Nina Honemond Clarke laughs when she recalls the bus she rode every morning attending segregated elementary schools in the 1920s and 30s.
“It was painted blue. … We called it the blue onion because this blue paint was peeling off,” she said. “It was no good. It couldn’t get up the hill. The kids would have to get off the bus and push it up the hill and run and jump back in and down the hill we’d go.”
Clarke, 87, sits beside a picture of her maternal grandfather, a slave born to a slave father and a white Irish mother. She grew up on Peachtree Road near Poolesville, the youngest girl among ten brothers and sisters. Her family has been in Montgomery County for seven generations.
“Montgomery County didn’t build any schools for black children when I was a little girl. We had to go to school in churches or fraternal halls or whatever building in our community we could find to have school in. They only provided a teacher,” Clarke said.
She should know. Not only did Clarke (whose first name is pronounced NIGH-na) attend a variety of one- and two-room black elementary schools, she later co-wrote the book on them: the “History of the Black Public Schools of Montgomery County, Maryland: 1872-1961.”
When Montgomery County schools integrated in the late 1950s, Clarke was a teacher, and she became one of the first black teachers to teach white students in the county.
In 1866, the Quaker community in Sandy Spring opened the first school for African-American children, the Sharpe Street Industrial School. Other schools followed, but from emancipation well into the 1900s, the burden of educating black children fell mostly on individual black communities.
Clarke attended school first in a one-room house built on her father’s property and later in a church in the Jerusalem community near Poolesville, where the children sat in the pews and wrote on their knees.
“We had one unabridged dictionary — nothing but rags — that was our library,” she said. “When white children finished with their books, that was the books we had.”
There were dozens of such schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and many of them had to move several times. Most of the schools had no plumbing and few windows. The first major improvement for black schools came in 1926.
In that year, the county began to build or renovate 15 black elementary schools using money donated by the businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.
Rosenwald “had a lot of money but he didn’t believe in keeping it,” Clarke said, and his money paid for more than 5,000 black schools nationally.
The 15 local Rosenwald schools were built between 1926 and 1928 included a one-room schoolhouse in Scotland and a two-room building on River Road. Most of the remaining black elementary schools were closed.
In 1927, the county built its first black high school, Rockville Colored High School. It was replaced by Lincoln High School on Stonestreet Avenue in Rockville in 1935 and then by Carver High School and G.W. Carver Junior College — now the site of the Carver Educational Services Building which houses the superintendent and Board of Education — in 1950.
The last chapter in segregated education in Montgomery County began in 1948. “Somebody got a conscience [and decided it was] time to build some schools for black children,” Clarke said, and the county began construction on four modern, brick elementary school: Longview in Gaithersburg, Edward U. Taylor in Boyds, Rock Terrace in Rockville, and Sandy Spring in Sandy Spring. The remaining black schools were eliminated one by one as all of the county’s black students were funneled into the new schools. They were completed in 1952.
Two years later, in May, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a case called Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Board of Education Resolution 1055-55, adopted March 21, 1955, read, in part, “The Board of Education also acknowledges the moral and democratic implications of the rulings, and regards compliance as an opportunity to extend all of its educational programs and facilities to all of the children on an impartial basis.”
Integration began in September of 1955 under the leadership of Superintendent Forbes H. Norris.
“He was a very strong superintendent. He was determined he was going to obey the law. And so he did,” Clarke said.
Norris established two biracial advisory committees — one made up of school professionals and one of parents — to make recommendations on the integration process.
The committees recommended immediate implementation of full integration, in spite of a minority that argued integration should be phased in across 12 years — one grade at a time.
The system made slow but steady progress, issuing annual reports on the numbers of black students in each school. In the 1957-58 school year, two years after integration, 68 percent of the county’s 3,035 black students remained in segregated schools.
Schools were considered fully integrated in 1961, even though scores of schools remained that had only white students because no blacks lived in the district. Montgomery County neighborhoods remained segregated for years after school integration. Those schools were integrated by moving one black teacher from another school.
Clarke was one such teacher.
“I had all white children as long as I was in the classroom in an integrated school, I didn’t have anything but white children,” she said. “We had to prove ourselves. That first year of integration, some of the white parents didn’t want their children in our room, because they thought we weren’t good enough teachers. They found out that we were. We were just as highly educated, we were more experienced than many of the other teachers, and we had so much compassion for children because when we were in segregated schools for some real poor children, we had to be surrogate parents.”
From then on, she said. “I never had any trouble with the parents. … At Christmastime, I was loaded with gifts.”
As for the children, “I wasn’t with those white children very long, maybe a week, I forgot they were white. They forgot I was black,” she said.
Allison Claggett had a similar experience. He was the first black man to teach in an integrated school in Maryland.
“I had absolutely no trouble with the students,” he said. “The trouble you did have was with the parents. Parents did not want their students in a black person’s classroom. … [It] was sort of frightening when you first thought about it. You thought, ‘I am going into a situation that no one has ever gone into this type of situation before.’ You had to be on your p’s and q’s because you wanted to be successful.”
Like Clarke, Claggett was quickly not only accepted, but lauded. “I have a lot of letters from kids from after I got out that tell me I was the best teacher they ever had,” he said.
Claggett is now the great-grandfather of two, and said he cherishes the fact that they know equality in education to be the norm.
“I think that integration was the best thing that every happened to education, in Maryland and in the country,” he said.
At 87, Clarke remains energetic; she is part of a dance team that she says performs for “old people.” And she is still an educator at heart, speaking regularly at events and to school groups.
Those engagements are sometimes touching. “I had one little girl cry. She cried her little heart out. … I asked her, ‘Why are you crying sweetheart?’ She said, ‘I’m crying because you had to go to that old, bad school.’ And she thought I was still in that old bad school. And she couldn’t believe that anyone would do that to me,” Clarke said.
“You know children’s imagination is wonderful. They have no experience to bring to what I’m telling them, they only have their imaginations.”
Clarke always finishes by reminding students that they are the county's future leaders:
“It’s going to be your responsibility to keep our country going ahead. Don’t you ever let us go to what we used to have. I said that was bad life for us and we can’t do that. I said America is supposed to be the greatest country in the world and so we have to show the rest of the world that we are.”