In 1958, George S. Pettit had a problem. Pettit was a scientist who worked for the U.S. Army based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. The Pettit family had recently moved to Aberdeen from Baltimore County and included 8th grader Alvin “Dwight” Pettit. Since arriving in Aberdeen, Dwight Pettit attended Havre de Grace Consolidated School, one of two schools in the county left for Harford County’s black children: both including Kindergarten through 12th grade.
Over four years had passed since the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954, and three years since the court’s Brown II decision in 1955, urging speedy action on school de-segregation. Despite this, the county’s gradual approach meant that only a handful of the African American students in the district attended desegregated schools, and they did so mainly due to concerted legal action between 1954 and 1958, in cases filed and joined by Stephen Moore.
George Pettit saw academic potential in his son and wanted him to attend Aberdeen High School (AHS). He applied for Dwight for the 1958-59 school year but was informed it was too late. The elder Pettit wanted his son to go to Aberdeen to better prepare him for higher education since AHS had more advanced facilities and classes then Havre de Grace Consolidated. But in 1959, a young person of color could not simply choose to attend their community school in Harford County and the district had in place an admissions process exclusively for students of color.
Dwight Pettit applied to enter AHS for the 1959-1960 school year along with four other kids but was rejected due to low achievement on standardized tests and in classes, criteria that did not apply to white kids seeking transfers or incoming into the district. The Pettits appealed the decision to the State Board of Education with strong support from the NAACP’s Baltimore-based Legal Defense Fund (LDF). In the legal proceeding that followed, HCPS Superintendent Charles Willis admitted that Pettit's previous application would have been allowed if he had been white and had applied at the same time.
In the State Board hearing that ensued in October 1959, LDF attorney Juanita Jackson Mitchell highlighted various HCPS policies and practices that underlay a separate and unequal system of education in Harford County. Mitchell’s diligence also helped to expose a de-segregation process in the county that appeared to be unreasonably slow and beset with obstacles to the goal of achieving actual de-segregation across county schools. In addition to the different standards for transferring to AHS based on race, Mitchell also demonstrated that curriculum at AHS was somewhat more rigorous than Havre de Grace Consolidated.
For example, AHS had an advanced algebra course whereas the consolidated school was much more generalized. In addition, AHS students started taking a foreign language right away as opposed to the consolidated school which only supported it beginning in 10th grade. The senior Pettit testified that Havre de Grace Consolidated's weakness in science and math would put his son at a disadvantage in pursuing a career in a scientific field. He also pointed out that AHS had certification where the consolidated school did not have certification.
In November 1959, the State Board ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to overrule the HCPS Board’s decision to deny Pettit admission to AHS. So, the decision remained in effect and Dwight Pettit continued to attend Havre de Grace Consolidated but the family appealed to the federal court in Baltimore. LDF lawyers again joined the Pettit case, including Mitchell, Jack Greenberg and Thurgood Marshall.
Filed in early 1960, the lawsuit contended that the district had denied young Pettit admission based solely upon his race, that AHS was superior to the consolidated schools, and that the district was wrong in using IQ scores to gauge Pettit’s suitability for AHS. The litigants also asked that the district be barred from using any intelligence test for black students to assess their academic prospects amidst desegregation since these were not also used for white students.
The Pettits won their case. The court ruled that Dwight Pettit must be allowed to enter Aberdeen High School to begin 10th grade for the 1960-61 school year. In addition, the judge (Roszel C. Thomsen- a veteran of Harford school desegregation cases) affirmed the gradual approach to desegregation taken by Harford County and noted that full desegregation would occur by 1963. In reality, full desegregation did not occur until 1965. The judge also accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that the consolidated schools’ curricula and programs were in fact unequal to Aberdeen High. This undermined any effort to restrict admission to black students based on inequality, established before the Brown case.
HCPS records from 1960 barely mention of this significant legal defeat. The records from that year also noted that the Board rejected an inquiry from the Harford Choral Society to use school facilities if it admitted black members. The Board officially recorded its opposition to that request, pointedly noting that it opposed “mixed” groups using school facilities. The civil rights movement may have been moving into a higher gear by 1960 around the country but not apparently, within the Harford County Board of Education.