Combs in hand, two black girls work diligently and delicately to finish cornrowing their friends' hair amidst the bustle of 5A lunch. Next to them, three Latino boys are sprawled out among the benches talking, and a few feet away, two white students finish their lunches before the whole group rises and joins the student body of the most diverse school in Montgomery County—a school that 50 years ago accepted only white students.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that deemed segregation of public schools unconstitutional. In the first week of April, The Washington Post Magazine pushed Blair's diversity into the limelight with an article that highlighted both the progress of Blair's integration since the ruling as well as the obstacles of self-segregation and unequal academic performance that, 50 years later, still need to be addressed.
The ideal mix of ethnicities
When the bell rings signaling the end of lunch, 3,257 students pour into Blair's halls to go to class. Thirty-two percent of these students are black, 28.4 percent are white, 25.5 percent are Latino and 14 percent are Asian—a sharp contrast from other Montgomery County schools like Walt Whitman, whose student body has a 78 percent white majority and a four percent black minority.
Blair's English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program includes students from over 80 countries that speak over 50 languages. "We've got people from everywhere, and I mean everywhere—countries I've never even heard of," says sophomore William Beltran.
However, Blair was not always open to such a wide range of cultures. Different races first stepped into Blair's halls during the 1955-1956 school year in the wake of Brown v. Board.
During the spring of 1956, 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. Before, Carver High School in Rockville (currently the MCPS headquarters) was the designated school for black students.
Racial tension in Silver Spring erupted in the 1960s. On April 5, 1968, Joe Parks, a black junior, and about 25 other students, mostly black, walked out of their classes and gathered in front of Blair's front doors to protest the recent assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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," Moore says. Rumors of a potential race war began to spread.
The stakes in a war between whites and blacks were especially relevant to Blair students, considering the climbing cultural diversity of the school. In 1968, 4.1 percent of Blair's population was black; by 1974, 18.3 percent of Blair was black; and in 1977, that number had risen to 27.9 percent.
According to alumnus Vanburen Vaughn ('75), schools in outlying areas labeled Blair as "the hoodlums" because of its high-minority population. However, Vaughn says that Blair students were usually far from being violent, which was significant considering the turmoil around the country at the time. He says that teachers and students treated him, a black student, with the same respect as other people in the building.
Despite the relative peace between the races, confrontations in the early 1970s drew Montgomery County police officers into Blair's hallways after students performed the play, "Black Christmas," for an English project in December of 1970. The students staged a total of five productions that year which depicted Christmas for a destitute black family. During the last production of the play, someone in the audience tripped a cast member, and violence broke out.
Enter the CAP and the Magnet
By the 1980s, many white Blazers went to other schools in upper Montgomery County. Principal Phillip Gainous faced the possibility of dividing up Blair because of a County policy that labeled Blair as "racially imbalanced." As a solution, Gainous helped bring the Magnet (1985) and CAP (1988) respectively to Blair to get more white students to the school.
The plan worked. Currently, the Magnet attracts a population consisting of 202 Asians, 190 whites, six blacks, and two Latinos. Similarly, CAP consists of 230 whites, 31 blacks, 19 Asians, and three Latinos.
Teachers at Blair are also of different races and are able to teach about different cultures, points out junior Rose Dorval. "We don't just learn about white cultures or black cultures," says Dorval. Dr. D'Angelo, coordinator of CAP for twelve years and former English teacher, says that CAP has incorporated a multi-cultural unit into its English classes to encourage CAP students to talk to students in the ESOL program to learn about other cultures.
Not separate, but still not equal
With the new programs fostering a greater cultural balance, the microcosm of different cultures begins to stratify on an academic level as mostly white and Asian students file into honors and AP classes while blacks and Latinos enter on-level courses.
At Blair, 92 percent of white students and 80.5 percent of Asian students take at least one honors or AP course per year compared with the 45 percent of black students and 27.8 percent of Latino students who sign up for the same classes.
The division of students in classes may be one reason why some Blair students self-segregate. Junior Thomas Meyer can name a few friends who are of a different ethnicity but admits that most are of his own race. "Now that I think about it, I seem to naturally have friends that are white," he says.
Junior David Crawford, a Magnet student, points out that school schedules are often fixated around the math, science, and research classes, leaving sparse time for interaction with on-level students.
Back at the "Dominican" table at 5A lunch, Beltran and sophomore Algenis Liriano talked heatedly about self-segregation at Blair. While there are different cultures, the boys point out that most clubs are dominated by a certain ethnic group—football and step team are dominated by blacks; lacrosse and hockey consist of almost all whites; and academic clubs like "It's Academic" are white and Asian.
The separations among races seem to be forgotten at the end of the day. The 2:10 bell rings, and kids rush out of their classes. They are part of a school that is steadily working toward the promise of educational equality for all ethnicities. Waving goodbye to one another, they file out of the school doors, doors that are no longer racially selective.
Karima Tawfik. More »