Last night I attended the premiere of “With All Deliberate Speed: One High School’s Story,” a documentary film about the desegregation of Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County. A racially-mixed audience of about 175 gathered in the Great Mills High School auditorium to view the film featuring interviews with former teachers, administrators, and students who experienced the school’s desegregation. The film was produced by St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor Merideth Taylor and was funded by a grant from the PNC Foundation Legacy Project in partnership with the Maryland Humanities Council.
The one-hour screening was followed by a panel discussion with five former GMHS students including Joan Groves who, along with her younger brother, was one of the first two black students to enroll at the school. Panelists also addressed questions and comments from the audience members, many of whom shared their own experiences with school desegregation.
Several interesting ideas and questions surfaced from the discussion. I’ve described some of them here, and posed questions for your consideration:
The panelists were asked if they thought they were better or worse off for having attended the desegregated Great Mills rather than George Washington Carver, the high school previously designated for Blacks. Audience responses suggested there might be valid arguments for both viewpoints. Please share your thoughts about your school experience, especially if you attended a segregated school or participated in a school’s desegregation.
One audience member, a former school teacher, pointedly stated that while St. Mary’s County schools may have been desegregated, they were not integrated. (These terms were used interchangeably during the discussion.) She supported her comment saying that one only needs to look at the more academic classrooms beyond fifth grade to see that black student numbers drop off significantly in the more competitive classes. What are your opinions about the difference between desegregation of schools vs. integration of schools?
One gentleman who was a classmate of Joan Groves when she desegregated Great Mills shared that he is grateful for athletics because they provided him with a vehicle for interacting with folks who were more interested in competitive sports than focusing on the racial divide. What activities or events (such as athletics) do you think have “leveled the playing field” and served as venues to help people from different backgrounds come together?
When he finished his comments, Ms. Groves classmate said something he wished he had said 50 years ago – “Joan, welcome to Great Mills High School.” I found it to be a poignant and meaningful moment and I wondered whether others felt the same or might they have thought of the gesture as “too little, to late.” Do you think it is meaningful or effective to apologize or make amends today for past behaviors that were part of the social fabric of that time?
Please share your own thoughts or experiences on school desegregation from a historical perspective or as you see it today.
Lydia Woods is the Maryland Humanities Council’s Coordinator of Grants and Community Outreach.
Read an article about this event from Southern Maryland Online here!