Bette Thompson remembers what attending school in Montgomery County was like before integration. Born and raised in Scotland, she began her education at Scotland Elementary School in the early 1940s.
“It was just a little one-room schoolhouse,” Thompson said. Built in 1927 on land contributed by one of Scotland’s original families, the Masons, the school was built in part from funds contributed by Julius Rosenwald, a former president of Sears Robuck who contributed much of his wealth to creating schools for black students around the country.
That building where Thompson attended school through the seventh grade was the second version of Scotland Elementary.
The original Scotland Elementary was built in the same year that Scotland was first settled by the families of ex-slaves. Located on Seven Locks Road near the current site of Seven Locks Elementary School, the original structure, like its successor, was a one-room building. Operating from 1879 until 1927, it was the only school of any level that children from Scotland had to go to.
When the second Scotland Elementary opened in the neighborhood of Scotland, it served grades 1 through 7. Upon graduation from Scotland Elementary, Scotland children could attend Rockville Colored High School in downtown Rockville, which opened in the same year. Middle schools for black or white students did not exist in the county until 1955, said Clare Kelly, Historic Preservation Planner with the Montgomery County Planning Board.
Scotland Elementary was closed in 1954, and students from Scotland attended elementary school at Rock Terrace in Rockville, said Warrick Hill, author of “Before Us Lies the Timber: The Segregated High School of Montgomery County, 1927-1960.”
Seven Locks Elementary opened in 1964, and Scotland children attended elementary school there until Bells Mill Elementary opened in 1968.
"I didn't find out about how Potomac was until they built Bells Mill," Thompson said. Initial redistricting plans to determine which children would go to Bells Mill included neighborhoods near Scotland, but carved around Scotland itself, said Thompson. When the community asked why that was, they were told that including the Scotland kids in Bells Mill would overcrowd the school.
"Some people wanted Scotland ... but some of them didn't," said Thompson. "The majority didn't want Scotland in Bells Mill."
Thompson, along with longtime Scotland resident Geneva Mason and several other Scotland residents, brought their objections to the plan before the Montgomery County Board of Education, and after much deliberation Scotland was included within the Bells Mill boundaries.
Bells Mill continues today to be the elementary school for the children of Scotland.
THE OPENING of Rockville Colored High School in 1927 marked “the first opportunity for any black youth in the county to receive higher education than elementary school,” said Kelly. White students had the choice of three high schools — Rockville, Gaithersburg, or Sandy Spring — as far back as 1906, Kelly said.
Making the six-mile trek from Scotland to Rockville was a difficult task, and one that many could not afford, said Hill.
For the first three years the school was opened, children who attended had to pay a fare to ride the bus to school. In 1930 Montgomery County Public Schools began offering partial bus fare subsidies to black students, but often it was not enough, Hill said. Many black students in Scotland and throughout the county could not afford to pay even the subsidized amount, said Hill.
For students who couldn’t afford the bus fare, “you didn’t ride,” said Hill. “You stayed home.”
This was true also of Lincoln High School, the successor to Rockville Colored High School, which opened in 1935. That situation remained the same until 1949, when Montgomery County Public Schools began offering free school busing to all county students.
Lincoln High School was an improvement over the two-room Rockville Colored High School. The lack of indoor plumbing at that building led students and teachers to walk next door to the Rockville Colored Elementary School to use the restroom, said Hill. Thompson attended Lincoln High School and graduated in 1951. Hill attended Lincoln before getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morgan State University and a master’s degree in Supervision Administration from George Washington University. Hill went onto teach at Robert E. Peary High School for 27 years.
“When I first walked in,” said Hill of Lincoln High School, “I thought to myself, ‘What a beautiful building.’” Hill marveled at the six-room brick structure that included a science lab with one sink, one Bunsen burner, one test-tube and one beaker. Many years later he learned that Lincoln was not actually a new building, but rather an old warehouse that had been transported from Takoma Park and reassembled with a brick veneer.
Lincoln High School operated as the only junior-senior high school for black students in Montgomery County, offering grades 8-11. Then in 1951 Benjamin Carver Senior High School opened, offering grades 11-12, as well as a junior college for black students for the first time.
The integration of Montgomery County schools was a gradual process that began in 1955.
In 1955, two black teachers began teaching at all-white schools. In the same year, the four top performing African-American male students from Lincoln High School’s eighth grade were chosen to attend all-white high schools, said Hill.
“It was a test to see how the black kids would handle being at white schools,” said Hill.
One of those students was Thomas Prather, said Hill, who went on to be a Major General in the U.S. Army. Hill said that for the first month none of the students talked to Prather or sat next to Prather in class or on the school bus.
“One of the white students finally told him, ‘We were just testing you out because we thought you had a knife,’” said Hill. “There was this rumor that all black kids carried knives with them.”
More black students were transferred to white schools, and in 1958 Lincoln High School closed. In 1960 the integration of Montgomery County Public Schools was completed and Benjamin Carver Senior High School and Junior College closed, Kelly said. It was later renovated to serve as an administrative facility for MCPS, a capacity that it continues to serve.
With those two schools closed, the children of Scotland had the option to attend either Walt Whitman High School or Walter Johnson High School, said Thompson. In 1965 Winston Churchill High School opened and became the home school for Scotland high school students.
Today the children of Scotland go to public school in the Churchill Cluster: Bells Mill Elementary School, Cabin John Middle School, and Winston Churchill High School.
Thompson has seen a lot in her lifetime, and she values education highly. It is a value that she passed on to each of her four children and continues to pass on to the children of Scotland.
"I say... 'Whatever [your teachers] tell you to do, do; just do your work, that’s the main thing.' And I say 'When you get it up here,'" said Thompson, tapping her temple, "'they can't take it away from you.'"
<1b>Information from the Montgomery County Historical Society was used in this article.