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In the 1950s and '60s, some black citizens in Howard County lobbied to have the Atholton Colored School renamed for Harriet Tubman, the Maryland-born abolitionist who led more than 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

But for years, the Board of Education rejected the request.

"The board kept finding some excuse not to do it," said Howard Lyles, who graduated from the school in 1952.

But this week _ as Howard County marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision _ Lyles saw the effort finally bear fruit.

At a commemoration breakfast sponsored by the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People May 16, school board chairwoman Courtney Watson announced that the board has placed the name "Harriet Tubman" above the school's entrance. The school now houses a maintenance shop and Head Start classrooms.

Those gathered at the breakfast, which was held at the Columbia Sheraton, greeted Watson's announcement with enthusiasm.

"We are just thrilled," said Natalie Woodson, education chairwoman for the county chapter of the NAACP. "It's always wonderful to right wrongs, no matter how long it took to right the wrongs."

Watson's announcement symbolized the latest step in what has been a long struggle for equality in education in Howard County, Lyles said.

"The action is appreciated because it commemorates the Brown v. Board of Education decision in a positive way," he added.

A slow process

The Brown ruling, issued May 17, 1954, forced the desegregation of America's schools by declaring separate educational facilities for blacks and whites "inherently unequal."

However, school segregation in Howard County didn't officially end until 1965 because a policy of voluntary desegregation resulted in only a fraction of black students attending white schools.

In 1965, desegregation in the county became mandatory.

Prior to that, the local school system operated under Jim Crow laws, which segregated public facilities under the doctrine of "separate but equal."

But although the county schools were separated racially, they were not equal.

Throughout the early 1900s, the county provided education for blacks from first through seventh grades, while whites attended school until 11th grade. In 1936, after years of petitioning from local black leaders, the school board approved the addition of grades eight and nine to the Cooksville Colored School and, in 1937, grades 10 and 11.

Black schools in the county were marked by deficient buildings and used, hand-me-down supplies. Black teachers made a fraction of the salary white teachers did.

The board also refused to transport black students to and from school. In 1933, it denied a request to transport two elementary school-aged black girls to school because doing so would have set a "precedent of hauling colored children to school."

However, in 1938, the board agreed to supply two buses to transport black students to school. And in 1941, the state informed Howard County that it had to begin paying its white and black teachers equal salaries.

In 1949, the board erected a high school for black students: the Atholton Colored School which, before this week, was informally known as Harriet Tubman High School.

"Our schools were inadequate and improperly built and equipped," said Lyles, who attended a county "colored school" in Highland before going to Tubman in 1949. "We didn't have running water, first aid or anything like that."

Unequal facilities remained

In the early 1950s, lawsuits against segregation were filed in Delaware, Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. In 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the five cases collectively, under the title Brown v. Board of Education, after the Kansas challenge.

Two years later, the court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In 1956, the Howard school board voted to desegregate grades one through five, with the intention of integrating one additional grade each year thereafter. However, the board ruled that integration would be voluntary, and required black students and their parents to apply in person at the Board of Education for a transfer to an integrated school.

Many black families opted to stay in segregated schools rather than move to integrated schools dominated by white teachers and students, said Ed Cochran, who joined the school board in 1964.

Thus, segregated schools remained the norm in the county and the problems of unequal facilities continued.

Even after Brown, black schools in the county remained overcrowded and underfunded, said Shirley Young, who began teaching at Guilford Elementary School, a "colored school," in 1958.

"I had a fifth-grade class with 40 children in it," Young said. "That's way too many children for a teacher to do a really good job with."

Change in attitudes slow

In October 1963, nearly a decade after Brown, representatives of the county chapter of the NAACP reported to the board that only "a few hundred students" and three black teachers had transferred to integrated schools.

However, the board said in 1964 that it would not consider forcing integration until 1967, to "allow for a reasonable period of adjustment" to the change.

At the time, Robert Kittleman was the education chairman for the local chapter of the NAACP. He petitioned the board many times in the early 1960s to end segregation.

"Howard County was a very genteel, southern county," said Kittleman, who is now a Republican state senator from West Friendship. "It was very racist. But people were starting to change."

In 1964, the school board expanded from three to five members. One of the new members was Cochran, whom the NAACP honored this week as the "swing vote" on the board that finally approved desegregation in county schools.

In February 1965, the board voted to close the county's black schools and require integration.

"As far as I was concerned, it was a threshold goal," Cochran said. "You couldn't really do much to improve the school system for everybody when you had segregated schools."

But with integration came new challenges. For example, Young became the only black teacher at Waterloo Elementary School in 1965.

"Black teachers didn't get to advance as white teachers did," she said. "A black teacher had to be really qualified, whereas a white teacher didn't necessarily have to be."

Nonetheless, the school's students, parents, teachers and administrators embraced her on a personal level, Young said.

"We all learned to get along," she added.

'A major step for peace'

At its commemoration breakfast May 16, the NAACP honored Cochran, Kittleman and community activist and former NAACP leader Leola Dorsey for their "unceasing and untiring efforts on behalf of equal access to education in Howard County," Woodson said.

The group also honored long-term participants in the county's Black Student Achievement Program; the school system's Social Studies Department; Howard Community College's Student Activities Department; and student winners in commemorative poster and essay contests.

In an interview later in the week, Lyles spoke of how the Brown decision, which allowed black and white children to grow up and learn together, in turn led to improved racial harmony in the county generally.

It "was a major step for peace and tranquility and for the races to get along with each other," he said. "It did a lot for all mankind."

E-mail Luke Broadwater at lbroadwater@patuxent.com.

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