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Integration of Baltimore Polytechnic High School
By Violet Smith and Arkeena Reid
In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court case overruled the “separate but equal” clause in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. The Brown case said that segregated schools are unequal and public schools should integrate. Brown was in 1954 but in 1952 an event took place that changed the Baltimore public school system.
In 1952, Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the nation. It still had segregated parks, drinking fountains, restaurants, and restrooms as well as schools.1 The school system in Baltimore was unequal and tailored to whites. This was the main reason why African Americans challenged the integration policy of Baltimore. African Americans, while having good schools and qualified teachers, lacked advance courses. For example, Frederick Douglass High School lacked an advance-engineering course while Polytechnic Institute had this course.
Polytechnic Institute, for white boys, was one of two manual training schools opened by the city in 1892.2 Poly was located on North Avenue and Calvert Street where the current local school system’s headquarters resides. Poly was rare among high schools across the country because of the advanced college preparatory curriculum it offered. The school “offered a tough ‘A’ course which included calculus, analytical chemistry, electricity, mechanics and surveying. It was a whites’ only elite school but supported by both white and black tax dollars which led to help from the Urban League once Poly was chosen as a target for integration.”3
Douglass High School lacked top level courses but this wasn’t the only problem faced by African Americans, as a 1947 survey showed. The survey findings showed that the majority of black schools did not meet the Department of Education’s criteria for the physical condition of buildings and class sizes. Some elementary classes for blacks had 52 students. Frederick Douglass High School was designed for 900 students, yet it had a student body of 1,900. Black students were taught in dilapidated buildings inherited from white students who had abandoned them. Many of the schools lacked libraries or cafeterias or playgrounds. The school system in the late 1940s acknowledged that black students did not have enough textbooks.4
Due to these conditions and lack of course offerings, a group of 16 African American students, along with help and support from their parents, applied for the engineering “A” course at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. These families aligned themselves with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to get their kids accepted to Poly.
Students who integrated Poly, from Baltimore Sun,
NCF—Schools, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Maryland Historical Society
The court case began on June 16, 1952. The NAACP’s intentions were to end segregation at the 50-year-old prestigious public high school. In the Poly case, they argued that Poly’s offerings of specialized engineering courses violated the “separate but equal” clause because it was not offered in high schools for black students.
To avoid integration, people came up with an idea to have an equivalent “A” course developed for the colored schools. This idea was voted upon by the school board and by a vote of 5-3, it was decided that a separate “A” course would not provide the same educational opportunities for African American students. This vote meant that starting that fall, African American students could attend Poly.5
Once African American students started attending Poly, they experienced pressures unlike most other kids their age. The following paragraphs tell some of the experiences the first students to integrate Poly faced in 1952.
Albert Hawkins, Jr.: “As Hawkins approached Poly on his first day of class, protestors along both sides of the sidewalk leading to the school yelled, “Go back to Africa! Niggers go home!”6
“It was a brain and psyche crushing experience. I am damn near 50 years old and getting through those four years is still the hardest thing that I have ever done.” 7
Everett Sherman: He recalls at age thirteen walking from an all black world into a sea of 2,800 white faces. But he found only a few outwardly hostile. What puzzled him most were “the ones that treated me one way in school, but outside of school they didn’t even know me.”8
Edward Savage: One of the first black students, used the boxing ring to fight his way through four years of high school. Boxing was promoted at the school as a way for students to settle arguments.9
Milton Cornish, Jr.: He recalls that it was not until reading Sandra Crockett’s 1988 article in the Sun, that he wasn’t the only black who’d found it tough going at Poly Tech. “I discovered I wasn’t the only one who went home and cried at night. We not only had to bear the burden of trying to succeed in a white world; we also carried the hopes and aspirations of our race. That’s awful to do when you are 14.”10
The Poly integration led to some successes in Baltimore. For instance, “a significant result of the Poly decision was the admission of the School Board that physical equality alone does not guarantee equal facilities. An exact duplication of the Poly curriculum was proposed for Douglass. However, it was admitted that the two courses still would not be equal and that equality is more complex than and not definable in physical terms alone.”11 Other successes include how the African American teachers and school officials favored and supported the Poly integration. African American administrators and the school board members worked well together to make this work and community groups used their influence to change undemocratic and segregated patterns to the benefit of all people.12
Two years after Poly integrated, in May of 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board so all of Baltimore’s public schools would integrate that fall. Baltimore would integrate with little violence, and some minor school disruptions mainly because the cities were already segregated. Former Baltimore school board president Walter Sondheim explains, “The neighborhoods were so segregated that the schools were automatically segregated by the people who came to it.”13
This did not mean that integration went smoothly in Baltimore for people did threaten violence and students did walk out of school to protest integration. Sondheim tells of what threats were made to him, “I got some mail (threatening) mail. The police department offered me protection that I never needed. I had all of the telephone numbers to call if someone threatened me. Somebody burned a cross on my lawn in the middle of all this. I never saw it until it was over because a neighbor of mine was afraid my children would see it and frighten them since my kids were very young then so he put it out. It wasn’t one of those great big crosses that you see, it was smaller. It didn’t have a big impact on me.”14
While African Americans would gain access to an outstanding school, unfortunately African Americans and whites didn’t end all segregation practices in Baltimore due to the integration of the public schools. Sondheim explains one reason why this didn’t happen, “I will be frank, I thought we were in a new era in a sense that blacks and whites learned to go to school together they wouldn’t grow up with the kind of prejudices that existed before. This was only partially true. Parents’ prejudice existed in the homes and seeped into these kids’ thinking so that it didn’t work as easily as some of us thought it would.”15
The integration of Poly may not have prevented unequal education for all African Americans in Baltimore but it was one of the first cases fought and won by African Americans in what would become known as “the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Perhaps the most significant success of the integration of Poly has been that in the years following the 1952 integration, thousands of African American students have attended, succeeded and benefited from the rigorous courses namely the engineering courses at Poly.
Articles from “Course Correction: Two Years Before Desegregation…” by Christina Royster-Hemby, Baltimore CityPaper
6. Aaron M. Glazer, “Course Correction: Two Years Before Desegregation Became the Law of the Land, a Baltimore High School Opened Its Doors to 13 Black Students Very Quietly,” Baltimore City Paper Online September 5-11, 2001 http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=3485 (cited 29 April 2007) para 2.