IMAGE: Sports Illustrated June 6, 1966 cover featuring Takoma Park’s Sonny Jackson (on the right) with Houston Astros teammate Joe Morgan. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.
TALES OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN
See Part One of this series: Schools before Brown v. Board of Education.
In the fall of 1955, white students at Takoma Park Elementary and Takoma Park Junior High shared their classrooms with blacks for the first time. The 53 black students in grades 1-7 left their Geneva Avenue schoolhouse behind, thanks to a momentous Supreme Court decision the previous year. They were in the vanguard of Montgomery County Maryland’s response to Court orders to integegrate.
Newspaper clipping showing Sonny Jackson playing school football in the late 50s or early 60s. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.
One of the fifth graders was Sonny Jackson, already known to white classmates for his prowess on the sports fields under the watchful eye of Lee Jordan. Jackson would become the first black athlete to play for Blair, leading the football, basketball and baseball teams before his career turn in major league baseball.
School boards across the South were reeling from the Supreme Court’s demand that they give up their long established dual school system, which relegated blacks to separate and unequal schools. Most of the 17 states (all in the south) where segregation was the law of the land, rose in fury – crafting ingenious way to defy the ruling. What would Montgomery County do?
Lee Jordan. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.
Maryland let each county chose their own path. In 1954, Montgomery County’s 2884 black students represented roughly 10% of the entire school population. That summer, the Board of Education set up an advisory committee to make an integration plan. Although the majority counseled either no action or integrating one grade per year for 12 years, the Board ignored them and moved forward with what became a six-year plan. A few Board members and parents raised protests, but these were generally limited to heated debate at Board meetings.
Fall 1955 – The bulk of black students attended one of four consolidated elementary schools, one junior high or one senior high. Four additional small down-county schools awaited consolidation. The Board crafted a simple solution for these four substandard schools – Takoma Park, Ken Gar, Linden and River Road – ordering their immediate closure and sending the students to the nearest white school, no transfers necessary. The result was 11 integrated elementary schools.
In addition, the 145 black students in grades 7-12, living in the Montgomery Blair, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Wheaton districts, had the option to attend the secondary school nearest their home (integrating 10 more schools). Otherwise the four consolidated schools plus the junior high and high school in Rockville remained open.
Fall 1956 – Students in the remaining black schools were offered a more challenging option. Their parents had to request transfers to the school nearest their residence. These transfers required superintendent approval and were contingent on “space” and “in best interests of the students.” In the first year, only 200 of the requests were granted, to those with the highest academic records. White students could also request a transfer to a different school, and these were more often approved. The black schools remained open.
Takoma Park’s Geneva Avenue schoolhouse. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.
This plan produced the only serious rebellion by parents who pulled their children from the Poolesville school. The protests subsided, and the students gradually returned to class, once the county began taking parents to court to enforce state attendance laws.
Fall 1957 – the remaining black students in grades K-9, who resided in in BCC, Blair, Northwood, Wheaton or Walter Johnson could request transfers to their local schools. By the end of the school year – only 1000 of the 2884 black students were attending integrated schools. The NAACP argued that the school system created “artificial shortages” to deny transfers: “Negroes were picked when space and program are available but white children were assigned regardless of space and program”
In the 1958 elections, the two most avowed segregationist Board members lost, and integration continued on its slow pace. The following year, each of the four consolidated black schools were clustered with white schools for the last push.
Finally, by the end of 1961, all black schools were closed. Integration was declared although 46 of the original 70 whites-only elementary schools and 26 whites-only secondary schools remained all white because there were no black students living in their service areas.
This issue of de facto segregation (because of where people live), as opposed to de jure segregation (set by law), became the new challenge and the effects of re-segregation remain to this day. But for the moment, the black schools in Montgomery County were history. How were other states faring?
Elsewhere in the South it was not so peaceful – riots as black students arrived for first day of class, and outright rebellion at the state level much worse that what we see today. Meanwhile the full scope of civil rights battles was raging: lynchings, Rosa Parks and bus boycotts, freedom riders, church bombings, and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This tale next.