‘With all deliberate speed’ was a relative term
Public school desegregation did not fully come to county until 1967
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 attended Great Mills High School for a year.
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 County on Sept. 4, 1958.