It is always exciting to obtain fresh perspectives and insights on Cecil County’s past, something that is often provided when scholars take a serious look at our history. These thorough investigations, requiring months of intensive digging into original documents and a critical evaluation of the sources, are valuable as they focus on specific research questions and use the highest principles of historical inquiry and analysis to piece together an understanding of things that came before us.
A Washington College graduate, Kyle Dixon, is one of those researchers bringing a scholar’s fresh eye to an unstudied subject in the county. Seniors at the Eastern Shore college are required to fulfill a senior capstone obligation by conducting a substantial investigation and write a thesis on the subject.
As an American Studies major he launched a study that sought to piece together the story of the integration of public schools in Cecil County. His Senior Thesis, Standing in the Schoolhouse Door: The Desegregation of Public Schools in Cecil County, Maryland, 1954 – 1965 was just approved by the American Studies department and has been added to the Eva M. Muse Library at the Historical Society of Cecil County.
His investigation began at the Historical Society as he reviewed the literature on the subject, read newspapers from the era, and studied old school records. Kyle moved on from that initial survey to visit McDaniel College, which has the papers of Morris Rannels, the county’s superintendent of schools, 1952-1960. He continued the inquiry by examining the record of the Board of Education at the Cecil County Public Schools Carver Leadership Center, visiting the Maryland Archives, and reviewing sources at the Enoch Pratt Library.
After the historic Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled that legally sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection, officials throughout the United States struggled with implementation of desegregation. In Cecil County that matter was more urgent because the county had a major military base, and the attempted admission of African-American students resulted in an immediate test of federal policies. In the local system racial segregation was the norm, but the military was fully integrated, in accordance with a policy enacted by President Harry Truman and carried on by the Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson.
When students headed back to the classroom in September 1954, seven African-American children of navy personnel were denied entry into the Bainbridge Elementary School when they were met at the door by Superintendent Morris Rannels and Principal Mildred Balling. The administrators instructed the youngsters to report to the “Port Deposit Colored School.”
This early incident involving a facility on federal property resulted in a suit against the Cecil County Board of Education in 1954, and started the county on the long-winding, eleven year trip toward racial equality in public schools. The Board of Education, at first, instructed professional and legal staff to resist integration. But as time went on mounting public and judicial pressures, involving the Eisenhower Administration, Department of Navy, the NAACP, the U.S. Attorney General, the press, Maryland Department of Education, and the involved families, increased.
After a federal judge refused to dismiss the civil suit, charging local officials with violating the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the parties agreed to settle the matter out of court, according to the Afro-American. When the school doors opened next year, it was an integrated facility for Navy personnel. Eventually the Board voted to fully integrate one school, Bainbridge Elementary, and slowly begin the process of opening all facilities to African-American students through a plan of optional integration.
Under the “freedom of choice” system families could request that their children attend another school. In August 1957, five students made history when the Board of Education approved transfer of Diane Elizabeth Hobday and Janie Mae from George Washington Carver High School to Perryville High; Robert Thomas and David Tipton Hobday from “Port Deposit Colored Elementary School” to Bainbridge Elementary; and Marie Dante Sewell from George Washington Carver Elementary to Chesapeake City Elementary. These are the first documented transfers under the optional system.
Another student made history in June 1960. Bernard Purdie graduated from Elkton High, becoming the first African American to receive a diploma from an all-white high school.
But the end of separate, overlapping districts for whites and blacks was near by the mid-1960s. During George Washington Carver High’s 37th commencement exercise on June 8, 1964, nine seniors stepped forward to receive diplomas. The class of 1964 was last the last one to graduate from Carver as the next autumn African-American teenagers attended the nearest high school. The elementary school in the same building continued for one more year.
The system was fully integrated in 1965. That year, the Board of Education voted to close the last two segregated schools, Levi J. Coppin in Cecilton and Carver Elementary in Elkton. Youngsters formerly attending classes there reported to the nearest facility in their area when the doors opened in the autumn.
Kyle is also a volunteer at the Historical Society of Cecil County, where he serves as the social media editor, looking out for the county’s history beat on Facebook and Twitter.