On the day that the Howard County school board apologized for the system’s treatment of African-American students during segregation, Dottie Cook thought back to her middle school days, when she received a hand-me-down education that included tattered books with her uncle’s name written in them.
An African-American resident from Dayton, Cook said her family petitioned the Howard school board to allow her to go to a school that white students attended—a more modern school with new books—and they were told she could but only if she got permission from the bus driver to be taken there.
“My father and I went to the gentleman’s house,” said Cook, 61, “and he told my father that if I didn’t cause any trouble that he would pick me up and take me to the school.”
It was 1964—10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision outlawed segregated public schools.
Cook was among those present Thursday as the school board members took turns reading from a proclamation apologizing for the segregated school system. The proclamation received a standing ovation and board chairwoman Sandra French choked up afterward, saying, “I’m glad that we did not delay this anymore.”
The school board voted unanimously to approve the proclamation. It said the school system expressed “profound regret” for maintaining “segregated and unequal public schools both prior, and subsequent to, the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision” and that the board “commits to ensure that each student, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or socioeconomic status, receives the educational opportunities necessary to ensure the fulfillment of the student’s potential and dreams.”
The proclamation again brings to light heinous practices and opens old wounds suffered because the school system gradually desegregated over an 11-year period after the Brown vs. Board ruling. At the time, the school system was criticized by civil rights leaders for taking so long to desegregate.
Howard was not alone in taking years to fully integrate schools. According to an article in The Baltimore Sun at the time, only a handful of counties in Maryland had fully integrated student bodies and faculties as of August 1964. In contrast, Baltimore City’s schools were desegregated shortly after the Brown decision in 1954.
Howard County’s proclamation comes during a time when local governments are making similar apologies for treatment of their citizens during segregation. In May, on the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback apologized to African-Americans for segregation in the state. And on Veterans Day, the mayor of Gulfport, Miss., George Schloegel, apologized to family members of African-Americans who served in the U.S. military but were not allowed to be buried in the city cemetery during segregation.
The proclamation has led some experts to wonder how it helps today’s students.
“We all recognize that what was done back then was wrong,” said David Almasi, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research. “It will make people feel good, but it’s not going to graduate any more kids come June. That’s up to modern legislators, modern parents, modern teachers and modern students.”
Howard Del. Frank Turner said that the move is “very nice,” but added that he was more concerned about ensuring the school system furthers efforts to address the achievement gap.
“They need to make sure we put resources into current-day problems that we have within Howard County schools,” Turner said, “because there is a difference in how performance has been, especially in those parts of the county which have [high numbers of students with] reduced-[price] meals. That would be more of my concern.”