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Important historical eras are often entered quietly, without cataclysm fanfare, or even notice. For Baltimore City Public Schools, it happened in 1960. That year, George B. Brain arrived from Bellevue, Washington, to become only the 12th superintendent since 1866. Brain was the first of what might be called the “modern” superintendents–those who presided over a system of change; whose pronouncements and programs generated extreme controversy; and whose employment sometimes fell victim to acrimony.
Previous superintendents had ruled in relative calm. David E. Weiglein (1925-1946) had educated a generation of Baltimoreans without much controversy. Even the historic decision to desegregate the schools in 1954, almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, had been made without huge disruption, especially among those who set policy and administered the system. (There had been considerable protest in the neighborhoods, particularly in South Baltimore, but even that was to pass away.) As a matter of fact, John H. Fischer. the superintendent who presided over desegregation, won the Hollander Foundation Award in 1955 for his “outstanding contribution toward the enforcement of equal rights and opportunities in Maryland.”
Another frontier was crossed the year George Brain moved across the continent: Baltimore’s school system became majority-black. It had happened rapidly after the unification of the white and “colored” systems at mid-decade, but it had been going on for years. White enrollment peaked in the 1930’s. Black enrollment increased from 31,300 in 1942 to 47,300 in 1952; while white enrollment fluctuated, declining during the war years and increasing in the early 1950’s. (Before desegregation, black and white city teachers had been consulting and consorting for some time. The “small town” nature of Baltimore was a factor–and still is.)
In 1955, the unified Baltimore system was 60 percent white in student population. In the1959-1960 school year, there were 2,000 more whites than blacks in a system whose total enrollment was increasing by 3,000 students a year–a sign of difficulties to come. The year Brain arrived, enrollment was 87,634 black and 82,588 white.
Baltimore had become a launching pad for “white flight.” Clifton Park Junior High School had 2,023 whites and 34 blacks just after desegregation; 10 years later, it had 2,037 blacks and 12 whites. Garrison Junior High School in Northwest Baltimore went from 2,504 whites and 12 blacks to 297 whites and 1,263 blacks in the same period. Brain predicted shortly after his arrival that by 1970, half of Baltimore’s children would be “socially deprived.” He was on the money...and money was leaving Baltimore.
The flight of the white middle class and, later, of the black middle class, to the suburbs contributed as much as anything to the severe problems experienced by Baltimore City schools in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. These people invested their time and money to help make their suburban schools superior. Their higher incomes were reflected in a state school-finance formula that has never “equalized” Baltimore City with most of the rest of Maryland–and that, in fact, finds Baltimore falling farther behind in the 1990’s.
At the same time, Brain had been on the job only a few months, when 14-year-old William J. Murray, III, walked out of the Bible-reading that was part of opening exercises at Woodbourne Junior High School and virtually every other school in the United States. Murray’s mother, Madalyn (later, Madalyn Murray O’Hair), eventually took her case against prayer and Bible reading in the schools to the Supreme Court, where she won in June 1963.
Meanwhile, although the Federal Civil Rights Commission declared, in 1961, that Baltimore was the only Southern city to have met the challenge of the 1954 Brown ruling, there were signs that racial equality meant more than opening school’s to both races. Thus, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been so instrumental in taking the Brown case to the high court, kept the pressure on.
Juanita Jackson Mitchell, president of the Maryland NAACP, charged that George Brain was discriminatory in his promotion practices. Both Brain and his predecessor, Fischer, moved blacks they considered the strongest leaders across the color-line into formerly all-white schools (but never higher than assistant principal). Mitchell charged that there was not a single black principal in a predominantly white school; in 1963, 53 of the city’s 189 schools had all-white faculties and 67 were entirely black.
The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave the City $4 million for educating the poor. (It was the predecessor of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program that was to change the face of American urban education.) Brain used the money to expand an “Early School Admissions” project in a 6-square-mile “target area.”