County made smooth transition following Brown ruling

May 17, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

Led by a school superintendent who began preparing for integration soon after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, Washington County made a smooth transition from a segregated community to a desegregated one, according to school records and local memories.

In September 1954, then-Washington County Public Schools Superintendent William M. Brish surveyed board members to determine community attitudes toward school integration. The survey also was used to gauge the potential for violence in response to the Brown ruling.

While local school board members expected some opposition, the survey's results indicated there was no potential for violent backlash, according to school system records.


Communities with small black populations often experienced the least resistance in enforcing the Brown ruling, according to David Taft Terry, a research associate with the Maryland State Archives. At the time, there were 307 black students in Washington County and 15,439 white students, Washington County Board of Education records state.

School officials had time to coordinate the transition. Like most of the country, response to the ruling was not immediate in Washington County.

"Maryland agreed to comply, but the state didn't want to rush implementing Brown. They were calling for a more gradualist approach," Terry said.

Like the majority of Maryland counties, Washington County endorsed a more gradual process in support of the state's request at the Brown II hearings.

Washington County supported what became known as the "freedom-of-choice" plan. It gave existing students the option to attend former segregated black schools or newly integrated white schools, Terry said.

In July 1955, a 13-member biracial committee submitted an integration plan of action to end racially segregated schools.

In September, Hancock High School was one of the first schools in the county to integrate, according to retired Washington County schoolteacher Leon Brumback. He grew up in Hancock and was a junior at the all-black North Street School at the time.

"So many of the people in Hancock already knew our parents. It wasn't like these two groups were completely isolated," said Brumback, who left North Street School to attend Hancock High School for his senior year.

Meanwhile, Washington County used the 1955-56 school year as a period of transition. North Street School remained open while plans were under way to make room to accommodate full integration, according to board records.

"Everything went well on the opening day in the nine schools which enrolled both Negro and white pupils. There was good cooperation from both groups," the Sept. 13, 1955, board minutes say.

Robert "Bob" Johnson and William "Bill" Makell were the first black teachers transferred to North Hagerstown High School from North Street School, said Johnson, now 77. In August 1956, Johnson became Washington County's first black athletic coach under the new integrated school system, something he said he's very proud of.

"I'm amazed at how smoothly integration went, because of the turmoil in all the other states," he said.

Johnson also was the first black administrator under Washington County's integrated system, he said. He retired as vice principal from E. Russell Hicks Middle School in 1983.

Brish's former deputy superintendent, Richard Whisner, now 78, was a guidance counselor at the former Woodland Way Junior High School in 1954. As local communities celebrate Brown's 50th anniversary, he said the ruling's impact is even more apparent.

"It had a profound effect around the country far beyond the effect it had on schools. It was the forerunner of other actions being taken in terms of everyone being treated equally," Whisner said.

According to a Sept. 1, 1964, Associated Press newspaper report, public schools in Washington and Frederick counties reached full integration by the 1964-65 school year.

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