In 1951, the K-12 Central Consolidated School opened in an area called Hickory outside Bel Air, Maryland to serve black students from the central and northern regions of Harford County, Maryland. All the students and teachers in the school were previously excluded from the all-white schools dotting the county, including Bel Air Colored High School.
Until the 1930s, African Americans in Harford seeking more than an 8th grade education had no recourse in the county and were forced to travel to Cecil County, Baltimore or Philadelphia for their high school educations. Central Consolidated opened as momentum for school desegregation was building across the country. Since 1948, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund led by Thurgood Marshall had been filing (and often winning) cases demonstrating that separate was inherently unequal in education.
In the early 1950s, Harford County decidedly moved in the opposite direction as the NAACP and many federal courts with the construction of both Central and its partner school: Havre de Grace Consolidated School. The Harford County Board of Education continued on this path even after the Supreme Court famously ruled that segregated education was "inherently unequal" in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Students at the all-black schools both before and during the consolidated school era (1951-1965) had to deal with the reality that separate was not equal in public education in Harford County. They had old textbooks marked up with graffiti as well as old furniture passed down from white schools. Well-qualified teachers and administrators had to perform numerous tasks, including driving buses.
For example, students attending all-black Asbury Colored School in Churchville had to walk over a mile to school after being dropped off with white kids at Churchville Elementary. In 1993, Bel Air Colored High School alumnus, Central Consolidated and Bel Air High School track and field coach Bill Brown looked back on his experience and remembered how much the white schools had in contrast to his high school: “Big classrooms, bright lights, a lot of athletic equipment.” At Central Consolidated, this situation led to a spirit of resourcefulness, nurturing, and positivity. After long bus drives from around the county and often past white schools much closer to home, Central students would come to school knowing that school staff were directly plugged into their parents in disciplinary cases. They shared an inadequate number of microscopes in science classes, built their own high bars and hurdles for track and field in shop classes, and contacted each other to fill in information when their books had missing pages.
In 2015, Central Consolidated graduate Agnes Minor recalled the school fondly: "I was fortunate to have had loving parents and excellent caring teachers and a principal who instilled in me that I could achieve and become whatever I chose to become." Minor graduated from Central in 1962. Central’s principal for most of its duration was Dr. Percy Williams, who became something of a legend in local educational circles for his steady, calm leadership and success in mentoring students. He helped navigate the tumultuous period of transition from segregation to integration for Central students. Following his job at Central, Williams served as a state education official and then served two terms as a member of the county’s Board of Education, also serving as president of the Board. Dr. Williams had to deal with the difficult circumstance of following the district’s 1957 policy requiring him to make recommendations on which students from their schools would succeed in white schools.
Despite the positive school climate, Central Consolidated faculty, parents, and others often supported school desegregation even as if it meant the demise of their own institution. Parents began acting with their feet by organizing and fighting lawsuits, even if the district’s slow, gradual process jammed up the process and allowed for very few applicants actually gaining admission to white schools as late as 1963. In 1957, for example, a local newspaper reported that the Board of Education accepted only 15 of 60 transfer applications by black students to attend formerly whites-only schools much closer to their homes.
One of the most impactful members of Central’s community was Vice Principal Stephen P. Moore, Jr. Moore had previously served as principal of the Bel Air Colored School before joining Central Consolidated when it opened. The Moore family lived in downtown Bel Air. Moore’s young son attended Central despite living just a few blocks from Be Air Elementary. Although he was an administrator at a segregated school – and committed to its success – Moore initiated the first lawsuit to integrate HCPS on behalf of his son Stephen P. Moore III. He sued his own employer to undermine the stunning lie that was “separate but equal” as it played out to the bitter end in Harford County.
Hickory Elementary School in Bel Air, MD currently exists on the same site as the Central Consolidated School.
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