After Brown - Initial Attempts at Integration

When the Supreme Court announced in its unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in public education, Prince George's County public schools operated under a dual system that was in keeping with an 1872 Maryland law requiring the separate education of black and white children. The system in Prince George's County was completely segregated. Students attended segregated schools. The buses were also segregated, even though buses carrying black students and buses carrying white students often traveled over the same roads. Teachers were assigned to schools on a segregated basis, teaching only students of their own race and almost always reporting to supervisors of their own race, although some black teachers reported to white supervisors. If the superintendent had to address all the teachers in the system, he did so in separate meetings for black and white teachers.[9]

After the Supreme Court made its decision in Brown, the Maryland state school board released a statement confirming that it would stand by the decision but noting that it would need an "effective date" to be set by the tribunal before it created and implemented a plan for integration. The Prince George's County superintendent, William Schmidt, issued a statement a few days later declaring that he expected "to operate [the Prince George's County] school system during the 1954-55 term on the same basis that the schools have been operated during the 1953-54 term."[10] Another year would pass before the Supreme Court required school systems to integrate "with all deliberate speed."[11] During that year, Prince George's County did little to prepare or implement a plan for desegregation, aside from appointing 17 local whites and 5 local blacks to the "Fact-Finding Committee to Study the Problems of Desegregation in Prince George's County." On July 21, 1955, the committee submitted the findings of its study to the county board of education. A major section of the report was devoted to showing the possible results of assigning students to schools "without regard to race." These results were based on "pupil assignments' that were only nominally nondiscriminatory" but they still showed that 47 of the 106 schools slated to operate in 1955-1956 could be desegregated and that this desegregation would actually require more teachers, stamping out the fear that some teachers might have to be fired if the dual school system was consolidated into a unitary system.[12] The committee did not outline a specific desegregation plan; however, it did suggest that "insofar as it is administratively and economically possible, pupils irrespective of race, should be allowed to attend the school closest to their homes" and that "the present policy of fixed school boundaries can be continued, but on an integrated basis. . . ." The committee also advised the board of education to take desegregation into account when building new schools and to desegregate teachers and staff along with students.[13]

For the 1955-1956 school year, the board decided to adopt a "freedom of choice" plan similar to those adopted by many other Southern and border states. With a few relatively insignificant changes, the Prince George's County school system operated under this plan from the 1955-1956 school year to the 1964-1965 school year. The freedom of choice plan automatically registered students in the school that they would have attended under the old system, but they could choose to attend the school of their choice, provided that their parents specifically request a transfer. Allowing students to attend the school of their choice could have produced a fair amount of desegregation on its own. The stipulation that parents specifically request a transfer, however, meant that blacks would be placed in black schools and whites would be placed in white schools unless the parents demanded otherwise, therefore placing the burden of changing the status quo on the parents. In addition, the board seemed to go out of its way to make transferring difficult. The steps parents had to go through to request a transfer were not well publicized and transfers were only accepted during a limited time period. Even if a parent sent in a transfer request on time, it could still be one of the many requests that were denied by the board.[14] Despite these obstacles, the number of black students enrolling in formerly all-white schools steadily grew in the 10 years the plan was in action, although the vast majority still attended all-black schools.

In implementing the freedom of choice plan and also in some of its later school constructions, the board stated that it "based its action on certain recommendations suggested by [the] Fact-Finding Committee. . . ." Most parts of the plan, however, either did not particularly support or actually directly contradicted the recommendations of the Fact-Finding Committee. The distinct possibility that a black student might be transported past a closer all-white school in order to attend an all-black school still existed. There was not even a guarantee that a student who requested a transfer to a closer school would have the transfer granted.[15] And the Fact-Finding Committee did not want to have the burden of changing that status quo placed on black parents; as one white member of the committee stated, "We felt that the initiative for desegregation should come from the school system rather than from Negro parents." The board also did not take desegregation into account when planning the building of new schools and additions to old ones, as specifically requested by the Committee. No wonder members of the Committee felt that they and their report "had been used as window-dressing. . . ."[16]

In reviewing the steps the board took towards achieving desegregation through the freedom of choice plan, it seems quite plausible that the board's actions were influenced by covert racist attitudes. The Fact-Finding Committee gave the board some broad guidelines to follow in creating a desegregation plan. A plan that followed these guidelines would have made some significant steps towards integration of both students and faculty while avoiding the elimination of many jobs and perhaps even creating new ones. Yet the board either ignored or specifically went against most of the guidelines when creating its plan. It then made the most important tool for achieving integration - the parent-requested transfer - difficult to obtain by not publicizing the directions for requesting a transfer well and by rejecting a significant number of requests that did follow the directions. Perhaps the board's most suspicious action was that of withholding a major section of the Fact-Finding Committee's report from the media and the public, the section that showed that a desegregation plan that was "only nominally nondiscriminatory" could still integrate almost half the county's schools in its first year. The idea that the board withheld this portion of the report to cover up its racist attitudes and prevent a public outcry over the relative slowness of the board's desegregation plan does not seem too far-fetched. One thing is clear: the board did not move as quickly to desegregate as, according to the Fact-Finding Committee, it could have, and it never disclosed the reason for this slowness.