In 1904, segregation was officially sanctioned by Maryland law, starting on steamboats and railway cars.
Sixty years later, Maryland law put a stop to segregation in public facilities.
In 1967, public schools in St. Mary’s County finally were fully integrated, 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation must end nationwide, finding that separate education by race was not equal.
A panel at Historic St. Mary’s City explored Thursday race relations during the 20th century, featuring the experiences of those who lived under segregation and views on where society is today.
Everlyn Holland, 80, a retired nurse, told the audience she was walking along Hollywood Road toward Leonardtown when she was a teenager. A car occupied by young white men drove past. As they went by someone yelled a racial epithet. “I wasn’t surprised at it,” Holland said. “Walking along the road having someone yell at you, it was terrible.”
Alonzo Gaskin, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said that when he attended Great Mills High School shortly after integration in the late 1960s, black students were like “disassociated souls. There wasn’t a lot of love from the teachers.”
Schools in St. Mary’s had been segregated for generations, since free public education was offered after the Civil War. After the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, Lettie Marshall Dent, superintendent of St. Mary’s County schools, said in June 1955, “We will work with the sincere and honest purpose of carrying out the mandate of court desegregation and no attempt will be made at stalling.” A desegregation committee was formed made of both whites and blacks.
Integration began in the fall of 1956 in the first and second grades of St. Mary’s County Catholic schools. Dent retired at the end of 1957.
On Sept. 4, 1958, Joan and Thomas Groves became the first black students to integrate into county public schools at Great Mills High School. But by March 1966 there were still two black high schools at Carver and Banneker. Integration was complete by the start of the 1967 school year in St. Mary’s. The timing was similar in other Maryland counties.
Young people today don’t understand the system of segregation, panelists said. There were schools for whites and schools for blacks. There were front doors to businesses for whites and side doors for blacks. There was the front of the church for whites and the back for blacks. There were two separate county fairs. The system of Jim Crow was prevalent throughout the American South, and that included Southern Maryland.
Telling young people of those experiences, “They look at you like deer in headlights,” Holland said the day after the panel. “I understand their frustrations.”
Born in North Carolina in 1932, Holland moved to St. Mary’s when she was 2 years old. She attended Banneker School, for black students, and graduated in 1949.
She went to work as a licensed practical nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, which was also segregated. Black patients were kept upstairs at the old hospital location where the St. Mary’s Nursing Center is today. When Holland and her husband went to the two movie theaters in Leonardtown, blacks had to come in through the side door and sit upstairs in the balcony.
St. Mary’s Hospital still wasn’t integrated by 1968, she said.
Integration in St. Mary’s, she said, “came by creeping and moving forward. People are conditioned down through the generations, but thank God for young people.”
At the panel discussion, Holland said institutions in St. Mary’s integrated only because the law decreed it. “Nothing was ever given because they felt it was the right thing to do. I never encountered an institution that willingly said we were going to do this. The institutions, they held the status quo,” she said.
“Over time there was a melding of people ... the school system in itself did not willingly make things better,” Gaskin said.
Now, the school system is working feverishly to bring in minority teachers, he said, so young black males have role models to look up to.
Leonardtown attorney J. Ernest Bell II, a former state delegate, said four local leaders come to mind in promoting racial equality — Joseph Lee Somerville, John G. Lancaster, Dr. J. Patrick Jarboe and Elmer Brown. Jarboe and Lancaster, now deceased, were both county commissioners. Lancaster was the county’s first, and so far only, black commissioner, first elected in 1986.
Somerville was Maryland’s first black elected sheriff, elected as St. Mary’s sheriff in 1978. Brown started the Unified Committee for Afro-Americans in St. Mary’s.
Much was gained and then lost after integration, Gaskin said. The sense of the black community has been lost since then, he said.
Asked how race relations are today, Gaskin said, “Is it real improvement or just perceived improvement?”
Bell said, “The glass is more than half full compared to 50 years ago.”
A member of the audience said these stories from the time of segregation need to be passed down to young people and not forgotten.
The community is better off now, but there are still many homeless people in St. Mary’s, Holland said, and the discussion turned to one of economics and class, more than race. “This is a capitalist society. It’s about the money,” Holland said.