The actions of parents and students to force desegregation of American schools are a famous story of the civil rights era. The Brown vs. Board of Education case (1954), for example or the desegregation of high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas were powerful and important flashpoints of the era and justifiably famous. Not as well-known, yet also very important to the story of desegregation, were the efforts by African American teachers and their allies to teach in desegregated settings, often in white majority schools.
The experience of Harford’s African American teachers and staff in pursuing a fully-integrated school system parallels the gradual, slow-walked “stair-step” system for desegregating students. At the beginning of the 1963-1964 school year, the district had no clear plans for phasing out the two consolidated schools and only about one-quarter of black students attended desegregated schools. No wonder: since 1960, Harford County Public Schools had been expanding the consolidated schools, a practice the courts eventually ruled was a violation of the Supreme Court's 1955 Brown II decision calling for “all deliberate speed” in pursuing desegregation.
In Harford County, Maryland, substantial efforts to desegregate the teaching corps came later in the 11-year period to desegregate, not until the early 1960s. There were rumblings earlier from the district’s African American teachers, who exclusively taught in the consolidated schools through 1964. However, resistance from the district’s administration and white parents appeared to hold back any substantive effort to bring African American teachers into white schools, regardless of the gradual desegregation taking place with students. In August 1963, the Harford Board of Education received a petition from “colored” citizens of the county requesting full and immediate desegregation, including teachers and staff. The Board’s response was to create a special committee to look at “Problems of Desegregation,” including personnel questions. Meanwhile, the district’s personnel director reported that black teachers were never considered for open positions in white schools.
The review committee subsequently reported back in October 1963 that the district may consider transfer assignments of black teachers into white schools and a phased system through 1966 but not black teachers from outside the system for white-majority schools. By this time, community advocacy and internal pressure for teacher desegregation had increased considerably. A newly formed county group called the Human Relations Commission of Harford County (HRC) weighed in with a proposal to immediately desegregate the teaching corps and that all but four of the teachers at Havre de Grace Consolidated and Central Consolidated were willing to be re-assigned to white schools.
The HRC called for complete desegregation – students and staff- by 1965, at least two years ahead of other plans under consideration. Regardless of the pressure, in early 1964 the Board voted to stay the course, extending the entire process through 1967. The Board’s decision to continue with its gradual plan for full desegregation caused a firestorm of opposition by many in the community who wanted much speedier action. The local NAACP branch noted that this was more delay by design which exacerbated the “already overdue complete desegregation” and criticized the district for a lack of commitment to hiring new black teachers (for formerly all-white schools). The local League of Women Voters chapter called the decision “demoralizing and wasteful.”
However, the mainstream local newspaper The Aegis editorialized that it was satisfied with the current “temperate” pace of desegregation, that the current plan “will work out the best for everyone.” The most elaborate and pointed dissent to the Board’s refusal to expedite full desegregation of HCPS teachers came from Bernice J. Williams, a member of the special review committee and a teacher at Havre de Grace Consolidated School. Williams wrote her dissent points in a “Minority Report” that was attached to the Board’s official decision. Williams’ dissent called for five to fifteen black teachers to be employed in formerly white schools as new hires or transfers to make up for the lack of progress in teacher hiring going from 1957 to 1963. She also decried the Board actions in hiring over 100 new teachers annually, including some who lacked degrees or certifications while more qualified black candidates could not get HCPS jobs. Williams noted that the world was moving into a “new era” of non-discrimination based on race or creed.
The contretemps over the Board’s decision led to another lawsuit filed to advance desegregation faster for both students and teachers: Christmas vs. HCPS (1964). Led by Janice Grant – a civil rights leader in Harford since the late 1950s - a small group of teachers joined with a larger group of students in suing the Board of Education to 1- end the practice of assigning black teachers only to black schools, and 2-advance the hiring of teachers without regards to race. In a separate letter to the personnel director, Grant put in her fourth request to be transferred from Havre de Grace Consolidated to a formerly all-white school. She also recognized the Board for “awakening to the true American way of life and bowing to the command to the supreme law of the land made a decade ago.”
The Board continued its status quo response in the case, with a response to the plaintiffs that smacked of racist condescension, citing a need for “adjustment” and “acceptance” for initial transfers involving the “more competent Negro teacher” before opening the system in toto. The federal judge in the Christmas case (Roszel Thomsen) ruled to postpone a decision on the Board’s student desegregation plan but ruled clearly in favor of the teachers by declaring that HCPS must immediately cease making any hiring or transfer decisions based upon race.
This was an unequivocal victory for the teachers that paved the way for full desegregation (students and teachers) accelerated by the Board to take place, finally, by September 1965. Janice Grant and her colleagues along with Harford parents and students had captured the moment, succeeded, and effectively ended legal segregation by race in Harford County Public Schools.