Desegregating Harford County Public Schools: the Moore Cases 1955-1958

The Moore Lawsuits, 1955-1958: the Beginning of Harford County Public Schools Desegregation

This story is about the three federal cases that ensued surrounding the lawsuits filed on behalf of Stephen Moore III, an African American elementary school student in Harford County, from 1955 to 1958. Other students and families also joined the lawsuits. Moore eventually won his case to go to a whites-only neighborhood school rather than a more distant segregated school. The cases highlighted the social and legal context surrounding the early efforts to desegregate Harford County Public Schools following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

In 1955, Stephen Moore III was an African American 4th grader attending the segregated Central Consolidated School outside Bel Air, Maryland. He lived in the town of Bel Air, just a few blocks from his neighborhood school, Bel Air Elementary School. Moore's father was an Assistant Principal at Central Consolidated. In three connected lawsuits filed and adjudicated from 1955 to 1958 Stephen and his family teamed with other students to force the Harford County Public Schools (HCPS) to develop a substantive plan and at least begin the desegregation of public schools. The cases occurred in response to the 1954 and 1955 landmark Supreme Court decisions known as Brown vs. Education and Brown II. Along the way, the Moore plaintiffs faced strong resistance from the HCPS administration, federal courts, the white majority as reflected in local newspaper opinion, and the federal legal system. The Moore cases also brought in high-level support from the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Thurgood Marshall, Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Jack Greenberg all worked on the cases from 1955 to 1958, with Mitchell becoming especially involved in the Harford cases.

Harford County was not unique in Maryland in its slow and phased approach to desegregation. However, the persistence of the alliance devoted to pursuing it was remarkable and achieved national importance through involvement of the federal court system and NAACP legal leadership. The movement also exposed an entrenched, racist public school system and establishment culture in the region that supported it. The county was approximately 10% African American, determined by the 1960 census. However, the local media, government and wealthy establishment were not representative by race. Primary local newspapers such as The Aegis and Harford Democrat & Aberdeen Enterprise often identified individuals by race, constantly attaching "Negro" to alleged criminals, crime or accident victims in articles about local happenings. Many local businesses such as motels and restaurants along heavily-traveled Route 40 in the county remained segregated throughout the 1950s.

The three Moore cases took place in this local context and the national climate of the civil rights movement unfolding in key ways around the South, such as through the Montgomery bus boycott. The opposition to public school desegregation or integration (as it was commonly known then) also took place in the context of southern white resistance to change and racist terrorism such as that seen in the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the post-Brown rising civil rights movement led by the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Harford cases were also largely overseen by a federal judge (Roszel C. Thomsen) who had previously upheld racial segregation in public recreational facilities in the same year of the Brown case (1954), later overturned by the Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs in the three Moore cases also included Dennis Spriggs of Edgewood who desired to go to high school in Edgewood rather than Central, and other kids across the age spectrum who sought to attend neighborhood schools rather than the more distant two consolidated K-12 schools (Central & Havre de Grace). In the end, Moore, Spriggs won their cases to transfer yet seven other plaintiffs lost their cases to attend closer schools to their homes ahead of the gradual, "stair step" process established by the Board of Education to extend desegregation through at least 1963 while simultaneously expanding the capacity of the two consolidated schools. So, for example, young Rosalyn Slade applied to attend Hall Crossroads Elementary School in Aberdeen beyond third grade near to where she lived but was denied and forced to attend the significantly farther Havre de Grace Consolidated in a case upheld by the courts. During the legal proceedings, the county's superintendent Charles Willis admitted that white students did not face similar obstacles to transferring schools. The cases also highlight the extent to which the county granted the consolidated schools principals (Leon S. Roye & Dr. Percy Williams) jurisdiction over who could transfer from their schools or not, a factor in desegregation that would eventually be controversial.

Although Moore and Spriggs were able to successfully desegregate when they wanted to ahead of HCPS slow-walked plan, other plaintiffs were not. However the cumulative experience of the Moore cases showed the drive, organization, and courage of the local community of color which often took apart HCPS legal arguments over capacity or logistics, for example, despite a mixed legal outcome. It was an empowering episode for African American families in Harford County who had long had to deal with educational inequities amidst a social environment that resembled, if not replicated, the racialized culture of Maryland's deeply segregated Eastern Shore and southern states. With the involvement of NAACP LDF attorneys like Mitchell and Marshall, federal court involvement, and substantial coverage by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (a leading national media source for civil rights coverage), the Moore cases also helped the local civil rights movement achieve some level of national prominence.

Images

Documents

NameInfoActions
Final Ruling on Moore casespdf / 49.24 kB Download
Stephen P. Moore, Jr. obituarypdf / 138.67 kB Download
"You just can't go creeping along..." pdf / 29.86 kB Download

Map

30 East Lee Street, Bel Air, Maryland 21014 ~ Bel Air Elementary School is located in the town of Bel Air on East Lee St., between North Main Street and North Hickory Street in Bel Air, Maryland