Coloring in the Lines

Dec. 31, 1969, 7 p.m. | By Lily Hamburger | 51 years ago

Second of three articles in the "Race Through the Ages" series: 1960-1979

n April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The next day race riots and violent uprisings shook cities across America. At Blair, black and white students gathered peacefully outdoors to mourn the celebrated civil rights leader, never suspecting that less than two years later, racial violence would erupt within the walls of Blair's Wayne Avenue building.

But before there was tension, before there were fights and militant movements, there was calm. Teachers from the 1960s report few incidents of race-related conflicts at Blair during that decade. Students segregated themselves somewhat, several teachers of the time said, but interracial couples were not entirely uncommon.

Relative calm

Milton Roth, a current math teacher who came to work at Blair in 1969, remembers that while different groups of students hung out in different areas of the school, he was impressed by the way blacks and whites got along. "When I walked by I would say, ‘Wow, this place really has it together' because there's not the tension you might see elsewhere," he says.

At the time of King's death, under five percent of Blair's student body was black, but the demographics in Montgomery County were rapidly changing. By 1970, the percentage of black students at Blair had more than doubled, and race relations had worsened considerably.

Signs of trouble

Joe Parks, who is black and who was a Blair junior in 1968, told Silver Chips that year that some teachers discriminated against black students. He described a situation in which a black student was cursed at and ejected from class by a white teacher for arriving tardy while a white girl who came in later was not punished.

In 1970, black students began to organize and voice their frustrations. That fall, a club called Students for Black Awareness was formed as a new version of the Black Student Union, which had been banned the year before because it only admitted black students. According to a 1970 Silver Chips article, about half of the black population at Blair had participated in the Black Student Union, but virtually every black student at Blair was a part of this new club, which was also open to students of all races.

Also that fall, a black student newspaper came into print as a reactionary measure to what founders viewed as a culture of hate. Solemn Brothers and Sisters, which started as an open-ended writing assignment in an English class, expressed black students' feelings that racial hatred permeated Blair. Many wrote that they felt powerless because the school was not only demographically dominated but also governed by whites. "Blair is a white man's establishment," read one editorial in the paper. "To us, the white man rules at Blair. We have no say here."

A month after the black student paper was published, a racial incident rocked the school. The day before Blazers left for winter break in December of 1970, a group of black students performed a Christmas play that emphasized the disadvantages, among them poverty and racism, endured by black people of the day. The pageant was performed multiple times throughout the day, and many students saw it more than once.

According to Blair alumnus Robert Platky, then a sophomore, the issues were presented in a provocative manner, and as a result, white students in the audience began taunting the actors. "There were certainly some whites who did find [the pageant] offensive," he says. "It was the spark that set off a tense situation." Several fights between white and black students followed the last of the six performances. Later, teachers were called in for an emergency meeting over the holiday break to discuss varying concerns that were growing out of racial tensions at Blair.

"Tough school"

As Blair's black population grew, tensions mounted, and the school gained a reputation for being out of control, especially after conflicts that erupted in the wake of the 1970 pageant were reported in the Washington Post.

Many teachers were afraid to take jobs at Blair because of fears caused by Blair's high minority population and rumors of gangs, says William Lindsey, a counselor at Blair. "Teachers didn't want to come here, but, as with most stereotypes, they were misinformed," says Lindsey, who has been at Blair since 1972.

County administrators saw Blair as a combat zone. Current journalism teacher John Mathwin says he was hired as an English teacher in 1970 in part because of his military experience, which administrators thought would help him maintain control in a rowdy class. However, he, like Lindsey, found Blair relatively peaceful.

Despite Blair's previously respectable reputation as one of the county's top schools, students and administrators at other schools in Montgomery County also fell victim to the misconception of Blair as a gang-infested, violent school.

Platky says false impressions sometimes got in the way of Blair sports. "We even had schools who refused to play Blair in basketball at night," says Platky, who played on Blair's racially balanced basketball team from 1970 to 1973. Platky remembers that though black and white teammates got along, players were often criticized by peers of their own race for getting too close to other races.

Donna Clark, a black student at Blair from 1975 to 1977, says the only time she ever encountered racial injustice was when she went to other schools for sports competitions, where students from other schools used racial slurs to offend Blazers. "They would make racial remarks against our players," she recalls. "When I was [at Blair], I had no trouble."

Magnet attracts

Blair's negative reputation exacerbated the school's demographic shift as more affluent and mostly white families began moving north and west. This "white flight" contributed to the rising percentage of non-white Blair students and coincided with a decline in academic performance at Blair, according to English teacher Norman Stant, who has been teaching at Blair since 1968.

In an effort to return Blair's academic standards to the highest in Montgomery County, county officials proposed special academic programs to draw high-achieving white students back to the school.

In the fall of 1974, a plan for the Science, Math and Computer Science Magnet was proposed. The school board's stated goals for the program were to maintain a high level of education, attract new residents, retain old residents and implement a new curriculum.

According to Platky, the board simply wanted to attract more white students. "[The magnet proposal] had nothing to do with math and science. It had everything to do with race," he says. The Magnet was implemented in 1985.

When the magnet concept was introduced in 1974, less than 20 percent of Blair students were black. Blair's black population continued to rise to over 30 percent by 1978. After a struggle in the previous decade to fully integrate, Blair would now have to fight to maintain racial balance as the population shifted in ways that some feared would effectively reintroduce racial segregation.

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Lily Hamburger. Lily Hamburger, managing sports editor, is a proud senior and back for another year on <i>Chips</i>. Lily is a sports fan, a singer, and a softball player. Her favorite food is macaroni and cheese, favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and favorite ninja … More »

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