School Desegregation in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s
An excerpt from Hugh B. Price's memoir This African-American Life
Hugh B. Price joined EdNext Editor-in-chief Marty West on the EdNext Podcast to discuss his career and his life in education reform.
In an excerpt from his new memoir This African-American Life, former president of the National Urban League Hugh B. Price describes his elementary and secondary education in Washington, D.C. Price focused on his studies and dreamed of playing major-league baseball—all while he and his schoolmates made history in some of the city’s first integrated classrooms after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The nation’s capital of my youth mirrored America’s schizophrenia about race. In contrast to the ostensibly integrated schools north of the Mason-Dixon line, the city’s public schools were rigidly segregated until the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
My elementary school, the Blanche Kelso Bruce School, was all-black during the segregation era. We had our high schools—Cardozo, Armstrong, Dunbar, and Spingarn. Whites had theirs—Coolidge, Bell, Wilson, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Western.
Ardent integrationists who could afford it sent their kids to Georgetown Day School. Kline, my elder brother, went there first. I followed him after graduating from Bruce and for the first time studied alongside white kids, many of them the children of my mother’s All Souls and Americans for Democratic Action crowd. Georgetown Day occupied a site at 4001 Nebraska Avenue NW, home now to NBC’s offices and studios where shows such as Meet the Press are produced. My stay was brief because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown—and the companion decision in Bolling v. Sharpe, which applied to D.C.—outlawed public-school segregation in the nation’s capital and across the country in May 1954.
Under the hard-charging leadership of our neighbor Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard’s law school was the intellectual and strategic epicenter of civil rights litigation action. As his biographer, Genna Rae McNeil, noted in Groundwork, Houston trained his students to become superb lawyers and “social engineers” who used the Constitution and laws to help African-Americans achieve our rightful place in the nation and to make sure the system guaranteed justice and freedom for everyone. I learned while reading Groundwork that my parents provided financial support for Houston’s school desegregation lawsuits.
The school desegregation suit in D.C. truly bubbled up from the ground, a history lesson that resonates with contemporary social movements. As recounted in the May 2004 issue of Washingtonian magazine commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown, a barber named Gardner Bishop appeared at a school board meeting in 1947 to announce that he was launching a boycott of Browne Junior High, a black school attended by his daughters. Browne had eighteen hundred pupils and was so overcrowded that students attended in shifts.
The boycott persisted for months. At one point, Bishop approached Houston for help. Bishop and his lawyers filed lawsuits aimed at forcing Washington to equalize black and white schools. Their realpolitik theory was that doing so would cost the government so much money that it would eventually prefer to operate the schools under a unitary, integrated system, instead of paying for two comparably financed systems side by side.
According to Richard Kluger, author of a history of the Brown case entitled Simple Justice, the boycotting parents rallied behind Bishop’s leadership and formed the Consolidated Parents group, whose ranks included my mother and her close friends Marie Smith (my friend Alonzo’s mother) and Burma Whitted. The group raised money for the lawsuits and organized additional protests. Reflecting on his pivotal role in precipitating the boycott, Bishop recalled in 1992, “I had more mouth than anyone else, and I worked for myself, so there wasn’t much chance of being punished by whites. Ignorant as I was, people believed in me, and I had to do it. We didn’t have no president, we didn’t have no vice president, we didn’t have no nothing. And we were mad at everyone— the whites, the highfalutin’ blacks, the board of education—everyone.”
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court altered the course of American history by proclaiming in the unanimous Brown decision that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and furthermore that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Bolling ruling applied the logic and conclusion of Brown to the D.C. schools with equal force. The high court declared, “In view of our decision that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the federal government,” which as a legal and practical matter controlled the affairs of the nation’s capital.
As racial attitudes gradually softened and housing barriers crumbled, my parents figured in 1953 that it was time to venture beyond the neighborhood we had known since 1941. We stepped up in lifestyle from the brick row house on New Hampshire Avenue to a lovely three-bedroom single-family detached home at 4031 Nineteenth Street in northeast Washington, just off South Dakota Avenue. My father was proud as could be of our spacious new home. Only three years into his solo practice, he had now set a new high-water mark for the Price family in terms of home ownership. Our cousins from Charles County gushed over the house when they came for Christmas dinner. Although Dad was the polar opposite of the garrulous father figure in the TV sitcom The Jeffersons, its theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” could have been ours as well.
Yet we quickly learned another bitter lesson about racial intolerance. The Nineteenth Street neighborhood was overwhelmingly white. Since Dad was a distinguished physician, I naively assumed we would be viewed as an asset to the community, whose economic status probably ranked a notch above solidly middle class. In fact, our family likely pushed it up a tad. I cannot imagine the neighborhood’s average household income declined because of us.
Our white neighbors didn’t see it this way. Within a couple of years, virtually all of them fled. An armada of moving vans descended on the neighborhood month after month. The student body at Taft Junior High just down the street did not flip quite as fast. The main reason was that it drew youngsters from the heavily Jewish neighborhood along South Dakota Avenue to the north. “Little Tel Aviv,” as everyone called it, stayed ethnically stable several more years before those white families began dispersing as well.
Georgetown Day was far across town and basically had been a temporary school for me after Bruce anyway. In early September 1954, my eighth-grade year, I was among the first contingent of black students to enter the newly integrated Taft Junior High, a couple of blocks from our new home.
There were two enrollment waves of black students into Taft. The initial registrants who entered on the first day of school were pupils like me, who had just graduated from grade school or were switching from nonpublic schools. The second and much larger contingent of entrants, who arrived the following month, were students who lived in Taft’s district and were transferring in from a previously segregated junior high elsewhere in the city.
Since there were only a few of us at first, the early days of desegregation stirred up little fuss. The second wave was another story. Although Taft experienced none of the virulent confrontations of Little Rock’s Central High School, we did endure some mild turbulence. One day in October, a bunch of white students decided to stage a walkout to protest the arrival of more black pupils. I do not know what possessed these knuckleheads, but they actually asked black students like me who were already at the school to join them on the picket line. Of course, we told them to get lost. The only thing I can figure is that they cared more about skipping school than making a statement.
Several weeks later, my well-meaning homeroom teacher had a brainstorm that a good way to promote harmony between the races was for several of us black students to serve as hall monitors during the breaks between classes when kids moved from room to room. In other words, we were posted between opposite lanes of student traffic. Far from racial healers, we became convenient punching bags and kicking posts.
This lasted about a month before we decided to return fire. One morning when a couple of perpetrators passed by just before the bell, we collared them, hauled them into the stairwell, and roughed them up enough to let them know they should cut it out.
This encounter ended the physical confrontations but didn’t cure the tension. A handful of white classmates befriended black students, but they were rarities. And no matter how much adolescent hormones were raging, forget about socializing with white girls. That was strictly verboten. Black and white kids almost never visited each other’s homes back then. Thus, from the outset, classrooms and sports teams were integrated, but social life after school remained rigidly segregated.
Academics came easily for me at Taft. Several white teachers, bless their souls, betrayed nary a trace of racism and took it upon themselves to encourage me scholastically. Math was a breeze. Barbara Dekelbaum and Mr. Fisher, my math teachers, brought the subject alive. In English, Mrs. Mills stretched our reading tastes and made us write papers. She even tried to turn us on to Beowulf, the epic poem written sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries. In those days, I still expected to become a big-league ballplayer. My game plan certainly didn’t include maturing into a poet or an English teacher. As Mrs. Mills droned on, trying nobly to hold our attention, I doodled endlessly—cartoons, cars, anything to distract me.
Actually, I do have something useful to show today for all the doodling. During one of those dreary ninth-grade English classes, I designed the signature I planned to use when doling out autographs as a big-league ballplayer. I utilized a stylish script patterned after the way the names Dodgers and Indians were inscribed on the fronts of the home-team uniforms of Brooklyn and Cleveland, respectively.
Nearly a half-century later, when I attained a modicum of celebrity as head of the National Urban League and author of Achievement Matters, I relished signing autographs using the very signature I created in that English class. Admittedly, this happened at speaking engagements and book-tour events, not outside pro baseball clubhouses or at autograph shows. That was celebrity enough for me.
In high school, I continued the giddy ride academically but banged against an even harder wall socially. These proved to be the unhappiest three years of my life. My parents and my brother always encouraged me to reach for the stars scholastically. The original plan after Taft was for me to attend one of those exclusive New England prep schools. This was the proven pathway to Ivy League colleges, which the children of my parents’ closest friends had followed for decades. Andover, Mount Hermon, Exeter, Taft, and Kent—those were the fancy schools most familiar to black Washingtonians who harbored lofty dreams for their youngsters.
In the spring of my ninth-grade year, I was accepted by Mount Hermon. I geared up psychologically to go. But over the summer, my heart called a timeout. Why attend an all-male, socially isolated school in frigid New England during the prime of my adolescence, I wondered, when I could stay home and socialize with my friends? I put my foot down and declared I wasn’t going away to prep school, period.
My parents accepted my decision with a proviso. If I stayed home, they insisted that I had to attend one of Washington’s academically strongest high schools, even if it meant a lengthy trek by bus to a school outside my assigned district. Taft served as a feeder for McKinley Tech High School, a perfectly fine school. But it didn’t rank up there with Wilson or Coolidge, considered the cream of the crop among public high schools. Both were overwhelmingly white. Wilson was located way past Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington—not far, in fact, from Georgetown Day School. However, now that we had moved to northeast D.C., I probably could hitchhike to Baltimore faster than busing to Wilson.
Therefore, we trained our sights on Coolidge, which was closer and almost on par with Wilson academically. School choice existed even back then, provided you knew how to game the system. The trick was to find a course offered by the school you wanted to attend but not by the one where you were supposed to go. Since science and math were my strongest suits, we told the school district it was essential I take German, and that Coolidge was the closest school to home that offered this course of study. I entered Coolidge in the fall of 1956.
The decision to go there worked out fine academically. But it was an unmitigated disaster socially, utterly defeating my rationale for staying in D.C. To begin with, my neighborhood buddies took umbrage that I did not move on to McKinley with them. They excommunicated me from their social set. I was seldom invited to the very parties I had remained in D.C. to enjoy. McKinley had a bevy of black girls who were gorgeous and smart. Yet since I neither took classes nor partied with them, they scarcely knew I existed. The social isolation lasted throughout high school. Was I miserable!
Coolidge offered no consolation. Barely two years into integration, black students were scarce at the school. The social atmosphere mirrored Taft’s. White and black students at Coolidge were slightly more cordial toward each other, but the contact seldom extended beyond school. Again, we rarely visited each other’s homes and never, ever dated or danced across color lines.
The isolation and ostracism I suffered in high school exacerbated my innate shyness. I’m outgoing by design, not by instinct, and surely no natural-born schmoozer. Heading the National Urban League many years later forced me even farther out of my shell. When it came time to work a crowd, I would take a deep breath and plunge in, admittedly with an eye always on the clock and the exits.
Now, don’t get the idea I was a total hermit in high school. During junior year, I crossed paths with an elementary-school classmate who was pretty and smart as could be. We had been linked romantically at Bruce, if you can call puppy love “romance.” I discovered that her family had moved to Sandy Spring, Maryland, a forty-five-minute drive from our house. We started dating and became quite attached to one another. Beyond the feelings I had for her, she rescued me from the deep well into which I had plunged.
The rekindled relationship lasted through high school. It petered out—mostly at my instigation—when we both went off to college. This wasn’t one of my finest moments as a human being. High school had been such a traumatic time socially that I was determined to start afresh when I escaped Washington—brand-new identity, new locale, no shadow of my movie-star-handsome big brother hovering over my social life.
My scholastic success at Coolidge enabled me to write my own ticket to college, especially since Dad had squirreled away enough money to pay the whole freight. I recall getting only about three Bs the entire three years of high school, and those were for individual marking periods, I think, not for entire courses. The rest were As, all of them in honors classes. The bottom line was that I really kicked butt academically at Coolidge.
To be honest, my homeroom teacher, Ms. Anderson, who was white, believed so ardently in my potential that she occasionally challenged other teachers who had given me less-than-stellar grades. Millions of minority children struggle when saddled with teachers who lack faith in them and don’t push them to excel, and with counselors who steer them down the wrong path, and with test results that misconstrue their ability and potential. If all minority children had talented and devoted teachers like Ms. Anderson who believed in them, then that stubborn racial achievement gap would shrivel up, sure enough.
I ranked tenth in Coolidge’s senior class. Five of my classmates finished tied for first, with straight As all the way through high school. I set my sights on the best colleges east of the Mississippi River.
In the fall of senior year, I paid the obligatory visit to my guidance counselor to solicit her advice about where I should apply, based on my grades and SAT score. She was one of those curmudgeonly holdovers from segregation known for giving black students a hard time. In a bone-chilling conversation I will never forget, the “misguidance” counselor recommended I apply to some colleges I knew were several notches below where I should be aiming. She obviously did not have my best interest at heart. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to respond that I didn’t need advice like hers, and that my parents would help me with the application process from that point forward.
In the fall of 2000, I visited the Urban League affiliate in central Long Island to talk with black parents and their youngsters who belonged to our National Achievers Society. Theresa Sanders, the talented head of the affiliate, recounted an equally outrageous conversation with a guidance counselor. It seems her daughter was doing well in school and scoring way above grade level in reading and math. Sanders paid a visit to school to find out how to enroll her youngster in Advanced Placement courses. The guidance counselor said he wasn’t equipped to arrange that placement, since he did not have the requisite paperwork on hand. Nor did he lift a finger to get it from the office, or even volunteer to intercede on the child’s behalf. However, the counselor did ask if Sanders wanted to place her daughter in special education. He assured her that he did have those referral forms handy.
Such were—and remain—the obstacles facing many minority students who are sailing through school. Just imagine the impediments confronting youngsters who are perfectly bright, or even middle of the pack, yet whose parents are not knowledgeable or confident enough to navigate the school system on their behalf. These millions more minds are a terrible thing for society to waste.
For whites who do not understand what African-Americans mean when we rail against institutional racism, I offer these examples as evidence. This is the subtle and malicious way we often are held back behind the scenes.
In the end, I survived the scuttled dream of becoming a major leaguer, the social isolation, and the malice and discrimination to graduate from Coolidge and head for a top-flight college. High school toughened me up for the real world that lay ahead, although I could have done without rushing the maturation process by missing out on so many joys of adolescence.
Hugh B. Price was president of the National Urban League from 1994 to 2003.
Adapted with permission from This African-American Life, by Hugh B. Price, 2017, published by John F. Blair, publisher. For more information, please visit www.blairpub.com/this-african-american-life/?rq=this%20african-american%20life