Breaking the boundaries

Feb. 6, 2004, midnight | By Karima Tawfik | 17 years, 4 months ago

Blair alumni reflect on integration and civil rights struggles

On April 5, 1968, Joe Parks, a black junior, and about 25 other students exited their classrooms and gathered in front of Blair's porch doors. The students, a majority of whom were black, marched outside and circled the school building in memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had just been murdered. Later, several students marched off school property to take part in the rioting in the nation's capital.

Parks ('69) recalls this time period in Blair's history as a time when students expressed tumultuous emotions that accompanied the events of the 1960's—the death of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the rise of Stokely Carmichael and the upsurge of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Breaking the boundaries

Montgomery County had not always offered opportunities for blacks to express their emotions along with other students. The integration of blacks into Blair began during the 1955-1956 school year after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregation in the school system unconstitutional.

That spring, Peter Eugene Crutchfeild, Virginia M. Dickerson and Samuel Lawrence Fitzhugh were the first black students to walk across the stage and receive a high school diploma from Blair. Prior to the official desegregation of public schools, Carver High School was designated for black students.

Brown v. Board of Education opened up Blair doors to blacks, but only ten black students integrated at first, mostly because of the small proportion of black families in the Silver Spring area, says Thomas Jarrell ('58). According to Jarrell, most blacks didn't live in Silver Spring, but instead lived in the inner core of Washington, D.C.

Not all of the county's citizens were pleased with the desegregation of public schools according to Margaret's Marshall Coleman's book Montgomery County: A Pictorial History. "Integration here will be a slow process," said school superintendent Forbes Norris shortly after the Supreme Court decision. Groups around the county clashed as the all-black schools pushed for swift desegregation while staunch white parents sent a petition around the county against integration.

Seeing black students was not a shock for many students because of Silver Spring's proximity to downtown D.C., says Henry T. Morris ('56). Morris, who had grown up in Washington, D.C., was used to seeing black students, since the nation's capital had integrated schools by the 1940s. According to Morris, racial tension in the Silver Spring area did not manifest until the 1960s.

Race revolution

Henry Moore ('69) was one of the black students to continue to the nation's capital during the Blair walkout and recalls the intense anger that King's death aroused. "I remember everyone being upset. My sister was on a bus that was almost turned over because all the people were so upset about what happened," Moore says.

King's death and later the death of Robert Kennedy instigated rumors of a potential race war, according to Parks. A 1968 Silver Chips article quoted a "New Left" civil rights attorney saying, "I think there's a good chance we'll have a revolution within the next two years. I think it would be very, very good for this country to have a revolution."

The stakes of a war between the two races were especially relevant to Blair students considering the climbing cultural diversity of the school. A September 1962 report on desegregated schools from the Maryland State Department indicated that Blair had 29 black students out of 2759 total students, more black students than the other four schools in the region (Bethesda-Chevy-Chase, Walter Johnson, Wheaton and Northwood High Schools). In 1968, 4.1 percent of Blair's population was black, by 1974, 18.3 percent of Blair was black, and in 1977, 27.9 percent of Blair was black.

According to Vanburen Vaughn ('75), schools in outlying areas labeled Blair as "the hoodlums" because of its high racial diversity. However, Vaughn states that in his experience, Blair students were far from being violent especially during a time when the nation was still trying to come to grips with racial minorities integrating into jobs and schools. He says that teachers and students treated him, a black student, with the same respect as other people in the building.

Despite the barriers desegregation attempted to knock down, racial confrontations in the early ‘70s drew Montgomery County police officers into the Blair hallways. The confrontations occurred after students performed a play "Black Christmas" for an English project in December of 1970. The students staged a total of five productions that depicted a Christmas of a destitute black family. The last production of the play culminated in the actors rising and singing the Black National Anthem.

"The portrayal of Black Christmas was to communicate [black students'] frustration of society at that point," says John Brigham ('71), one of the students who participated in resolution talks at Blair after fighting began. However, many white students became agitated with the negative sentiments revealed on stage, he says.

Self-segregation also still characterized social life. "When it came to lunch time, the blacks congregated in one area and the whites in another area," says Moore. "Interracial couples caused a lot of controversy."
Parks describes how efforts to develop friendships outside his race often led to more alienation. "I had mostly white friends. In some ways, that cut me off from the black community" says Parks.

"A safe haven"

In many cases, race issues caused loneliness for black students attending Blair, says Parks, who felt alienated and plagued by the burdens of the time period. "I had become so totally disillusioned with everything," he says. "I just didn't feel like there was any place in this world for me."

Parks found relief in his Latin class, where his teacher allowed students to share ideas about current events. "Mr. Nickerson gave me a safe haven to talk about issues that I really felt tormented about," says Parks.

Parks says that Blair also let him write, make life-long friends, participate in school plays and be part of the school wrestling and football teams.

"Calm and friendly"

Principal Paschal Emma stated in a 1976 Silver Chips article that the climate of Blair was "calm and friendly." Emma continued to say, "There is a healthy atmosphere of toleration and friendliness between all the kids."

Moore agrees that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, blacks and whites were granted the same opportunities to become involved in school-sponsored extracurricular activities and managed to build on each others' strengths. "We had one of the best basketball teams because it was a mixed team. They played well together and had a real close relationship," says Moore.

One of the most well-known baseball and basketball players, according to Christina Reichel ('63) was Roland Thomas "Sonny" Jackson. In the 1959 to 1960 school year, Jackson proved to be a vital member of the basketball team and won the "sophomore of the year" award. Coach Moffatt of the Blair Varsity team said in a 1960 Silver Chips article, "For two years I've been looking for a leader, and I think I've finally found one."

After Blair, Jackson went on to play National League football for the St. Louis Cardinals as well as major league baseball. (see "Top Ten Blair Athletes")

The opportunity for blacks to participate in activities and class discussions allowed for a clearer mindset on life, says Parks. "Even though there was alienation and misunderstanding, overall, at the time when there was a lot of rhetoric of a race war, my experience at Blair taught me that it was okay to trust white people," he says.

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