Nina Honemond Clarke still remembers her first year at Rockville Colored High School in 1929, particularly the school bus that shuttled her and her classmates to and from school.
“You could hear it coming from miles away,” she said. “And we rode that bus until it wouldn’t drive anymore.”
Clarke, 94, is one of the oldest living graduates of Montgomery County’s first black high school, founded in 1927. She also was a keynote speaker Sunday afternoon in the Ross Boddy Community Center in Olney for the first-ever reunion of Rockville Colored High School and its two successors. Rockville Colored High School closed in 1935 when it was replaced by Lincoln, which was itself succeeded by George Washington Carver High School in 1952.
Organized by nine alumni of the three schools, the reunion brought together several generations of black students who lived through the county’s segregated school system until full integration took place in Montgomery County Public Schools in 1960.
Although some said their experiences with segregation and integration paled in comparison to the violence directed at black students in the American south, each held memories of the stark contrast between their schooling and that of their white neighbors.
Harvey W. Zeigler, who graduated Rockville in 1938, recalled passing three white high schools on the hour-long bus ride from his home in Damascus every morning.
Meanwhile, Thompkins W. Hallman, who graduated Lincoln in 1941, remembered the outdated, hand-me-down textbooks he and his classmates used. The history books, none of which mentioned historic black leaders such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, were especially galling, he said.
“Those lessons the teachers would give us themselves, from their own memories,” he said. “That is how we made it through; … what a contrast to today.”
But even more evident Sunday were the stories of perseverance told by each of the graduates.
Overcoming the limitations of Lincoln’s meager resources, class of 1945 graduate Warrick S. Hill went on to major in mathematics at Morgan State College, receiving his first master’s degree in that subject from Columbia University a few years later.
His second master’s degree was in education administration, and, once the county schools integrated in 1960, Hill took the earliest opportunity to return to his hometown to teach math at Perry High School from 1962 to 1984.
“[And] had they not closed, I would still be there teaching to this day,” he said, reflecting on the inspiration he received at Lincoln. “I always relied on the excellence of my teachers.”
Hill also wrote a book, “Before Us Lies the Timber: The Segregated High School of Montgomery County, Maryland, 1927-1960.” Published in 2005, the book details the history of Hill’s alma mater and documents the experiences of his fellow students at the various schools.
Many who attended the reunion had similar stories to share. Clarke became the first black principal in Montgomery County and has since authored several books, including a history of black public schools in Montgomery County, which she co-authored with Lillian B. Brown in 1978.
Indeed the legacies left by the men and women gathered in Olney on Sunday is evident in everything from the county’s thriving public school system to the diversity of its residents, said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who addressed the group and thanked them for their accomplishments.
“I am here because I stand upon the shoulders of giants,” Leggett said, recounting his own experience growing up poor and black in Mississippi. “You are the reason why Ike Leggett stands here today.”