The History of Desegregation in Howard County
Mark J. Stout, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Howard County Historical Society
In commemoration of Black History Month, the following piece explores the county’s history as it relates to school desegregation following the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. This is a revised version of an article the author wrote in 2014 to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of this significant decision.
February is Black History Month and students throughout Howard County will be learning about the people and events that shaped America’s progress in providing equitable opportunities for Black Americans. Today, Howard County is known for welcoming families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, although this was not always true. The county has endured a long and sometimes painful journey, as many people struggled for years to integrate our school system and instill the inclusive practices that we value today.
Those of us who live in Howard County are fortunate to be able to send our children to a widely diverse school system in terms of ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status. Families flock to the county because it has a reputation for acceptance, and because the school system is considered among the best in the nation. With steady academic growth, high graduation rates, and a high percentage of students continuing their education beyond high school, families migrate to the county from across that state, nation, and world. Unfortunately, this hopeful scenario was not always the case.
In 1954, the Supreme Court delivered the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision that outlawed public school segregation by race. Nearly 70 years later, the school system embodies the spirit of this decision – ethnically diverse schools with access to outstanding educational experiences for all. It is doubtful that many citizens are aware of the difficult road that the county experienced in providing equal educational access to all students. It is indeed a past that we must remember in order to contextualize the present. The desegregation of the Howard County Public School System is a story of racism, struggle, and perseverance.
According to the book History of Blacks in Howard County Maryland, a copy of which can be found in the HCHS Archives, (Cornelison, et.al., 1986), the first mention of “colored schools” in Howard County appears in the minutes of the Board of Education from February 7, 1871. In a revealing statement that foreshadows much of the next 100 years, it states “On motion it was resolved that each school commissioner distribute the schoolbooks of the old series in their possession if required to the colored schools in their district” (p. 80). This pattern of neglect resulted in a second-class school system for people of color, with subpar facilities, no educational opportunities past grade 7 until 1939, teachers who were paid less than those in white schools, and no bus transportation.
When Brown became the law of the land in June 1954, the county Board of Education stated that it was “impractical” to begin desegregation until 1956 (Cornelison, et.al., 1986, p. 131). It was not until May 1, 1956 that the Board officially desegregated grades 1-5, with black families forced to apply in person and with separate transportation facilities. Beginning in 1957, all grades were to be desegregated, but at the pace of merely one grade per year! This was hardly in the spirit of the law and in direct conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s appeal to do so “with all deliberate speed.”
Although all grades were desegregated by 1964, the policies put in place ensured that segregated schools remained, and many black students were educated in facilities with no white students. In June 1964, NAACP Howard County Branch President Silas E. Craft, Sr. and Robert Kittleman, chairman of the group’s education committee, delivered an impassioned statement to the Board requesting an end to all segregated schools. With two new Board members as a result of a recent expansion (including future Howard County Executive Ed Cochran), the Board voted to integrate Guilford Elementary School in 1965. As Cochran noted upon reflection in 2004, “With these actions, the era of segregated public schools in Howard County ended.”
Ironically, during the same time that Howard County was struggling to achieve racial equality in its schools, James Rouse began acquiring land to develop the model city of Columbia. An important part of the vision for Columbia was to develop a community that was racially, culturally, and economically diverse. In another interesting twist demonstrating the connections between the past and present, the children of two important figures in the final struggle to integrate the schools of Howard County were political leaders in recent times. Former County Executive Alan Kittleman is the son of Robert Kittleman, and current Howard County State Delegate Courtney Watson is the daughter of Ed Cochran. Students may also be aware of the Silas Craft Collegians Program at Howard Community College, but unaware that the man who inspired the program played a key role in this civil rights battle.
On November 15, 2012, the Howard County Board of Education officially apologized for its role in slowing the desegregation of the Howard County Public School System. In attendance that day were many who lived through the era of segregated schools, as well as students in school at the time. It is imperative that we all understand our past – both the celebratory and the shameful – in order to appreciate the diverse classrooms that our students have the good fortune to attend today.
Cornelison, Alice, Craft, Silas E. Sr., and Price Lillie. (1986). History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland: Oral History, Schooling, and Contemporary Issues. Howard County Branch of Maryland of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Columbia, MD.