‘With all de­lib­er­ate speed’ was a rel­a­tive term

Pub­lic school de­seg­re­ga­tion did not fully come to county un­til 1967

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By JA­SON BAB­COCK jbab­cock@somd­news.com

Fifty years ago this month, the dual school sys­tem in St. Mary’s County that had been in place for a cen­tury ended as full in­te­gra­tion be­gan for stu­dents.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school seg­re­ga­tion was not le­gal, and ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems were or­dered to in­te­grate “with all de­lib­er­ate speed.”

But that change was slow to come to many Mary­land coun­ties, in­clud­ing St. Mary’s. It was not the first in the state to in­te­grate its schools, and it wasn’t the last. How­ever, it did take un­til the start of the 1967 school year for black and white stu­dents to at­tend a sin­gle school sys­tem to­gether.

St. Mary’s County in 1954 was still very ru­ral. Patux­ent River Naval Air Sta­tion had only been open for 11 years at that point. Schools had been seg­re­gated be­tween the races since the end of the Civil War.

In 1954, there were two pub­lic high schools for white stu­dents — Great Mills and Mar­garet Brent — and Ban­neker Ju­nior-Se­nior High School and Jar­boesville Ju­nior-Se­nior High School for black stu­dents.

Con­sol­i­dated el­e­men­tary schools built in the 1950s drew stu­dents from the old one- and two-room school­houses in the area, but were still seg­re­gated.

Of­fi­cials in St. Mary’s County were aware that a law­suit was pend­ing to start in­te­gra­tion in pub­lic schools, start­ing in Novem­ber 1955 in a story re­ported by The En­ter­prise.

On March 16, 1956, a fed­eral law­suit was brought by the NAACP against the St. Mary’s County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion on be­half of 66 black chil­dren to promptly present a plan of de­seg­re­ga­tion. The suit al­leged that the Ban­neker and Jar­boesville schools “are greatly in­fe­rior to schools main­tained in St. Mary’s County for white chil­dren,” and that black stu­dents were forced to pass sev­eral white schools while trav­el­ing ex­ces­sive dis­tances to at­tend Jar­boesville in Lex­ing­ton Park and Ban­neker in Loveville.

In April of that year, a news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ment said, “We CAN keep seg­re­gated schools in St. Mary’s County!” and that a meet­ing was to be held on April 12 in the base­ment of the Moon­light Club in Me­chan­icsville.

The meet­ing was spon­sored by the St. Mary’s County Chap­ter of the Mary­land Pe­ti­tion Com­mit­tee. Its chair­man, county build­ing con­trac­tor Jack­son Ra­ley, told The En­ter­prise that 250 peo­ple at­tended the meet­ing.

It was the Catholic schools that ac­tu­ally in­te­grated stu­dents first in St. Mary’s County, start­ing in the ear­li­est grades. On May 20, 1956, an­nounce­ments in Catholic churches across South­ern Mary­land were read dur­ing Masses that el­e­men­tary parochial schools would be­gin in­te­gra­tion in the first two grades start­ing that Septem­ber. At the time there were two black parochial schools in St. Mary’s — St. Joseph’s in Mor­ganza and St. Peter Claver in Ridge.

Upon the in­te­gra­tion an­nounce­ment, a group of eight peo­ple protested to the St. Mary’s County com­mis­sion­ers, but the board said it was a mat­ter for the church and not for lo­cal gov­ern­ment. In Septem­ber 1956, 10 black stu­dents en­tered into white Catholic schools with­out in­ci­dent.

In July 1956, it was re­ported that Charles County pub­lic schools would start in­te­gra­tion at the first-grade level in Septem­ber. In that same July 12, 1956, is­sue of The En­ter­prise, it was re­ported that the fed­eral law­suit against the St. Mary’s school board was dis­missed as pre­ma­ture, as not all le­gal cour­ses had been ex­hausted, and that the school board had made a “prompt and rea­son­able start” to­ward in­te­gra­tion, said Judge Roszel C. Thom­sen.

But in his com­ments, the judge also noted the char­ac­ter of St. Mary’s County.

“St. Mary’s County is the south­ern­most county in South­ern Mary­land, slow to change. Its tra­di­tional pat­tern has been dis­turbed dur­ing the last 15 years by the es­tab­lish­ment of Patux­ent naval base.

“Se­ri­ous prob­lems ex­ist with re­spect to school fa­cil­i­ties and trans­porta­tion,” the judge said. The ap­point­ment of a cit­i­zens com­mit­tee in 1955 to study de­seg­re­ga­tion were mak­ing a “rea­son­able start to­ward com­pli­ance with the Supreme Court’s rul­ing,” he said.

On Aug. 7, 1956, the St. Mary’s school board an­nounced that in­te­gra­tion would be­gin on a vol­un­tary ba­sis at the el­e­men­tary school level start­ing in the 1957-1958 school year. “This is the same plan adopted in many Mary­land coun­ties, un­der which Ne­gro chil­dren may ap­ply for trans­fer to schools for white chil­dren and will be ad­mit­ted where there is class­room space,” The En­ter­prise re­ported on Aug. 9, 1956. The school board re­served the right to re­ject any ap­pli­ca­tion, though.

In Septem­ber 1957, four black stu­dents suc­cess­fully ap­plied to en­ter white schools, but did not en­roll as they at­tended black schools in­stead. How­ever, three ap­pli­ca­tions for black stu­dents to en­ter white high schools were de­nied.

Let­tie Mar­shall Dent was the su­per­in­ten­dent of St. Mary’s pub­lic schools at the time when de­seg­re­ga­tion was in its in­fancy.

Clarence Young, a black man, was ap­pointed to the St. Mary’s school board in De­cem­ber 1955. In a 2004 in­ter­view with the Uni­fied Com­mit­tee for Afro-Amer­i­can Con­tri­bu­tions, Young said, “the su­per­in­ten­dent didn’t want” in­te­gra­tion. Dent didn’t even want a black mem­ber on the school board, he said.

“She said she would re­sign be­fore she served with a black man,” Young said, but she didn’t re­sign.

Young was the sec­ond black mem­ber ap­pointed to the St. Mary’s County school board. Robin­son Barnes of Ridge was ap­pointed as its first African-Amer­i­can mem­ber in 1953.

Dent “was the boss. She was it. I ob­jected to that, which she was dead against,” Young said.

Dent did re­tire on Dec. 31, 1957. She be­gan as the su­per­in­ten­dent of St. Mary’s schools on March 7, 1928 — and was the first woman to hold such a po­si­tion in Mary­land. But as a woman, she made a salary of $6,500 in 1954, which was the low­est of any su­per­in­ten­dent in the state.

Bal­ti­more city in­te­grated its schools in 1954, the same year as the Brown vs. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion rul­ing. Al­le­gany, Bal­ti­more, Car­roll, Ce­cil, Mont­gomery, Prince George’s and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties started in 1955, ac­cord­ing to a 1962 Bal­ti­more Sun ar­ti­cle.

In 1956, Anne Arun­del, Charles, Fred­er­ick, Har­ford, Howard and Tal­bot coun­ties started in­te­gra­tion.

In April 1958, the St. Mary’s school board an­nounced it would ex­tend in­te­gra­tion in pub­lic schools up to the ninth grade.

An­other ar­ti­cle in The En­ter­prise that year noted that St. Mary’s Hospi­tal’s baby nurs­ery was still seg­re­gated.

Wil­liam Groves, an elec­tri­cian who lived in Cal­i­for­nia, brought a law­suit against St. Mary’s County to al­low his chil­dren to at­tend Great Mills High School. Fol­low­ing an ap­peal by the school board, a fed­eral judge ruled that Joan Elaine Groves could at­tend the pre­vi­ously all-white school in 1958.

Robert E. King Jr., su­per­in­ten­dent of St. Mary’s schools at that time, said “we have to ad­mit” Joan Groves, pend­ing the re­sults of the case be­fore the Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals.

Her younger brother, Thomas Con­rad Groves, was al­ready ap­proved to en­ter the ninth grade at Great Mills High School and was dropped out of the law­suit.

“If the Groves young­sters show up at the open­ing of school Thurs­day, it will mark the first Ne­groes ever to at­tend a white pub­lic school in St. Mary’s County,” The En­ter­prise re­ported on Sept. 4, 1958.

“Lack of Ex­cite­ment Marks Ne­groes’ En­try in School,” a head­line in The En­ter­prise read a week later.

“Race bar­ri­ers crashed silently at a St. Mary’s pub­lic school last week when two Ne­gro young­sters qui­etly took their place in class,” the pa­per re­ported. “Ex­cept for a clus­ter of out-of-town re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers who watched the school from across the road, it seemed like any other open­ing day at Great Mills High School.”

Wil­liam Groves, the chil­dren’s fa­ther, told re­porters, “I cer­tainly didn’t want to start any trou­ble. I’m no flag-wa­ver. I just wanted my kids to get a good ed­u­ca­tion and learn to get along among the white peo­ple, like they’ll have to do in busi­ness later.”

“Since that day, the Groves fam­ily has re­ported sev­eral threats of vi­o­lence to au­thor­i­ties, but there was no talk about re­turn­ing his chil­dren to Ne­gro

“I cer­tainly didn’t want to start any trou­ble. I’m no flag-wa­ver.” Wil­liam Groves, fa­ther of Joan Elaine and Thomas Con­rad Groves, in Septem­ber 1958

schools,” the pa­per re­ported.

More than a dozen black stu­dents were at­tend­ing white parochial schools by April 1959. It was that month the St. Mary’s school board an­nounced it would ex­tend in­te­gra­tion for all grades start­ing in the 1959-1960 school year. But then there was a lull. No black stu­dents were in St. Mary’s pub­lic schools at the start of the school year in Septem­ber 1959.

Joan Elaine Groves had grad­u­ated from Great Mills High School in the spring and her brother, Thomas Con­rad Groves, trans­ferred to Ryken that fall. Ryken, Fa­ther An­drew White, St. Joseph’s and St. John’s Catholic schools had black stu­dents that fall as well, ac­cord­ing to The En­ter­prise of Sept. 10, 1959.

The school board turned down three ap­pli­ca­tions from black fam­i­lies to send chil­dren from George Wash­ing­ton Carver School to Great Mills, stat­ing that ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties were no bet­ter at Great Mills than at Carver.

In March 1961, The Wash­ing­ton Post took a look at school in­te­gra­tion in Mary­land. The pa­per noted that while 12 school sys­tems adopted poli­cies to al­low the trans­fer of black stu­dents to white schools, only four coun­ties had ac­tu­ally started in­te­gra­tion — St. Mary’s, Charles, Tal­bot and Ce­cil.

In its fifth year of its in­te­gra­tion plan, Charles County had nine black stu­dents out of 3,000 at­tend­ing for­merly all-white el­e­men­tary schools.

King, still St. Mary’s su­per­in­ten­dent in 1961, said, “Our board has ap­proved from three to six ap­pli­ca­tions al­most ev­ery year since it adopted the trans­fer pol­icy, but the chil­dren have never shown up. This year we had only one ap­pli­ca­tion.”

King added, “we have learned in­for­mally that most of them just wanted to test the sin­cer­ity of the board’s pol­icy.”

King said that black and white schools in St. Mary’s pro­vided equal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties. “They do not have much to gain by going to white schools,” he said.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment put much more weight on in­te­gra­tion in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned seg­re­ga­tion in pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties. School sys­tems that did not in­te­grate would have their fed­eral fund­ing aid cut off.

Bev­erly Dyson started at­tend­ing Great Mills High School in the fall of 1964.

In a 2007 in­ter­view with the UCAC, Dyson said she was re­luc­tant to go there — that it was her fa­ther’s idea. “I didn’t want to leave George Wash­ing­ton Carver. I didn’t want to leave my friends. I was just used to that school,” she said.

The first day of school at Great Mills wasn’t too bad, she said, but there was ug­li­ness from other stu­dents, and even teach­ers.

“We would walk into the class­room,” Dyson said, and some of the stu­dents opened the win­dows. “They said there was an odor com­ing in,” she said. Out­side of the class­room, “they would call us the N-word when we walked down the hall,” she said.

Most of the teach­ers were un­der­stand­ing and pro­fes­sional, Dyson said, but some had “a lit­tle bit of an at­ti­tude.” One teacher said, “we shouldn’t be there. We should go back where we be­long,” Dyson said. But the vice prin­ci­pal was told, and “we never had any more prob­lems,” she said.

In the fall of 1965, 16 of the 22 pub­lic schools in St. Mary’s had in­te­grated, with 475 black stu­dents at­tend­ing pre­vi­ously all-white schools, The En­ter­prise re­ported. Carver and Ban­neker were still op­er­at­ing as all-black schools, though.

In March 1967, the St. Mary’s school board an­nounced that in the fall the en­tire pub­lic school sys­tem would be in­te­grated. “The zone bound­aries will not be de­signed to per­pet­u­ate or pro­mote seg­re­ga­tion, to limit de­seg­re­ga­tion or main­tain what is es­sen­tially a dual school struc­ture,” the school board said.

Other Mary­land school sys­tems still strug­gled to fully in­te­grate their school sys­tems. In Au­gust 1967, fed­eral fund­ing was cut off to the Som­er­set County school sys­tem “for fail­ing to meet gov­ern­ment in­te­gra­tion re­quire­ments,” The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported.

In the fall of 1969, high schools in Dorch­ester and Som­er­set coun­ties were de­seg­re­gated.

In Novem­ber 2009, the St. Mary’s school board held a for­mal recog­ni­tion cer­e­mony for Joan Groves Briscoe, where she said seg­re­ga­tion “re­ally hurt us, but we got through it.”

Mary Wash­ing­ton, school board mem­ber, said then, “We have come a long way. Fifty years later, Great Mills High School is the most cul­tur­ally di­verse school in the county — and it all started with you.”


Joan Groves Briscoe was rec­og­nized by the St. Mary’s County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in Novem­ber 2009 as be­ing one of the first two black stu­dents to en­ter into the for­merly all-white pub­lic school sys­tem in 1958. The other stu­dent was her brother, and they...


Joan Elaine Groves and Thomas Con­rad Groves, right, say good­bye to their par­ents at their Cal­i­for­nia home on their way to Great Mills High School. The Groves chil­dren were the first black stu­dents to en­ter into an all-white pub­lic school in St. Mary’s...

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