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Student Relationships Across Social Markers of Difference in a Baltimore County, Maryland, Comprehensive High School, 1950–1969

  • Caroline Eick (a1)


This article contributes to our historical understanding of student experience in general, and more particularly, to our understanding of developing cross-group relationships within desegregated schools over the second half of the twentieth century. The article draws from a broader study that examines students' evolving relationships within a matrix of intersecting identities in a Baltimore County comprehensive high school in Maryland between 1950 and 2000. The focus in this article is on Miller High students of the 1950s and 1960s during the early years of desegregation. Relationships remembered by graduates bring to light the hierarchical structure that distinguished white students along class and gender lines within an academically tracked system and the limitations and possibilities afforded African-American youth across class and gender as they encountered Miller High established norms for the first time in 1956 when the school desegregated.



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1 In the larger study, three different generations of students emerge over time who, bound by different demographic configurations and different levels of school disciplinary measures, constructed their peer relationships across social categories (gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religion), differently: “The Divided Generation” (1950–1969), “The Border-Crossing Generation” (1970–1985), and “The Re-divided Generation” (1986–2000). See Caroline Eick, Race-Class Relations and Integration in Secondary Education: The Case of Miller High (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). This analysis most closely builds on the works by Grant and Graebner. See Gerald Grant, The World We Created at Hamilton High (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) and Graebner, William Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). With these works it shares its focus on youth relations across race divides (Grant) and across race and class and gender divides (Graebner). Unlike Graebner's work, but similar to Grant's work, it situates its youth within school's institutional boundaries. However, while both Grant and Graebner examine youth in cities (Grant's city counted 220,000 people in 1953 compared with Miller Town's 2,077 in 1950; and Graebner's city was Buffalo), this analysis focuses on a third tier suburban town which develops over time from rural-suburban to urban-suburban; also, it examines more closely how peer relationships are historically shaped across markers of difference within the extracurricular and curricular spaces of school, and considers the implications of associative habits formed in high school for cross-racial and cross-class encounters in the workforce. In general, cultural histories and histories of youth situate young people outside the parameters of high school, and/or represent them one dimensionally. A sample of such works includes those of Kett, Joseph Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977); Cohen, R. “The Delinquents: Censorship and Youth Culture in Recent U.S. History,” History of Education Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1997): 251–70; Palladino, Grace Teenagers: An American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Austin, Joe and Willard, Michael, ed., Generations of Youth: Youth Culture and History in Twentieth Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1998). The few histories that do situate youth within the high school setting, and that attempt to address gender, class, and racial differences, do not reveal interactions between students across these social categories. See Frazier, E. F. Negro Youth at the Crossroads: Their Personality Development in the Middle States (New York: Scholar Books, 1967); Fish, Kenneth Conflict and Dissent in the High School (New York: Bruce Publishing Co., 1970); Fass, Paula “Creating New Identities: Youth and Ethnicity in New York City High Schools in the 193 0s and 1940s” in Generations of Youth: Youth Culture and History in Twentieth Century America, ed. Austin, Joe and Willard, Michael.

2 Seventeen alumnae and alumni of different race and socio-economic backgrounds, identified through yearbooks and alumni directories, as well as through snowball sampling, and who graduated from Miller High between 1954 and 1969 were formally interviewed in taperecorded sessions that ranged from one to two hours, and informally through follow-up calls, visits, and email communications. These alumni were chosen for their differences (gender and class just before 1956 desegregation; gender, class, and race following desegregation); and situated as males and females of different racial and economic backgrounds, across the two decades, as much as possible. The decade boundaries emerged from changes in oral testimonies (within broader study that covers 1950–2000) as well as from corroborating changes examined in yearbooks, and census data. This work foregrounds oral histories as primary sources that tell about meaning, belief, and perception, and not as reflections that corroborate or disprove broader historical events. Alessandro Portelli elegantly captures the possibilities of oral historical inquiry when he asserts that “what informants believe is indeed a historical fact (i.e., the feet that they believe it), as much as what really happened.” See Portelli, AlessandroWhat Makes Oral History Different,“ in The Oral History Reader, ed. Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair (New York: Routledge, 2005), 6374 (First emphasis mine, second emphasis that of the author). Also see Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). Because the intent in this historical analysis was primarily to locate different perspectives across intersecting markers of difference and to capture meanings ascribed to relationships in school as historical events in their own right, rather than investigate one past occurrence, “difference,” not “volume,” mattered. The goal was not to produce a “collective” memory of Miller High students. Undeniably, such an endeavor would have required “volume,” but more importantly, would have proven futile given the many situated perspectives that compete for the historical meanings of an institution whose population is heterogeneous. Finally, because the focus was on perceptions and meanings ascribed to school relationships by alumni of different backgrounds, the “truth status of individual stories became less important than the value they [were] trying to support in the telling.” See Irma Omeldo, “Redefining Culture Through the Memorias of Elderly Latinas,” Qualitative Inquiry 5 (1993): 353–76. Archival research was conducted in the Baltimore County Board of Education archives in Towson, Maryland where general county school policies were examined; in the Maryland rooms of Enoch Pratt Baltimore City Public Library and of the University of Maryland College Park where census data and Maryland State Board of {Education communications were examined; in the library of Miller High School where the school newspaper and archived alumni achievements and photographs were examined; and the “historic room” of Miller Town community library where Miller High yearbooks and local community newspapers were examined. Histories and photographs of the evolving Miller High school which began as an academy in the nineteenth century and of peoples of the region, including oral histories of African-American communities of the region were also studied. Yearbooks 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968 were examined and descriptive statistics were derived for total populations of students as well as distribution of student population by race and gender, for distribution of students across race and gender in extracurricular activities and clubs (yearbook staff, newspaper staff, honor society, Future Nurses, Teachers and Farmers of America, choir, thespians and jesters clubs, etc.) and across sports activities. At the Miller Town library, I was introduced to works by African-American oral historian Louis Diggs, with whom I established an email communication and who directed me to Annie Milligan, who in turn introduced me to the African-American community of Miller Town. Holdings in the “historic room” of Miller Town Library primarily feature the histories of its white middle-class citizens (one exception includes a reference to a Buffalo soldier buried in Miller Town). Efforts are being invested to increase African-American representation at the library.

3 While scholarship has examined civil rights student activism in institutions of higher education, and more recently in high schools, these works do not examine students’ relationships across social markers of difference within desegregated schools as these might unfold over time. They tend to focus on students’ participations, as black or white students, in the political struggles for desegregation and protests for fair treatment. Finally, they do not examine students’ situated perspectives across multiple intersecting categories of identity, to include, beyond race, gender, and class. Most recent works on high school activism include Wright, Dwayne C.Black Pride Day, 1968: High School Student Activism in York, Pennsylvania,“ The Journal of African-American History 88 (Spring 2003): 151–62; Danns, Dionne “Chicago High School Students’ Movement for Quality Education, 1966–1971,” The Journal of African-American History 88 (Spring 2003): 13 8–50. Also see Franklin, V. P. “Black High School Student Activism in the 1960s: An Urban Phenomenon?,” Journal of Research in Education 10 (Fall 2000): 3–8. For an overview of works on African-American student activism in colleges as well as secondary institutions, see Franklin, V.P. “Introduction: African American Student Activism in the 20th Century,” The Journal of African-American History 88 (Spring 2003): 105–9.

4 A11 proper names have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect those narrators unwilling to be identified with testimonies they felt would compromise their professional and familial relationships in the community. Some narrators have agreed to reconsider release of transcripts at a later date. See Diggs, Louis S. Since the Beginning: African American Communities in Towson (Baltimore: Uptown Press, 2000); Holding On To Their Heritage (Catonsville, MD: privately printed, 1996); In Our Own Voices: A Folk History in Legacy (Catonsville, MD: privately printed, 1998); Brugger, Robert J. Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634–1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 1988), 264. Palumbos, Robert “Student Involvement in the Baltimore Civil Rights Movement, 1953–63,” Maryland Historical Magazine 94 (1999): 449–85.

5 Brugger, Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 16341980, 297. In 1967, Baltimore County created the “Urban-Rural Demarcation Line” which “preserved exurban areas as farmland in the northern section of Baltimore County.” See Vicino, Thomas J. Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 42. Between 1950 and 1970, the total population of Miller Town rose from 2,077 to 14,037. In 1950, whites represented approximately 92 percent of the population, and blacks, roughly 8 percent. In 1970, as white flight intensified, percentages of whites rose to represent 97 percent of the population (from 1,912 registered white citizens in 1950 to 13,724 in 1970) compared with the black population which while it decreased in proportion to represent approximately 3 percent of the total population, increased from 165 registered African Americans in 1950 to 313 in 1970. See U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, 1950 Census Population; and U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, 1970 Census Population. Census data held at Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore city, Maryland Room. Not only would Miller High count among the suburban schools that desegregated early and remained desegregated (though not necessarily authentically integrated within school walls), but the racial and economic make-up of its student body would diversify dramatically by the nineties.

6 C. P., Miller's Century of Progress 1878–1978 (<Miller Town>): C. P., 1978). Information collected from conversations with Annie Milligan, octogenarian African-American lady whose family tree extends into the nineteenth century. Also see works by Louis Diggs earlier cited. Picture counts of freshmen and graduating seniors in yearbooks served to trace student population growth. Neither school archives nor county board of education archives hold statistics on Miller High student populations throughout the fifties and sixties. Graduating class of 1956 counted 70 seniors. Graduating class of 1958 counted 125 students of which four were African-American (two girls and two boys). By 1960, the total number of students had doubled (144). By 1968 the total number of students had quintupled (360)–twelve were African-American (seven girls and five boys). African-American students would continue to represent roughly 3 percent of the student population until the eighties when their numbers would rise to represent roughly 10 percent of the student population. Also, for references on school expansion in Maryland during the after war years see Chapter 10, “Land of Pleasant Living (1944–1966),” in Bugger earlier cited.

7 For example, when averaging student participation by gender and race for student yearbook club, newspaper club, and honor society (for yearbooks 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968) the following proportions emerge: on average thirteen white young women compared with eight white young men served on yearbook staff and no black youth served across the two decades; on average twelve white young women compared with five white young men served on school newspaper staff and no black youth (only one anomaly shows up in the year 1964 when there were only ten white young women compared with fourteen white young men); on average 126 young white women compared with seventy-eight white young men were in the honor society across the decades and no black youth. The Future Teachers of America and Future Nurses of America were consistently dominated by white women (only one white man appears in the late sixties in Future Teachers of America, and two African-American young women appear in Future Nurses of America in the mid and end of sixties). Across the two decades women only are represented in the Future Business Leaders of America across races. This extracurricular activity recruited young women from the commercial track who prepared to become secretaries. Populated solely by males were the Future Farmers of America club and later in the sixties, the chess club. The gender division of sports renders gender comparisons futile. However, it is worth noting that young black men were enrolled in basketball, soccer, and/or track, and of those, most were also attending academic tracks. Football would not show up until 1969. There are no sports pictures featuring African-American young women. They do appear in the seventies and later years.

8 Kaufman, Dorothy (1950–1954), interview by author, 4 February 2003.

9 Web, Alice (1950–1954), interview by author, 2 September 2003. Findings about girls’ greater academic engagement align with other historians’ findings. See Tyack, David and Hansot, Elizabeth, Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990); Conant, James B. The American High School Today: A First Report to Interested Citizens (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), and his second report in The Comprehensive High School: A Second Report (1967). Although there is no possibility of assessing how many girls in fact did homework for the boys, the fact that male and female alumni who do not know each other reported as much, and that they reported as much across time periods (within the broader study) justifies documenting this recollection. Future research might focus on recovering changes and continuities in female/male student relationships not in terms of achievement gaps, but in terms of study habits and the role that sexual interest (or not) plays in shaping these.

11 Moss, Linda (1965–1969), interview by author, 21 January 2003. The name of yearbook has been changed to protect agreements of confidentiality. The name of the school newspaper has also been changed to protect agreements of confidentiality. Yearbooks and alumni's stories reveal a consistent majority of young women editors, writers, and illustrators of yearbooks, as well as editors and writers of the school newspaper.

11 Alice Web (1950–1954), interview by author, 2 September 2003.

12 Judy Law (1950–1954), interview by author, 11 February 2003.

13 Ibid.

14 Alumni's recollections echoed historian Beth Bailey's findings regarding the social practice of dating and “going steady.” See Bailey, Beth From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

15 Nat Right (1957–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004; Bud Land (1964–1968), interview by author, 16 August 2003; Alice Web (1950–1954), interview by author, 2 September 2003.

16 Web, Alice (1950–1954), interview by author, 2 September 2003; Linda Moss (1965–1969), interview by author, 27 January 2003.

17 Alice Web (1950–1954), interview by author, 2 September 2003.

18 Descriptions of agricultural classes and yearly fall fairs were provided by white alumna Nora Jones [Jones, Nora (1955–1959), interview by author, 12 June 2003]; and identified in yearbooks 1954, 1958, and 1962. Quote is from transcript of Robert Heart's oral testimony. Robert Heart also spoke of the friends who shared his economic circumstances [Robert Heart (1952–1956), interview by author, 8 April 2003.]

19 Heart, Robert (1952–1956), interview by author, 8 April 2003.

20 Ibid.

21 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003; Heart, Robert (1952–1956), interview by author, 8 April 2003; Parson, Sherry (1958–1962), interview by author, 16 February 2003; Right, Nat (1958–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004.

22 Right, Nat (1958–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004.

23 Ibid.

24 Parson, Sherry (1958–1962), interview by author, 16 February 2003; Bud Land (1964–1968), ‘interview by author, 16 August 2003.

25 In 1956, five African-American students who lived in Miller Town and who had been attending the all-black school in Towson, were transferred to Miller High. They were attending ninth and tenth grade at the time. Of those five, three were young women and two were young men. Of the three young women, two were interviewed, and of the two young men, one was interviewed. The other one had passed away. Thus, three of the five alumni and alumnae who had been the original transferred students shared their oral histories. Between 1956 and 1968, thirty-one African-American students graduated from Miller High. Of these, three men who graduated across the two decades (1959, 1963, 1967), and three women, one who graduated in 1958, and two who did not graduate from Miller High, but who attended in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, shared their oral histories. Yearbook data reveal that until 1964, the numbers of young black women and men graduating from Miller High were about equal (two and two; and three and three). Beginning in 1968, the numbers shift in favor of African-American young women (seven young women vs. five young men). Throughout later generations of Miller High students, graduation rates for African-American young women would continue overall higher than for those of African-American young men (when comparing incoming freshmen pictures with senior pictures).

26 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

27 Ibid., and Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003.

28 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003.

32 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

33 Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003 (when Doris shared her feelings she shook her head in disbelief and wonderment); Annie Cole (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

34 Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003.

35 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 The brief biographies accompanying senior pictures in yearbooks were examined to identify students’ academic tracks and extracurricular involvements.

39 Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003. By the end of the 20th century at Miller High, race dynamics would change somewhat, but only for the well-to-do. In the nineties, diverse youth of upper middle-class background were more likely to develop relationships across race and ethnicity. However, racial and ethnic tensions and violence escalated among lower middle-class and working-class youth.

40 Right, Doris (1956–1958), interview by author, 4 September 2003.

41 Good, Norman (1956–1959), interview by author, 18 March 2003.

42 Ibid.

43 Cole, Annie (1956–1958), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

44 Norman Good (1956–1959), interview by author, 18 March 2003.

45 Norman Good (1956–1959), interview by author, 18 March 2003. Athletes Willie James and Jimmy Cole are deceased. Norman Good and Annie Cole were the two graduates who shared their memories of their friends and brother who competed in basketball. Football was considered too dangerous a sport in Baltimore County until the late sixties when it was first introduced at Miller High in 1969.

46 Norman Good (1956–1959), interview by author, 18 March 2003.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 The question still remains why academically talented black girls did not make it into the academic track, since they too would not have been recommended for a white college after graduation. Some evidence suggests that African-American girls in Miller Town lacked the parental insistence that would set them on a course toward higher education in the very early days of desegregation. Interviews with graduates of the 1970s, as well as with Milligan, Annie (respected elder of the community mentioned earlier), suggest that many of Miller Town's black families concentrated their efforts on males’ academic success. Young black women were often needed after school to help with care-taking. This would change for African-American young women by the seventies at Miller High.

50 Right, Nat (1957–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004.

51 Cole, Annie (1957–1959), interview by author, 11 March 2003.

52 Ibid.

53 Moris, Dotty (1961–1964), interview by author, 24 September 2003.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Recollections of alumni, black and white, male and female, who graduated in the fifties, refer only to “athletes.” Graduates of the sixties begin to use the term “jocks.”

57 Nat Right (1958–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004.

58 Ibid.

59 Sadden, Burt (1963–1967), interview by author, 26 July 2004.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 On the contrary, the cafeteria would become, as documented within the broader study for later years, the barometer for levels, not of integration, but of segregation, and a place more akin to prison inmates’ mess hall than a young people's lunch area.

64 Sadden, Burt (1963–1967), interview by author, 26 July 2004.

65 Right, Nat (1958–1963), interview by author, 19 July 2004.

66 Ibid.

67 Of note here is the contrast between the findings in this analysis and those of Coleman, who is most notable for identifying high school youth of the 1950s as focused solely on popularity status among peers. Coleman painted them primarily engaged in their own adolescent societies where “looking good” determined hierarchies of popularity. The stories in this analysis, however, reveal young white middle class women seeking to please authority figures more than peers, and white young men engaged in their own worlds peripheral to school life. The rural setting and the lack of football might explain the teacher-centered focus at Miller High (whether to please teachers or to rebel against them). Coleman underscored the little influence that adults held in the lives of high school adolescents. This work, on the contrary, reveals young females’ negotiations of appearance as a means to maintain closeness with teachers and school authorities who more readily accepted a certain look in their charges. These white young women were a very conservative force, as Coleman's study suggested, but at Miller High they strove to please authority figures with whom they shared almost familial relations. Their focus was on ensuring their particular student, rather than peer status. See Coleman, Jame The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).

68 More research is needed to explore, through student experience and cross-group relationships within and across time periods, the implications of enclosed school spaces for developing or sabotaging authentic democratic relationships.

69 In general, crossing racial lines was gender specific, and more readily achieved between young women than young men. This would change for the Re-Divided Generation of the late 1980s and 1990s when young white and black women would also engage in racial fights.

70 Carnoy and Levin quoted in Labaree, David F. How to Succeed in School without Really Lemming (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 49.

Her forthcoming book, Race-Class Relationships and Integration in Secondary Education: The Case of Miller High, is scheduled for release by Palgrave Macmillan in fall 2010.

Student Relationships Across Social Markers of Difference in a Baltimore County, Maryland, Comprehensive High School, 1950–1969

  • Caroline Eick (a1)


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