Fair talks shine light on Charles County school desegregation
First-hand accounts at McConchie one-room schoolhouse a part of school board’s 100th anniversary
The second part of a three-part series recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Charles County Board of Education will focus on school segregation, and will be held at the Charles County Fair on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17.
The talks will feature first-hand accounts of segregation and desegregation of Charles County Public Schools, and will take place at the McConchie One-Room Schoolhouse, which served as a school for African American students from 1922-1952 and is now located on the fairgrounds.
“It will hopefully provide a lit-
tle context about Charles County Public Schools, and will teach a little bit about our histor y, because desegregation is part of our history,” school board member Vicki Kelly said.
A schedule of speakers will be posted outside the schoolhouse, Kelly said.
“When we started this project, I thought we’d maybe have two or three speakers,” she said, adding that the number has grown to include 10 speakers.
The first speaker Friday morning will be Anna Kephart, coordinator with the Southern Maryland Studies Center at the College of Southern Maryland.
Kephart will provide an overview of the history of segregation and desegregation in Charles County.
She has recorded several first-person interviews as well as conducted other research into desegregation in Charles County.
Unfortunately, Kephart said many of the school board records around desegregation in Charles County were lost in a fire at the old Pomonkey Elementary School in July 1999. The former school was being used for storage.
“The board of education believes that they were all burned with Pomonkey,” Kephart said.
The Southern Maryland Studies Center has collected and archived oral histories collected in the spring by African-American history and communications students, and those oral histories are now part of the collection at the Southern Maryland Studies Center on the La Plata campus.
Despite the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 declaring that separate facilities were not equal in the Brown vs. Topeka (Kan.) Board of Education case, Charles County Public Schools remained segregated for over a decade, until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the attorney general was given the authority to file school segregation cases, and prohibited programs and activities [including schools] that received federal money from discriminating based on race,” Kephart said. “The 17 Southern and border state schools received a total of $164 million of federal school funding, and it would have been very challenging to forego those funds by refusing to integrate.”
Charles County, like other southern school systems, instituted a “Freedom of Choice” plan, which allowed parents to decide which schools their children would attend, but this frequently left segregation in place, Kephart said, citing a 1966 report, because few whites elected to attend a black school, and many black families were reluctant to exercise their right to send their children to a white school, for fear of retaliation.
Marlene Jamieson of Pomfret was one of those who witnessed the process of desegregation first-hand. Jamieson, whose maiden name is Randall, was one of the first to integrate La Plata High School, and is one of the scheduled speakers during the fair.
Jamieson experienced both worlds. She was born in New York, where she lived and attended school with black and white students, visiting her mother’s family in Charles County on occasion.
In 1960, when she was 12, Jamieson’s mother died and she came to live with her Charles County grandparents, returning to New York in the summer.
She said the degree of segregation in Charles County, in schools and in society, shocked her.
“It was the first time I went to an all-black school,” Jamieson said. “I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’”
Jamieson was president of the NAACP Youth Council, and was one of the first black students to attend La Plata High School.
“We integrated in 1964, about 50 of us from Bel Alton [High School] integrated La Plata,” Jamieson recalled. “There were FBI in the school in every hallway.”
Jamieson said that for the first three days, the bus driver refused to pick her up.
“He’d open the door, let me put my foot on the step, then shut the door and drive away,” Jamieson said. “That was small, though, compared with what other people went through.”
During the 1966-67 school year, the process of desegregation began in earnest in the high schools, when students were geographically zoned. Elementary schools were geographically zoned the following year, Kephart said.
Kelly said she hopes the talks will encourage more people to learn and record the history of Charles County.
“I’m excited. I hope this will stimulate some conversations and get some of this information out there,” Kelly said.
More about the Charles County Board of Education’s 100th anniversary events can be found online.
The Bel Alton High School Class of 1957, on the steps of the school. Bel Alton was one of the segregated schools in Charles County, serving the African-American community from 1938-1965. Photo courtesy of the Thomas and Maxine Headen Collection, Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland.