In Relentless Pursuit of an Education is local history at its best. In their own words, residents of St. Mary's County, Maryland, tell of the separate and unequal black schools that existed until the county finally complied with Brown v. Board of Education in 1967. This generation displays no nostalgia for segregation, but they do recall how their daily life was marked not only by inequality, but also by determination, caring, even fun. One hundred years from now, their voices will be a priceless resource for historians yearning to understand, "What was it like? What was it really like?"
James W. Loewen, author Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns
If you don't know your history, you're destined to live it again. People made great sacrifices for this country to be where it is today. And, it's a universal sacrifice on both sides of the fence. Bun unfortunately, our history has reflected more of one side than another. People need to understand the contributions that have been made to make this country what it is.
Alonzo Gaskin, St. Mary's County Resident
We can best project where we're going if we first reflect on where we've been.
Ralph Ignatius Butler, St. Mary's County Resident
We didn't have no wood to heat the school with, and we have to go out in the woods, pick up little twigs and anything that we thought would make a fire. And, the other thing, we could have learned, but we didn't because we was out in the woods picking up little wood to make a fire for getting warm. Some days, it takes you practically all day to get warm so that you could really settle yourself down. It was very, very hard on the boys. But, the girls didn't, to go out in the woods…get the wood. And when the school bought wood, the wood be green and it wouldn't burn. Very, very hard for us in the wintertime.
I wasn't able to get the education that I wanted. Why? Because my parents didn't have the money to send me to school. I finished up my education when I got in the Army, but I didn't learn too much because the teacher in the Army was different than the teacher that was out here. I had to come out of school for my sister to go to college. Parents didn't have any money to send me. I had to work on the farm to help my daddy to make the money for my sister to go to college. Which is, nine of us, two did get to go to college, and I…was nice.
I see where it's needed out here today. It'd be one of the main things I would change in my life is get more education because the work is much easier. You don't have education, you work hard and I did it to get where I'm at today. It was a hard thing to do.
...My parents didn't have much education. They just could write their name, and I felt that as children, they always said they want the children to have more education than they did. And, they tried to help us all they could help, and that's what they did for us. It was real hard on us. Had to come out of school some days to come home and help, but we had to do it in order to have a place to lay our head...
But one year got real bad and the crop didn't do so well, and he wasn't able to pay the mortgage. And then, the bank jumped right on him and next thing, they took the place and we were back renting again, and I thought that was awful bad. And, that went on for quite a few years and then again, he got offered to buy this place here. And during that time clock, we just wanted to go to college. And you know how old people just say, "Well, if she didn't go to college, she wasn't gonna do nothing no way!" Farther, she go to college, farther she'd go out and do something for herself. So then, I continue on being out of school to help them make more money so that he could buy this place and send Clarice to college. And, that's what's happened. I stayed out until I went in the Army and that's when I got my diploma. And, education is one of the things that I feel is needed today.
And I remember one remark that was made there.
This teacher said, "remember success comes in cans."
And I thought, "what is she talking about? A can of success?"
But she meant in saying that, "I can" - I can do things. I can do.
Success comes in cans, and not can'ts. I'll always remember that. That was a long time ago.
Success comes in cans. Don't say, "I can't do."
I've always heard it said that if we're trying to get ahead, the best thing for us to do is to look back. In other words, a person once told me, "We can best project where we're going if we reflect on where we've been," and I think all of you can attest to this. We're well on the way. Well on the way. . . .
The one-room schools: Yes, at those times I spent, I think it was five and a half years in a one-room school, the other in the two-room school, and my last–-Banneker--let's see? I was there for sixteen years as a 6th Grade teachers, but eight of those sixteen years I spent in a building apart from the main building which was in itself was a one-room school; but, I only had two grades: 5th and 6th. It's all been a pleasure as I look back on it.
And one of the greatest pleasures I get today is when somebody comes along and says to me,
"You remember you taught me in school?" [audience chuckle]
"What did I teach you?! [audience laughter]
"Well, you see what I know, don't you?"
Once the PTA meetings was for the parents. You know, “What can we do to make the school better?” The teachers would tell them. You know, “We’d like this happen in our classrooms,” but now they’re gone off on psychology and philosophical things. Parents don’t understand what they’re talking about, so they don’t go because the PTA’s in elementary schools used to be packed. They used to be packed in the high schools.
Parents came to find out what was going on and what they could do to help. They built schools like that. The first Jarboesville School was built. It was done by the parents. Children brought bricks. They had a brick contest, and they said some of the students were taking bricks out of their parents’ chimneys [laughter] to build this first Jarboesville High School! Parents and teachers worked together.
"…we went on, had the best we could with what we had."
We would have to push the boat off the shore or else, if the tide was high, we had to bail the boat out. And when it got to the other shore, we had to put boards down to get to the shore if the tide was low…we had no overshoes or rubbers or anything, you know, to protect the feet. Most of the time, we didn't have bottoms in the shoes. We put cardboard. Lucky if you had cardboard. You put newspaper, some kind of paper and then that was that. Used to change that when you got to school. You kneel down and say a prayer. The children push the pencils in the hole in your shows. Gracious me.
We hardly had a pen and a piece of paper to write on. A lot of the time, parents couldn't afford to buy composition books and pencils and stuff kids should have in school. Sometimes, some of the parents would, you know, buy pencils. I think they paid a penny or two cents for them. Course they would buy two or three extras so a kid that didn't have any would have a pencil. Many a time I seen a child break a pencil in two and give another child part of it.
They (teachers) shared what little bit they got. The community couldn't afford it. The community as a whole basically was just surviving theirselves. Well, it wasn't bad. We didn't think it was bad, because that was all we knew so when you're not comparing one thing against the other, you know. I realized in later years how much we were missing, you know, as far as books and this type of thin in school, but at the time you made out with what you had because you didn't realize there was something better that you were supposed to have. …And we did learn to read and write and add and subtract, and so that's better than the old folks had it. My grandfather, he couldn't read or write, either one, you know, and to see the kids at least learning to read and write, I mean it was something that they were happy about.
And I think back again about the superintendent of schools--had a White superintendent and a Black superintendent. And at that time the White superintendent was a Ms. Lettie Dent, I believe; Black superintendent was Mr. Ralph Waters. And somewhere along the way we began to think about segre--integration to bring these people together. And one of the things that a lot of people were not aware of--not aware of but did happen; the Black people began to think about it. If you're going to combine these two school systems--you've got a Black superintendent and a White superintendent--who is going to be out of a job? There was some concern there about that. I don't recall any of the Black teachers actually being--you know, laid off, retired, or whatever. But there was some concern there. So there was reluctance, not only from the White community but from the Black community also...
The segregation--of course it was segregated. The schools were segregated and not only the schools but it carried over into other aspects of life too. I recall the county fair--the county fair--there was a Black county fair and a White county fair. And so there was no--there was competition between the Blacks and the competition between the Whites but not the real sense of competition.
The bathrooms, as you see now-No. We didn't have bathrooms. We had latrines. You know what a latrine is? I think it's a military term, but the latrine was one of the light things were you go out. And, I really think it has some advantages, too. Because when you go to the latrine and it's, ah, 30o outside, you're not gonna set there and read a book or smoke a cigarette. You're going do what you need to do, wash you hands. Of course, you didn't wash your hands then. You had to come back to the classroom to wash your hands. You're gonna do what you got to do and get the heck back in there. Now, you go to the bathroom. You take your book. You take your magazine, your-whatever, your phone and you have a good time. Not then. [chuckle] So maybe, the latrine, you know, maybe it was a good idea. We need to go back to the latrine....
We played games and I'll tell you about one of them. And, one of the games was up at Maryland Springs. The place I was telling you about, the playground was in the woods? We'd play Cowboys and Indians. And sometimes this Cowboy and Indian stuff got a little rough. I remember once I was the Indian. And of course, the other guys were a little bigger. Wasn't a little bigger. They was too damn big to be fooling with me anyway. I was the Indian. I got caught. So, what did they do? Just like they did on the TV. You hang 'em. You hang-man you, so they proceeded to hang me. Mr. Butler came out jingling his little bell and I'm tied up in the damn tree. Couldn't get away. The guys went in and left me. Eventually, somebody came back and retrieved me. But you know, the idea was: You had to fend for yourself. What kind of games did we play? We played those kind of games. It was kind of rough. . . . The sports was too rough. And anytime you're beating me up and telling me you're having a good time, well, I'm frightened half to death. I'm not having a good time, and so I think it had some influence. Maybe that's why I don't like the sports now. You have to blame it on something! ....
Had a guy that was routinely ripping off my lunch, and I got a little fed up with it. And, he was especially good at taking the dessert. You know, you take a apple or a banana or an orange or a slice of cake or something, he's gonna rip that off for sure. Anyway, I went in one evening-and I didn't tell my mother about this either-And I remember I going to try making a cake. Made this cake and didn't use chocolate. Used X-Lax. You remember? You know the little brown stuff you melt? Put it in with the icing, took it to school next day. Well anyway, to make a long story short: I didn't have any more trouble with my lunch disappearing. Had no more trouble at all.
Blacks and Whites could not sit in the same area. The Black schools were pitiful because we got all of the castoffs, the junk, the broken-down desks, the bench, books with pages tore out. You got no sports equipment. You got blackboards that was chipped. You got erasures that was wore out. You did not get any new equipment in Black schools. You know, the only thing new there was if you bought a tablet or a pencil your own. Everything else was hand-me-downs and stuff that a lot of it should have been thrown in the dump. But here again, it was better than what we had because without that we had nothing. But you start reading a story or trying to study and you get to a certain page in a book and it’s not there. So then, you hope you can find another student that’s got a book that a page is tore out somewhere’s else and they got the page you need, and you got the page you need. To me, is a hell of a way to have to try to get a education, but you done what you had to do.
We were somewhat disappointed in what we heard from the Board of Education at that time. From the chairman of the Board, she could not understand why Blacks were trying to integrate the schools because they were paying such little county taxes.
At that time, she [May Russell] was the president of St. Mary's College. Her statement was that she couldn't understand why we would want to integrate the schools because at Carver we had the cutest little toilets of anybody in the county for Black students. And I was really surprised professionals would suggest that was the reason for not wanting to integrate the schools.
They are referring to over at Carver Heights you had enlisted men club. In fact you had a club where all Black military personnel congregated sometimes. After that they turned it over to St. Mary's County Public Schools. Now the government, when they constructed the building which was a recreation facility for enlisted personnel, they had small toilets for the children at the younger age...
The first student that entered this [Great Mills High] school was the Groves kid--two of them, brother and sister. And that was in the early '60s. And we only had two, at that time, to integrate the public school system in St. Mary's County. The Board of Education decided that we would integrate Great Mills High School but it was a volunteer situation. At that time, I entered my three younger kids, the youngest I had, in Lexington Park Elementary School. . . . the Board of Education did not integrate the transportation and the school system at the same time. Transportation was a segregated transportation system. I withdrew my children from Carver Elementary School because I wanted them to have an integrated education. It wasn't that the teachers were inferior, but I wanted them to know what Black and White was all about - an integrated education.
For Joanne [Groves] and her brother--it was like being on a foreign soil where someone else is speaking one language and they were speaking another. And even if they communicated, it wasn't a friendly welcome atmosphere at all. It was a scorn, a resentful attitude as if you had taken something from me. It was disgusting how they were treated here.
And let's not forget now, we had a problem getting Blacks to attend this so-called volunteer integrated system. Blacks were not climbing the fence to integrate by no means. We did not get integration until it was consider a forcible situation from the Board of Education. If you want to say Whites wanted to go to Carver and Blacks wanted to come to Great Mills, forget it. (chuckles) It wasn't like that. No one was climbing the fence to go one way or the other. It was completely satisfied, status quo. And that's what we lived with in St. Mary's County for some time well into the '60s.
Copyright © 2023 UCAC - All Rights Reserved. Website Problems? Disclaimer for Errors and Omissions: Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions will make every reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy and validity of the information provided on its web pages. However, as information continues to change the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions reserve the right to change the information at any time without notice. If you find any information found incorrect please contact us directly.