would tell you they wouldn't take colored people," says Alonzo Smith, a Smithsonian historian who grew up in DC in the 1940s and '50s. "Here they'd just tell you they didn't have any vacancies."
But Washington was changing as it grew. The expansion of the federal government during the New Deal and World War II brought thousands of people, white and black, from all over the country. Among the newcomers were many military veterans, including blacks who had fought to free Europe and now expected freedom themselves.
Bob Frye, 67, a former member of the Fairfax board of education and its first black chair, grew up in Southeast DC and on Capitol Hill.
My father volunteered for the Navy in World War II. His generation expected change in this country after the war. They thought if they served in the military, it would show that they were patriotic and worthy.
One summer Marriott had an ad in the newspaper looking for dishwashers and busboys and office workers. When I went down to apply, I noticed that my application was on a yellow form and the white people had white forms. I realized that no matter what I put on the application, my form would never get mixed in with the white forms. If you were black, you'd be limited to cleaning the pots, washing dishes.
The only whites I saw growing up were door-to-door salesmen and insurance collectors. It was impossible not to internalize the messages you got over and over that you were not as good as white people. White people were in all the movies. All my cowboy heroes were white.
Barbara Marx, 71, is a retired professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Her mother was a civil-rights activist in Virginia before and after Brown.
We moved to Oakton during World War II. We had lived in Queens before, and I had gone to an integrated public school. My best friend there was this black gal. After school we'd rush across the street to the penny store. I went to her house quite often, and we'd sit on her bed and talk.
After we'd been in Oakton a while, I began talking about the "dirty niggers." Mother was horrified. I think that helped motivate her to get involved in civil rights. She couldn't believe the extent of the prejudice and how quickly children picked it up.
Columbus Rich, 66, a retired manager for the National Education Association, moved to the Bloomingdale neighborhood near DC's whites-only McKinley Tech High School in 1949, when he was 11.
McKinley's field was beautiful. There was a guy who took care of it named Jessie. We'd go over there to play baseball, and Jessie would come out and run us off.
We got to the point where we said, "Let's stop running away. Let's just all spread out and let Jessie chase us." So Jessie came out: "You get off this field"—he had a very heavy German accent. He'd bring the hose and shoot water at us, and we'd scatter. We figured he wasn't going to catch all of us.
Marjorie Thomas Johnson, 61, a reading specialist at Lamont Elementary School in New Carrollton, grew up in the Prince George's County neighborhood of North Brentwood, which bordered a white community.
We used to walk up there going to the Safeway, and people would sic their dogs on us. Mom had taught us not to look at the dog—just keep walking and sooner or later the dog would leave you alone.
Gwendolyn Hubbard Lewis, 56, a member of the Alexandria school board, grew up in Old Town Alexandria.
Franklin Street separated the whites from the blacks. Whether the blacks were well off and owned their homes or not didn't matter; we all lived in the same community.
It wasn't like we didn't see the white kids, but it was very strange. It was like they didn't exist to us, and we didn't exist to them.
Ron Deskins, 57, a captain with the Clifton fire department, was born in DC and grew up in North Arlington.
If you wanted to go swimming, you had to go to Washington. You could see the swimming pools in Arlington, and they looked real nice, with high dives and everything. But we couldn't go to them.
We lived in a neighborhood called Hall's Hill that was all black. On the south side of Hall's Hill, there was a tall wooden fence where the backyards from the black neighborhood met up against the backyards from the white neighborhood.
There were several houses in the white neighborhood that had lantern-boy statues out front. I can remember as kids climbing over that fence and taking crowbars and trying to break those little lantern boys. That was destructive vandalism, but it wasn't mindless vandalism; it was a way of getting back. That was the way we looked at it.
John Tydings, 62, former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, grew up in Anacostia during the 1940s and '50s, when it was home to blacks and whites alike.
There was so much social interaction out of school that I didn't think a lot about the fact that the schools were all-white. I had friends who went to Catholic schools, and I just sort of characterized it like this: If you were Catholic, you went to one school, if you were black you went to another, and I was white, so I went here.
Three of us—it happened to be a Jewish kid, a black kid, and myself—went downtown on the bus to what would have been the Metropolitan Theater on F Street. We were told that we couldn't sit together because my friend was "colored." So the three of us sat upstairs in the balcony.
At some point, I went downstairs and drank out of the "colored only" water fountain. I didn't pay any attention—at that age, you didn't think much about those signs. An usher came up and said, "You can't drink out of this water fountain." I must have pushed back a little because I almost got thrown out of the theater.
SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
Blacks and whites were educated in separate school systems that resembled each other in form but little else. In 1947, nearly 45 percent of classes in black grade schools in the District had 40 or more children, compared with 1 percent of the classes in white schools. The year before the Brown decision, the District spent $240 per white student and $186 per black.
In 1945, seven Washington families banded together to create Georgetown Day School as DC's first racially integrated school. Five years later, Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria became the first in Virginia.
A lawsuit by black parents in Arlington in 1947 noted that the county's only black high school did not offer Spanish, physical education, or advanced civics.
Bessie Corbin, 76, taught at Rockville's Lincoln High, the only black secondary school in Montgomery County in the 1940s.
We didn't have gymnasiums. We played visiting teams in Jim Davis's auto-body shop. We had to push all the stuff over to the side; balls would hit the ceiling. We could not play the white schools in the county, so we went to Hagerstown, Leesburg, West Virginia. We'd get back from games at 12:30 or 1 o'clock in the morning.
Herbert Collins, 72, graduated from DC's all-black Cardozo High School in 1950.
We had 2,100 children in a school designed for 500. We had three shifts of students: a morning shift that came in at 8 o'clock, a noon shift, and then another shift at 2.
The physical plant was terrible. When it was time to take the swim test for gym class, we had to put on our gym clothes and run up to 12th Street, three blocks away, to the swimming pool at the YMCA. There was no gymnasium; we had to play on the street. The track team used the halls for practice.
Alonzo Smith, 64, a Smithsonian historian, grew up in Northwest DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood.
The schools had gotten so bad and so crowded that my parents wanted to send me to private school. At that time Sidwell Friends, although it was a Quaker-influenced school, didn't take African-Americans. My mother wrote the school a letter and said, "You've got all these other people of color of varying complexions"—hinting that some of them were probably darker in complexion than me. "How come you won't take my son?"
The school wrote back and said, "Yes, it's true; we have children of the Indian ambassador, the Indonesian ambassador, children from Latin America. But your son is an American Negro, and our policy at the present time is not to accept American Negroes."
A CONSPIRACY OF SUPPORT
Most black communities took pride in their schools. Because careers for college-educated blacks were limited, classes often were taught by the community's best and brightest. Some blacks were wary of integration and pushed the NAACP to work for more funding and better facilities for black schools.
Charlene Drew Jarvis, 62, a former DC Council member and now president of Southeastern University, attended Mott Elementary School and Banneker Junior High in Northwest DC.
The segregated school system in Washington was paradoxically much more supportive and much more achievement-oriented than were the integrated schools that we went to later. My parents' contemporaries taught in the schools; they were our neighbors. There was a conspiracy of support for academic achievement; if we didn't achieve in school, then our parents knew.
Carl Cole, 60, owner of a management-consulting firm, attended S.J. Bowen Elementary in Southwest DC.
I was raised in what was considered to be one of the world's most notorious slums, Southwest Washington, in the 1940s and '50s. But my educators were all qualified to be college professors. The adult figures in my childhood may have been postmen, policemen, firemen, trash men, but those jobs spoke nothing of their educational attainment. It was not unheard of for your postman to be a PhD.
I am very quick to tell people that everything that you see in me now I acquired before I reached an integrated school.
NEW SCHOOLS, OLD PROBLEMS
Under pressure from legal challenges, DC and its suburbs began moving in the late 1940s to improve black schools. To ease overcrowding, the District converted 21 under-capacity white schools to use for blacks, often touching off white protests.
Montgomery County built four elementary schools for blacks as well as Carver High School, which now serves as headquarters for the county's school administration. Carver replaced Lincoln High.
Bessie Corbin left Lincoln High to teach at Carver when it opened in 1951.
Carver was state of the art. That school cost nearly $1 million. It was beautiful. The first year we got new equipment, which we weren't accustomed to. I remember the kids opening the boxes of new books. They'd pick them up and smell them—"Mmmmm"—just like it was a good meal.
George Thomas taught business at Carver in the 1950s.
It was the only high school in the county for blacks—the only one. Think of the enormous distances in this county between Rockville and places like Poolesville and Germantown and points beyond. Some students would board the buses as early as 4 o'clock in the morning to be at school and ready for class at 8:30 or 9. Those buses passed right by white schools in their communities.
In the mid-1930s, a dashing young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall barnstormed through Maryland and Virginia suing school systems for equal pay for black teachers. Marshall, whose mother was a Baltimore teacher struggling to pay her bills, earned his first victory in Montgomery County, where officials agreed to equalize salary schedules that paid blacks about half the wages of whites. The plaintiff in the lawsuit against the county, Rockville principal William Gibbs, was fired soon after.
Others joined in the battle against segregation. In 1947, a DC barber named Gardner Bishop showed up unannounced at a school-board meeting with his seventh-grade daughter, Judine, and 40 other kids. "These are children from the Browne Junior High School," he told the board, "and there's not going to be a one of them—or anyone else—at that school tomorrow, so I just wanted to explain who was doin' it and why."
The next day and for months after, most of the 1,800 students enrolled at Browne stayed home. The boycott, as described in Richard Kluger's account of the Brown decision, Simple Justice, was a protest against conditions at the school, where enrollment was double the building's capacity and children attended in shifts.
At a low point in the boycott, Bishop went to Charles Houston of the NAACP. Houston had been head of Howard's law school in the 1930s and mentored Thurgood Marshall (a 1933 Howard law graduate) and many of the lawyers fighting school segregation. He told his charges: "A lawyer's either a social engineer or he's a parasite on society."
Together the barber and the Amherst-and Harvard-trained lawyer filed lawsuits to equalize DC's two school systems. Under Bishop's leadership, the boycotting parents organized as Consolidated Parent Group Inc., raised money for the lawsuits, and mounted more protests.
Gardner Bishop, the leader of Consolidated Parent, died in 1992. He told Simple Justice author Richard Kluger:
I had more mouth than anyone else, and I worked for myself, so there wasn't much chance of being punished by whites. Ignorant as I was, people believed in me, and I had to do it.
We didn't have no president, we didn't have no vice president, we didn't have no nothing. And we were mad at everyone—the whites, the highfalutin blacks, the board of education—everyone.
Charlie [Houston] became us—a part of our group. There was no fake or make-believe about it. I'd come by his place, and we'd sit up till 3 or 4 in the morning talking about everything. He wanted to find out about life in the gutter, and he found out plenty. Charlie would tell me I was too bitter. "You hate too bad," he'd say. "Just hate a little."
Judine Bishop Johnson, 70, is Bishop's daughter. Now retired, she worked for nearly 40 years as a school administrator of a program for low-income children.
My father was a barber by trade. The barbershop in the black community held a very special place, especially for African-American males. That was the center of community life. Debates went on all the time. My father only had a couple years of college education, but he was a strong orator. He just reigned in the barbershop.
Alonzo Smith's mother was a member of Bishop's Consolidated Parent; his father was a Howard professor and the first African-American certified as a pediatrician.
Sometimes she'd go down and testify on the Hill about the inadequacy of the schools, the crowded conditions. One of the senators once said to her, "Mrs. Smith, aren't you affiliated with groups that are trying to overthrow the government?"
She said, "Senator, there are parts of this country where they've been trying to overthrow the government since the Civil War. They tried once, and they keep on trying."
She was on the faculty wives' group at Howard. Some of her friends were uncomfortable about what Bishop and his group were saying—that they were trying to emphasize inadequacy in the schools. Some of these women were teachers, and they interpreted this as a reflection on their own professional capabilities. Not everyone was 100 percent in support of integration.
My dad was very supportive of what she was doing. She would leave our dinner on the stove—I remember these dried green peas, the congealed gravy and dried meat, flaky potatoes. I'd say, "Where's Mom?"
He'd say, "She's doing important work."
Carl Hansen, DC schools superintendent from 1958 to 1967, played a lead role in desegregating DC schools. He died in 1983. In his memoirs, he wrote:
Shortly after 9 o'clock on March 31, 1952, the principal of the white Wheatley Elementary School, Miss Julia Taliaferro, got me on the phone. "There is a Negro minister sitting in the kindergarten. He has his son with him, and he won't leave… . He wants to enroll his child in the kindergarten, and he says he won't leave until I do."
He stayed for the morning, and returned in the afternoon… . The next morning when the minister approached the classroom, I stood squarely in the center of the doorway to block the entrance. The plan was for me to stand so firmly he would have to use force to get by me. If he did that, two policemen were on hand to arrest him on a charge of disorderly conduct. The Negro father hesitated a moment, then sadly walked away leading his son by the hand.
A DIRECT ATTACK
Lawyer Charles Houston was hospitalized in the fall of 1949 with severe heart problems. From his bed before he died, he told Gardner Bishop to ask his friend James Nabrit Jr., a professor at Howard law school, to take over the legal work for Consolidated Parent.
The son of a Georgia pastor, Nabrit as a boy witnessed the lynching and burning of a black man after black boxer Jack Johnson beat Jim "the Great White Hope" Jeffries. In 1936 he had arrived to teach at Howard, where he grew close to Thurgood Marshall.
More militant than Marshall, Nabrit helped persuade the NAACP, which had pushed for school equalization during the 1940s, to attack segregation directly. The strategy was opposed by many black leaders; they feared that the Supreme Court, faced with a direct challenge to the "separate but equal" doctrine of its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, would reaffirm that ruling and slow civil-rights progress for decades.
Nabrit, Bishop, and George E.C. Hayes—a lawyer and black leader in DC—assembled a lawsuit challenging the District's segregated schools as unconstitutional. Spottswood Thomas Bolling Jr., the lead plaintiff, was a 12-year-old whose mother worked as a bookbinder for the federal government. He attended Shaw Junior High, where the science lab was outfitted with a single Bunsen burner and a bowl of goldfish. The defendant was Melvin Sharpe, a former Pepco executive and president of DC's board of education.
In 1952, the Supreme Court added Bolling v. Sharpe to a roster of school-segregation cases to be argued with Brown. There were five in all, but Bolling was the only one led by lawyers outside the NAACP. Nabrit and Hayes enlisted the help of Howard's faculty and DC lawyers like Frank Reeves.
The Bolling team was a key part of Thurgood Marshall's kitchen cabinet. Before each round of oral arguments at the Supreme Court, the lawyers from all five cases gathered for a dry run in the basement of the Howard law school.
James Nabrit III, 71, son of the Bolling v. Sharpe lawyer, spent 30 years as a litigator with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The DC case was essentially a project of the Howard law-school faculty. I always regarded Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard, as a great man. He led an institution that was dependent upon the Congress for funding. Nevertheless he always stood for civil rights and against segregation, much to the displeasure of the people who were funding the university.
Leota Lyons Newman, 81, was James Nab-rit Jr.'s secretary at Howard, where Nabrit was a law professor and secretary of the university.
After I'd get through work at 5 o'clock, I'd grab a bite to eat, and then the law-school people would come over to the secretary's office in Miner Hall. And sometimes we'd stay until 2 o'clock in the morning. They would be doing the brief, and they'd be making changes and what have you. And that went on for weeks.
Julian Dugas, 85, who became the District's first city administrator in 1975, worked with Nabrit on Bolling.
I was the youngest man on this team. I always liked to think of it as walking in the valley of the giants because all of these people were extremely good lawyers, and I was just beginning. When this case was tried, I had only been at the bar three years.
Mr. Nabrit would take us into the stacks and lock us in. Literally lock us in. That's how demanding he was and how demanding it was for all of us because we were really treading deep water.
"MAY IT PLEASE THE COURT"
The Supreme Court heard ten hours of oral argument on the five Brown cases in December 1952, and another ten hours a year later. The courtroom stars were Thurgood Marshall, the handsome, folksy NAACP leader, and the opposing counsel, 79-year-old John W. Davis, the 1924 Democratic presidential nominee and a veteran of 250 Supreme Court cases.
James Nabrit and George E.C. Hayes argued for the plaintiffs in Bolling, while the DC schools were represented by Milton Korman, a 46-year-old lawyer for the District who had played football at DC's Central High and George Washington University.
Edward L. Mitchell, 85, a retired DC schoolteacher, stood in line on December 11, 1952, to hear oral arguments.
My friend and I got there about 4 in the morning. After about a half hour, the line stretched all the way down the court steps to the street. They let us in, and we found seats up close. We wanted to see Thurgood Marshall perform. His presence meant so much to us. He was a strong-looking, steady man. He was just eloquent.
Ernest Hollings, 82, retiring this year after seven terms as a US senator, was a South Carolina legislator appointed by the governor to serve "of counsel" to a school district in the state that was a defendant in a Brown case.
One lawyer arguing the case was George E.C. Hayes. He said, "As black soldiers, we went to the war to fight on the front lines in Europe. And when we came home, we had to sit on the back of the bus."
I served with the Ninth Anti-Artillery Aircraft unit in Africa, Italy, Germany, and what is now Kosovo. I knew exactly what he was talking about. And I said, "This is wrong."
In September 1953, three months before the second round of oral arguments in Brown, then-Chief Justice Fred Vinson had a heart attack and died. President Eisenhower tapped Earl Warren, the governor of California, to replace him. At a White House dinner, Eisenhower pulled his new chief justice aside to offer advice about Southerners and Brown.
"These are not bad people," he told Warren. "All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes."
Warren wanted to end segregated schooling, and he set out to build consensus on what was a fractured bench. Some justices feared that a ruling for the Brown plaintiffs would touch off violence; others were not convinced that the Constitution spoke to the issue of segregation. Handsome, warm, and politically savvy, Warren built a friendship with each justice and made his case.
Four of the cases bundled together under Brown had argued that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment's promise of equal protection under state laws. But that claim didn't apply in Bolling, because DC is not a state, so Nabrit and Hayes had argued that segregated schools violated the right to liberty guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.
After Warren read his opinion on Brown, he read the ruling in Bolling v. Sharpe: "In view of our decision that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the federal government."
E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., 78, a partner with DC's Hogan & Hartson who has argued 19 cases before the Supreme Court, was a clerk to Justice Robert Jackson during the 1953-54 court session.
There used to be a chute in the court that went down to the press room, and as soon as someone would start reading an opinion, the written version of the opinion would go down to the press. They didn't do that with Brown. Instead somebody told the press corps that Warren had started reading. The reporters all rushed upstairs and stood in the back.
Warren was very calm, very deliberate—all business. When he came to the part where he said, "And so we hold," he inserted the word "unanimously," which was not in the written opinion. The whole courtroom just drew a breath—it was really quite remarkable. That was one thing that nobody had really anticipated. Everybody thought there would be dissents and concurrences.
Afterward we all kind of held our breath. We honestly did not know whether there was going to be blood in the streets; we just didn't know what was going to happen.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, 66, was a junior at DC's Dunbar High School when the ruling came down. She told her biographer:
We heard the chime that told us there would be an announcement. I remember the voice of the principal, Mr. Charles Lofton, interrupting the class to tell us news of major importance. We had the right to go to any school now. We were stunned, then elated. I remember seeing a teacher, a woman who had taught black children for 50 years in the public-school system, just breaking down crying.
Carl Cole was a fifth-grader at Southwest DC's S.J. Bowen Elementary, where teachers announced the news.
My fifth-grade teacher was Mrs. Perkins; she was joined by Mrs. Davis, who was to be my sixth-grade teacher the following year. They explained to us that there was nothing for us to fear. "We have taught you; we've taught members of your family for generations. We know what you can do, we know your ability. You will compete, and you will compete at the highest levels."
They were right. They were absolutely right.
Dovey Roundtree, 90, a former law student of Nabrit's who was to become one of DC's civil-rights pioneers, told writer Katie McCabe:
Democracy is slow, and the waiting is so debilitating. Nothing in the world to break your spirit like waiting. Seemed like we'd been waiting for Brown forever.
In my mind, it was the legal case of the century, something that could just shatter the whole of segregation with one great blow. That was what professor Nabrit had told us as law students, and I believed that. I believed it in my very soul—believed that if the Court struck down "separate but equal" in the schools, the whole ugly thing would crumble.
We got word that the decision was coming down, and I walked to the Supreme Court and waited outside till the announcement came that Warren had finished reading the decision. But you couldn't get copies. I jumped in a cab and went to the Howard law-school campus. And I ran to Professor Nabrit's office.
It was jammed with students. He had a copy of the decision, and he began to read it in that Atlanta drawl he had. He read it very slowly, lingering over every word, and all that time, nobody so much as breathed. When he got to the end, we all shouted. Some of the students were crying. But Professor Nabrit had a strange expression on his face. And he told us, "It's not over yet."
A NEW CIVIL WAR
John Kasper, a 27-year-old neo-Nazi, moved from Greenwich Village to DC and opened a Wisconsin Avenue bookstore that served as headquarters for the Seaboard White Citizens Council. Crosses were burned at the homes of Earl Warren, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and civil-rights activists in Arlington and Prince George's County.
Officials in Southern states vowed opposition to Brown. "I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia," said Governor Thomas Stanley.
A year after Brown, the justices issued a desegregation order, now known as Brown II, but it set no deadline. Instead it called only for desegregation "with all deliberate speed."
Harry Byrd, a US senator from Virginia and a former apple farmer from the southern part of the state, launched a campaign of "massive resistance" run by his political machine. The state closed schools that moved to integrate in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County, and legislators earmarked money to pay tuition for white students in those areas to attend private schools.
Elizabeth Campbell was a leader of Arlingtonians for a Better County, a group of mostly white activists in the 1950s who supported desegregation. She later founded WETA television. Before her death in January, she spoke in a documentary about her husband, Edmund, a lawyer who represented blacks trying to integrate Virginia schools:
He called me one Thursday and said, "Elizabeth, I've been asked by a group of citizens from Norfolk if I would take the case and try to get the schools open. What do you think?"
I said, "Ed, you've never asked me before what I thought about you taking a case. Why do you ask me now?"
And he said, "Because, Elizabeth, if I take this, I may never get another case in the state of Virginia." And I said, "Well, Ed, you do what you think is right." And so he took the case.
James Stockard, an Arlington school-board member in the 1950s and a desegregation advocate, died in 2002. In the same documentary Campbell appeared in, he recalled a school-board meeting:
Suddenly we heard a group of people walking into the building. There were steps you had to negotiate to get to the level of the board meeting, and here came these goose-stepping members of a Nazi-type coalition. They sat down right on the very front row. Very few participants at a meeting like that will sit right on the front row. But they did. And they had briefcases or satchels or something. We didn't know what they had in them, but one of them said, "We are armed, and we mean to protect ourselves."
Ron Deskins, a fireman and a fireman's son, was a plaintiff in a lawsuit to force Arlington schools to follow Brown.
The congressman from our district was Joel T. Broyhill. He was a staunch segregationist, and he came to our house unannounced during the court proceedings to convince my father that this was not the right way to go. He intimated that my father, being a public employee, didn't want people "to get the wrong idea." He basically threatened my father's job.
My father told him, "I thank you for coming down and talking to us, but I didn't vote for you, and I will not vote for you. And I'd like for you to leave my house."
James Kilby, 62, was a teenager when his father tried to desegregate schools in Front Royal in the late 1950s. In his memoirs he writes:
The nightriders had been coming by the house from the beginning. My father kept the upstairs windows partially open so if he saw somebody messing around the house, he could just point the barrel of his gun and start shooting. One morning there was a bloody sheet hanging over the mailbox.
Barbara Marx was in college when her sister, Ann, was the only white on a post-Brown lawsuit to desegregate Arlington schools.
The harassing calls would always start with "You nigger-loving kike. I hope your daughter marries a nigger." And then there'd be a lot of obscenities. It was very funny, because neither of my parents was Jewish.
Frederick L. Dunn Jr., 81, was the Montgomery County school official in charge of integration in 1955.
Thomas Pullen, who was the state superintendent of schools, came to a meeting of the board. He said, "This is the law; we're going to follow the law."
We had one board member who was not going to go along. "My people don't want this," he said. "They're not going to have anything to do with it."
Pullen smacked his hand down on the table and said, "There is a law in the state of Maryland regarding Board of Education members. And for certain reasons I can have them dismissed. You tell your people, 'Follow the law.' "
DAYS TO REMEMBER
The District opened all its schools to blacks on September 13, 1954. Soon three-quarters of its schools were integrated.
In October hundreds of white students from McKinley Tech, Anacostia High School, and several junior-high schools boycotted classes and held protests. Most returned to school four days later following threats of punishment.
After the 1954 ruling, President Eisenhower had declared that DC's desegregation should be a model for the country. DC school officials touted their integration program and its "miracle of social adjustment," but a subcommittee of mostly Southern congressmen held hearings that featured sensationalist stories of black boys fondling white girls in DC school hallways.
Montgomery County desegregated in stages beginning in the fall of 1955 and faced little resistance apart from a 1956 protest by whites in Poolesville. Some parents thought black homes were riddled with diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis; others worried that poor blacks would hurt school quality. "Some of these children's mothers are maids in our homes," wrote a Chevy Chase PTA president to the Board of Education.
Columbus Rich was one of the first blacks at DC's McKinley Tech in 1955.
The first day, we had a general assembly. There was a touch of fear. You didn't know whether you were going to have to smack one of these guys. You had to go in there and establish yourself—just like an old dog marks his territory.
Dr. Charles Bish was the principal—great old guy. He told us what to expect. He said we were there to be educated. He also said he was a problem-solver and that he wanted nothing but the best for us. I wish I had a copy of Dr. Bish's speech. It took a lot of the fear out of going to the school.
The biggest thing that helped the two races accept each other was sports. Bubba Clemens, one of the football players, lived on Tenth Street just off Rhode Island Avenue. He'd hang with a lot of the black guys. We felt that we could go to Bubba's house and be just one of the guys.
Connie Morella, 73, former congresswoman and now US ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, began her teaching career at Poolesville High School in 1956, the year the school integrated.
Teaching English, I would find in student compositions themes about how wrong it was to have blacks and whites together. I had one student who was in tears once. Her father was a minister, and he forbade her from being in any activity with blacks. He felt very strongly that it was against the laws of man to mix. I did the school newspaper, and she wanted to be there. So I took her aside and said, "Let's not tell anybody that there is a black student on the paper."
Charlene Drew Jarvis was among the first black students at DC's Roosevelt High School in 1955.
The principal had this set of preconceptions about African-American youngsters that led her to expect all sorts of bizarre social behaviors. She thought that boys would urinate in the halls on the radiators. There was always surprise when African-American students were competitive. I remember one teacher saying to me, "Are there any more like you at home?" If you were an achiever, then you were considered an anomaly.
I had a very good relationship with a young Jewish boy. We helped one another with schoolwork. It was not romantic, because that barrier was clear. But it was friendly. He lived on 16th Street; I lived on 18th. One day we were walking toward each other on the same side of the street, about a block away. He crossed to the other side of the street. Outside of the school context, he didn't know how to deal with me. Which is when it occurred to me that integration was difficult for both blacks and whites.
George Thomas, a retired business teacher, was transferred to Northwood High School in Silver Spring after the all-black Carver High was closed in 1960.
The transition was a pleasant one. That's not to say that I was received joyously by a lot of the parents. But for the most part, I was very well received.
My classes were almost all white. At that time, I think enrollment was 1,800 students in grades 10 through 12, and there were only ten black students in the school. But I had very good relations with the students, a lot of respect. I knew my subject and knew how to deliver it. Being prepared overcomes a lot of that stuff.
BLACK AND WHITE AT THE COURT
After the court's 1954 ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren moved to integrate the corps of pages at the Supreme Court. He asked the Capitol Page School, which was run by the DC school system, to enroll its first black student.
Charles V. Bush, 64, a financial consultant and former business executive, broke the color line at the Capitol Page School and later was the first African-American to graduate from the Air Force Academy.
When I was appointed, the Supreme Court rolled out the news across the world. Here I was, a 14-year-old kid, and I had newspaper reporters sitting on our porch. My picture was on front pages around the world.
My parents counseled me on how I should comport myself. They made me realize that I was a representative for the entire race and anything that I did or said would be reported around the world. They thought I could handle it, and I did.
I was thrust not only into a white school but also into a white power structure at the court. There were layers of status, and the messengers and laborers, who were all black, were lowest on the totem pole. Pages are next to the law clerks on the totem pole, so we were treated with a great deal of respect. It was interesting, because suddenly folks who were accustomed to treating black people one way had to change. I wasn't going to be treated that way. And I never was. It was very clear that no one wanted to cross the Chief Justice on that score.
Outside DC and Montgomery County, officials did little to meet the Brown mandate. Prince George's County adopted a "freedom of choice" plan that allowed blacks to petition to go to white schools, but officials granted few transfers. It did not desegregate its last black schools until 1970; two years later a federal judge ordered Prince George's to begin a busing program to integrate schools.
Most Virginia counties had only token integration until 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and gave federal agencies power to enforce Brown.
Gwendolyn Hubbard Lewis dropped out of school in 1963 at the beginning of her junior year. Alexandria's high schools were still segregated. She later got her degree and now serves on the Alexandria school board.
I was on the honor roll, but I wasn't really being challenged. I started to realize that I wanted to go to another school—a better school—but I couldn't. Parker-Gray was the only black high school in Alexandria. I felt trapped.
My best friend and I would get together all the time and burn the midnight oil and talk about the future. We'd talk about having our own apartment, our dreams of what we wanted to be.
In ninth grade we decided we were going to McKinley High School. She and I went into DC, and we walked down the streets and picked addresses in the McKinley district. Then we went and registered ourselves in school. In those days, they never asked for proof of residency such as a utility bill.
I was not ready for this school. There were more kids than I ever saw in my life. I didn't know anybody except for my girlfriend. I had never had a perm in my life, but the black girls had their hair cut and permed; they had leather coats and leather bags. So I lasted about three months. I was just so upset; I decided to drop out of school.
CHILDREN OF BROWN
Integration was painful for many blacks. Outside DC, they often were enrolled in white schools a few at a time, the smartest and most mature students handpicked to test the waters and reassure whites. These children faced an often-hostile culture largely alone. The isolation was made worse by the fact that school systems, worried that social mixing would lead to interracial dating, did away with many extracurricular activities.
James Kilby, one of 21 black students to attend Warren County High School in Front Royal in 1959, writes in his memoirs:
All I can remember is running into a gauntlet of white people lining the driveway leading up to the school shouting out, "Nigger." A handful of white kids tried to go to school with us but were shouted down by the crowd and convinced to stay away.
The 21 of us were the only students that first year in a school building that was built for more than a thousand. Sometimes I would be one of only two students in a class. The whites refused to send their children back and decided to keep them in private school until the end of the school year.
Bill Thomas, 64, enrolled in 1955 as a sophomore at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. He was the only black at the 1,700-student school.
Until I was in the 12th grade, I ate lunch alone. In the classroom, people would engage you. Outside I got a sense that most of the students were afraid to be seen with a black person. There would be a few students—the more courageous ones—who would come up and talk with you. But for the most part, there were very few who had that kind of self-confidence. I started realizing, "They're more afraid than I am."
Marjorie Thomas Johnson (sister of Bill), 61, enrolled in 1955 as one of two blacks at Mount Rainier Junior High.
I was called nasty names all day long. If I complained, the guidance counselors or the teachers would say, "As long as nobody hit you, there's nothing we can do about it."
There was a dance unit in phys ed. The male teacher would use me to demonstrate the steps. I guess he knew that was the only way that I was going to participate and get a grade.
Camille Clarke Battle, 60, was one of three blacks who integrated Rockville Junior High in 1957.
I was the only black person on the bus. A short while after school started, things got to be real bad. They called me the "n" word every day. There was one girl, Darcy—she was the main one. She was older than I was, in high school, and had that brown hair that was naturally curly, gobs of it. Darcy would sit behind me every day, and she'd get behind my neck and call me that word over and over.
I wouldn't do anything; I couldn't do anything. So I sat. I didn't cry. I just pretended to read my book.
I couldn't tell anybody—didn't tell anybody. I went to my room and cried. But never once did I say, "I don't want to go to school."
After about three months of this, we were driving down the road, and they were into their n-word. The bus driver, Mr. Carter, slammed on the brakes and stopped the bus in the middle of the street. He turned and stood in the aisle and said, "If anyone ever calls her that word again, you're off this bus."
I was stunned. I couldn't imagine it; he looked just like them. Just at the point that I thought nobody cared, this man stood up and said that. Those kids never said another word.
IN VIRGINIA, VICTORY AT LAST
Four years after Brown, desegregation arrived in Virginia. The courts finally had struck down the legal maneuvers of Harry Byrd's "massive resistance," and on February 2, 1959, four black children took their seats alongside whites at Arlington's Stratford Junior High (now H.B. Woodlawn).
The event made front pages around the world. Squads of police were on hand along with television news crews. There were threats of violence, but the day passed without incident.
Peggy Deskins, 76, whose son, Ron, was one of the four students to integrate Stratford.
We used to pass by Stratford all the time, and Ronnie would say, "That's the school I'm going to." He knew he was about to finish grade school, and Stratford was the closest junior high to us.
I would think, "He should be going there." It was wrong for us to pay taxes and not be able to use the schools that were closest to our home and better equipped. But I never told him, "You can't go there; it's a white school." I wouldn't even have known how to explain why that should make any difference because I didn't understand it myself.
Ann Broder, 75, was an Arlington activist. She and her husband, Washington Post writer David Broder (then a reporter for Congressional Quarterly), bought a house next door to Stratford months before the February integration.
The widow lady who owned the house was so worried about what might happen when they desegregated that she kept dropping the price until even we could afford it. We discovered we could get homeowner's riot insurance for $10.
The Star rented our basement for $50. They were supposed to put their own telephone line in, but they didn't. There was one very drunk photographer weaving around.
The day went peacefully. The reporters interviewed the kids, all of whom said, "I don't know why this is such a big thing."
Joseph Macekura, 82, a retired Arlington educator, was a counselor at Stratford.
The night before the integration, most of the staff slept at the school. We didn't know what was going to happen, so we decided we'd rather have an extra pound of prevention. A lot of us were ex-GIs. We slept in the home-ec room, the lounge, and the office. We had fun—a bunch of young bucks and women staying up late.
About 7:30 the next morning, a call came to the principal's office—a long-distance call for Carol Ryan, who was originally from Georgia. Carol gets on the phone, and the next thing we hear is: "Mother, why are you calling me?"
After the call she turned around and said, "Do you know what my mother said? 'Carol, are you going to teach in that school with all those niggers?' "
Carol said, "Of course I am. It's my job, and I'm staying here. Goodbye, Mother."
Ron Deskins was 12 years old when he integrated Stratford.
My father said I didn't have to do this. He would be fine with that—all I had to do was say I didn't want to do it.
But I wanted to do it. It was so important to my parents that it felt important to me. We talked about having a good education, having expanded opportunities. Although I didn't fully understand everything they said, I knew they felt very strongly about it. I never had any question in my mind; I never had any fear.
That morning there was a reporter at the house. My parents invited him in, probably gave him a cup of coffee. He watched me brush my teeth, watched my mother making breakfast. He followed me everywhere.
My father pulled me off to the side before we went in and told me, "Ronnie, if the kids say anything, just let it roll off your back. Just like water rolls off a duck's back. Ignore it. Now, if anyone lays a finger on you, you put them in the cemetery." It was an expression he used all the time. He didn't literally mean kill them; what he meant was, "You give them the whipping of their lives."
The school waited until after the first bell had rung before we went in. They were trying to guard against anything happening. The hallways were empty, because all the students were already in class. Not only were we going to school with white kids, we were coming in the middle of the year.
The door opened, and all the kids were just sitting there, looking at me. That was probably the worst feeling.
Gradually you made a few friends. I would say the vast majority of students were cordial. They weren't going to rush over to meet us, but I don't think us being there made one bit of difference to them.
Vicki Lewis, 59, was a student-newspaper editor at Stratford.
Helen Dewar of the Washington Post called our newspaper sponsor. The school wasn't going to let the media within 1,000 feet of the grounds, and the Post wanted me and the other newspaper editor, Kathy O'Connor, to take notes.
I remember coming to school on the bus that day. There must have been hundreds of reporters and television cameras, and the kids were hanging out the windows because they wanted to be on TV. That was a thrill.
The whole day went by, and I never saw the kids who were integrating. And Kathy never saw them. So the Post picks us up after school, and Helen puts us in a room. She comes back 20 minutes later, and we were just giggling. We had nothing to write.
With the Brown decision, Earl Warren meant to secure educational equality for black Americans. By that measure, it has not succeeded. Minorities lag far behind whites in academic achievement. The gap has plagued the District for decades and has emerged as the top concern of inner suburbs like Fairfax and Montgomery counties. DC classrooms are today among the most segregated in the country. Nationwide, many school systems remain racially divided.
But the legacy of Brown extends beyond the classroom. The decision pricked the conscience of whites who had failed to see the injustice of segregation, and it inspired millions of blacks to dream of a world free from prejudice.
"Probably no case ever to come before the nation's highest tribunal affected more directly the minds, hearts, and daily lives of so many Americans," writes Richard Kluger in Simple Justice.
In Washington, the Brown years had an influence on the District's future leaders—among them Frank Reeves, Julian Dugas, Charles Duncan, Charlene Drew Jarvis, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. James Nabrit Jr. was Howard University's president in the 1960s. Arlingtonians for a Better County, Elizabeth Campbell's group that pushed for integration, evolved into a political power that influenced policy for decades.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a member of the last segregated class to graduate from Dunbar High, told her biographer:
I remember believing that the world had changed, literally had changed.
Camille Clarke Battle integrated Rockville Junior High School.
When we were making preparations for me to go to college, I asked my mother: "Can I go back to a black school? I just want to be with black people again." And she said, "Okay."
I was very much into the civil-rights movement. I was an activist and an angry person. By this time, I had turned bitter against white people—bitter, bitter, bitter. This rage was inside me.
Columbus Rich was a 1957 graduate of McKinley Tech.
A few years after we graduated, we decided not to let the first full black graduating class of McKinley ever separate. It was a close-knit group. We started having events that would keep us together and let us have some fun—fun that we missed out on because we went to high school during the transition.
We felt as though we pioneered the struggle, and that we were very successful. We felt as though we were special; we didn't carry ourselves that way, but each of us felt it. We were the ones, and it gave us a sense of pride and a satisfaction.