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Students recall integration

May 16, 2004|By WANDA T. WILLIAMS and ANDREW SCHOTZ

She was 12 years old and one of 10 black students walking through the doors of Charles Town (W.Va.) Junior High School for the first time.

The year was 1960 and Guinevere Bradford Roper, now 57, remembers it well.

"It was scary," Roper said.

It was six years after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended racial segregation in public schools. Jefferson County, W.Va., began integrating schools by initially leaving it up to parents to decide if they wanted to move their children from what had been all-black schools to the all-white schools. All the schools in Jefferson County were fully integrated by 1965, according to Vivian Fleming, a former teacher in Jefferson County.

Until 1960, Roper attended Charles Town's all-black Eagle Avenue Elementary School. Roper said her parents decided to send her to Charles Town Junior High School instead of the all-black high school.

"They sent me there because the black Page Jackson High School was going to close eventually," Roper said.

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She recalls being afraid of integration.

"I didn't want to do it," Roper said. "We didn't know how the students would greet us."

The beginning of the school year was marked with tension, said Roper, who said she was met every morning with a racial insult from a white male classmate whose locker was next to hers.

"I even tried carrying all of my books with me to avoid seeing him," she recalled.

The tension eased and by the next year, she and the boy became friends, Roper said.

Still, Roper and the other nine black seventh-graders relied on one another for support.

"We ate lunch together, we stuck together as much as we could," Roper said. "We were a tight group."

Smoother transition


The transition was smoother for Leon Brumback.

Brumback, 65, started at the all-black North Street School in Hagerstown in the fall of 1944. He was there for 11 years. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Brumback left North Street School in the fall of 1955, his senior year, to go to high school in his hometown of Hancock.

During a recent interview, Brumback remembered walking about three-quarters of a mile each day from his Hancock home to catch the bus to Hagerstown by 8 a.m.

Brumback said the education he received at North Street School was as good as the white children got in their schools. At the same time, though, he wished he had a little more flexibility in his school career.

The bus back to Hancock left each day right after school ended at 3 p.m.; Brumback had to be on it to get home. That left him no chance to play sports or join clubs at North Street School.

His North Street School class had 18 students before desegregation. Fourteen of them stayed together, forming the school's last graduating class.

Brumback and two other students went to Hancock for 12th grade. Another girl finished high school in Brunswick, Md.

The transition to a new school was "smooth," said Brumback, who went on to play baseball and basketball during his senior year in Hancock.

"It was just like we'd been there all 12 years," Brumback said.

'A real struggle'


Melvin Smith was one of a small group of blacks to integrate North Hagerstown High School in the fall of 1956.

"We had some anxiety," Smith said. "We'd been confined to dealing only with blacks and then all of a sudden, we were going to be put someplace else."

Smith also had attended North Street School when the Brown ruling was handed down. Looking back, Smith, 62, said while several of his memories have faded, he'll never forget the very first day of class.

"A lot of our parents went with us," Smith said. "There were whites standing outside the school. I don't remember them jeering, but I don't think they wanted us there."

Once in class, Smith said he didn't feel prepared.

"I felt so far behind in every class," Smith recalled. "It wasn't that we weren't as smart, but there were things white students were taught in elementary school that we didn't learn until we got there. So, it was a real struggle."

Socially, blacks and whites mixed at North Hagerstown High School's integrated prom without incident, and Smith said sports also helped bridge the racial gap and improve relations.

"As long as you cover the quarterback, you could care less about the color of the guy blocking for you," Smith said as he laughed.

Where are they now?


Smith graduated from North Hagerstown High School in 1959 and later attended Howard University. After a stint in the military, he joined the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C., where he retired after 21 years. He currently is employed as a resident manager with the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission.

Roper graduated in 1965 from Charles Town High School and went on to study cosmetology in Washington, D.C. After a brief period in the beauty industry, she joined Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park in 1973, where she now is employed as a park ranger.

After high school, Brumback graduated from Hagerstown Junior College and Frostburg (Md.) State University. He went on to teach in Washington County Public Schools.

Brumback retired in 1998 after 38 years.

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