The A. Dwight Pettit Story & Student Desegregation in Harford County

Alvin "Dwight" Pettit Wins acceptance into Aberdeen High School as increasing numbers of students of color do the same, 1960-1965

The Pettit case was a very important step in the long struggle for full desegregation of Harford County Public Schools. After a two-year legal struggle that involved the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall, Pettit and his family won the right to transfer from black-only Havre de Grace Consolidated School to the formerly all-white Aberdeen High School in 1960. Pettit was one of a small handful of African American students in the Aberdeen area to transfer at this time. A. Dwight Pettit entered Aberdeen High School at a time before most students of color in Harford County had a chance to do so. This would change between 1960 and 1965 as many others transferred into formerly all-white schools. Sometimes this was a smooth transition, other times not.

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 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 than Havre de Grace Consolidated School. 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 students but was rejected due to low achievement on standardized tests and in classes, criteria that did not apply to white students seeking transfers or coming into the district. The Pettits appealed the decision to the Maryland State Board of Education (MSDE)with strong support from the NAACP’s Baltimore-based Legal Defense Fund (LDF). In the legal proceeding that followed, Harford County Public Schools (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 MSDE 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 desegregation process in the county that appeared to be unreasonably slow and beset with obstacles to the goal of achieving actual desegregation 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. His 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, where he played football and graduated successfully. 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 school's 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 national civil rights movement may have been moving into a higher gear by 1960 but not, apparently, within the Harford County Board of Education. A. Dwight Pettit went on to a successful collegiate experience as a scholar athlete at Howard University in Washington D.C. He eventually became a highly successful civil rights attorney based in Baltimore, still an active professional as of October 2021.


Nathalie James: Parents Lead on Desegregation
In this 2019 oral history clip, Nathalie James discusses how her parents recognized the unequal quality of her segregated education and sought desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. [Interviewer: James Karmel, Harford Community College] ~ Source:...
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Beverly Parker: Desegregation Experience at Meadowvale Elementary School, Havre de Grace, MD
This is oral history clip from 2019, narrator Beverly Parker discusses a memory from her early experience moving from the all-black Havre de Grace Consolidated School to Meadowvale Elementary School in Havre de Grace in 1965. [Interviewer: student...
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Shirley Rose: Resiliency in Desegregation
In this 2016 oral history clip, educator Shirley Rose discusses resiliency and determination as important factors in overcoming segregation and being successful in desegregated Harford County public schools in the 1960s. [Interviewer: James Karmel,...
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Carol Bruce: Remembering the Transition to a Desegregated School
In this 2019 oral history clip, Carol Bruce recalls her experience dealing with rejection by white students at her new school in the mid-1960s. [Interviewer: student Jackie Wroe, Harford Community College] ~ Source: Havre de Grace Colored School...
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251 Paradise Road, Aberdeen, MD 21001 ~ This became the site of Aberdeen Senior High School in 1953, renovated since A. Dwight Pettit attended the school in the 1960s. It can be reached by taking a right off of W. Bel Air Avenue heading away from downtown Aberdeen (& Rt. 40).