In 1955, Stephen Moore III was an African American 4th grader attending the segregated, Black-only Central Consolidated School in Hickory, outside Bel Air, Maryland. He lived in the town of Bel Air just a few blocks from his neighborhood school, the whites-only Bel Air Elementary School. Moore's father, Stephen Moore, Jr., 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 desegregation was remarkable. The alliance 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 white establishment culture in the region that supported it. Harford County was approximately 10% African American, determined by the 1960 census. However, the local media, government and wealthy establishment were not representative by race. In the 1950s, 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 United States. 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 the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. The movement in Harford County also took place simultaneous to the post-Brown civil rights movement led by the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The Harford cases were mainly 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 I case (1954). The Supreme Court overruled his ruling in that case.
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 children across the age spectrum who sought to attend neighborhood schools rather than one of the two more distant consolidated K-12 schools. In the end, Moore and Spriggs won their cases to transfer but seven other plaintiffs lost their cases to attend schools closer to their homes ahead of the gradual "stair step" process established by the Board of Education to extend desegregation through at least 1963. At the same time, the district was 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 she was denied and forced to attend the significantly farther Havre de Grace Consolidated School in a case upheld by the courts. During the legal proceedings, the county's school 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 school principals (Leon S. Roye & Dr. Percy Williams) jurisdiction over who could transfer from their schools or not, a factor in desegregation that would prove challenging for them and controversial.
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 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.
The Moore cases also helped the local civil rights movement achieve some level of national prominence. This recognition took place with the involvement of NAACP LDF attorneys like Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg and the involvement of the federal courts. In addition, substantial coverage by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (a leading national media source for civil rights coverage) highlighted Harford's prominence in school desegregation efforts of the Civil Rights era.