African-American History

History Engaging Youth: Studying Civil Rights History in Maryland


Students from St. Charles High School in Waldorf visited the Historical Society in March and analyzed original documents about their local community such as this account book from the late 19th century Colored School in La Plata.

As communities across Maryland and the rest of the country continue to grapple with significant divisions and persistent inequality, people of all walks of life struggle to make sense of the current landscape. How did we get to this point, and what can we do to make positive change? As educators in a museum setting, we are able to provide unique resources to the youth and adult populations through the examination of our local history. To that end, the Maryland Historical Society has been working with high school students on an in-depth study of civil rights activism within the state.

Starting in March, groups from Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), St. Charles High School (Charles County), and Frederick Douglass High School, engaged in weekly research sessions with MdHS staff. The project has been eye-opening not only for the students, but also for myself and the coordinating teachers. Many of these participants had never done research with original source collections, and most were unaware of the many fascinating stories that make up the history of our state.

Many of the students from Charles County came with an understanding of the role that slavery and the tobacco economy played in the development of that part of the state. Through a combination of primary source research, field trips, and guest speakers we were able to connect that more well-known narrative with the history of modern Civil Rights movement.

Tobacco Barn, at Port Tobacco, Maryland. Not Dated.  Photograph by Dr. Allie L. Trussell. PP2, Trussell Photograph Collection, MdHS.

Tobacco Barn, at Port Tobacco, Maryland. Not Dated.
Trussell Photograph Collection, PP2, MdHS.

Tobacco farming held a tight grip on the economic and political activity within Charles County through Reconstruction and into the early to mid-1900s. This did not bode well for the social advancement of the county’s African-American residents, who made up about half the population and a majority of the low-level workforce. The St. Charles County High school students were exposed to individual stories of incremental progress, as well as the pivotal efforts that broadened opportunities for the county’s African-American populace.

More similar to the movement in the deep South rather then the rest of Maryland, Charles County was the site of a number of “Freedom Rides,” in which students and local leaders marched on foot to conduct sit-ins of restaurants all along Route 301 in 1962. They faced verbal abuse, outright rejection, and even violence as most of the business owners were not interested in changing their policies towards African-Americans.(1) Several oral histories in the MdHS collection illuminate the unique challenges for those activists, particularly local NAACP president Luther Stuckey and educator Enolia P. McMillan.

Having spent her career in various roles with the Charles County and Baltimore City school systems, Mrs. McMillan was a strong leader who was central in the fight to equalize salaries among white and black teachers in the 1940s. As the president of the State Colored Teachers’ Association she directly challenged her superiors. In an interview conducted in 1976 as part of the McKeldin-Jackson Project stated:

“We, the black teachers of the state (colored we were called) are doing the same work, meeting the same qualifications. In fact, we do more work than the others, because we have to look after transporting the children and many other things that the whites don’t have to do…”(2)

“Colored High School: The First in Baltimore.” The Baltimore Sun. October 11, 1888. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, accessed via Enoch Pratt Library, Online Databases.

“Colored High School: The First in Baltimore.” The Baltimore Sun. October 11, 1888.

It was this type of radical action that yielded successful results for groups throughout the state. In fact, many of these strategies had been developed and practiced by local leaders going back to the post-Civil War era. For students from Frederick Douglass High School, there was much to discover about the activism related to  segregated education in Baltimore, a city that had always seen strong a African-American leadership pushing for greater access and rights. The Baltimore Colored High School, which would later took on the famed leader’s name, was established in 1882. The school originally shared a space with the Colored Grammar School—it was a celebrated occasion when the institution broke ground on its own new building and opened in the fall of 1888.(3) While this was a great accomplishment, an African-American lawyer named E.J. Waring note that “the employment of colored teachers” must be addressed, as, in the post-war era, they were still almost completely excluded in the post-war era.

The Douglass Survey. February 28, 1924. The Papers of Harry S. Cummings, 1866-1997. MS 2961, MdHS.

The Douglass Survey. February 28, 1924. The Papers of Harry S. Cummings, 1866-1997. MS 2961, MdHS.

A fascinating primary document was found in the collection of Harry Sythe Cummings, a Baltimore lawyer and the city’s first African-American councilman, who graduated from the Colored High School in the 1880s. Cummings was one of many influential alumni, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom students were introduced to in their research. He was a constant advocate for equalizing educational access and resources for the city’s black youth, who often were limited to the most dilapidated facilities and supplies passed down from the white school system. An original copy of The Douglass Survey from February 1924 provides some insight into the lives and aspirations of students from that era. The document contains poetry, coverage of school athletics, and accomplishments of individual students. Its purpose was described by Editor-in-Chief William C. Paul as a means to

“…inspire school spirit and raise the school morale. A school of over 1500 students with nearly 2,000 alumni, whose graduates and former students constitute the main fibres of the social and industrial life of our community may take pride in its achievements… “(4)

In some ways, this quote represents another valuable purpose of the project. There is a great deal of collective history for students to take pride in and publicize to their communities, particularly for an institution like Frederick Douglass. The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a much newer institution, but its students were still eager to learn about the significant stories connected to the immediate neighborhood. The school is actually located in the former Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building at the corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street. All seniors, the participants are a part of the first class to graduate from BLSYW, a public charter that opened in 2008.

HEN.00.A2-156 Picket line. Protesting Jim Crow admission policy at Ford's Theatre, Baltimore.  Paul Robeson pictured second from left.  NAACP Baltimore Branch protest signs.  March, 1948.

Picket line. Protesting Jim Crow admission policy at Ford’s Theatre, Baltimore. Paul Robeson pictured second from left. NAACP Baltimore Branch protest signs, March, 1948,
Paul Henderson Photograph Collection, HEN.00.A2-156, MdHS.

Josephine Emily Price Smith, a graduate and one of the first African-American students at the then all-girls Eastern High School, visited the group to talk about her that and other aspects of growing up in 1950s Baltimore. Coincidentally her first job as a teenager had been with the YWCA in that very building where the presentation took place. Mrs. Smith described the lonely but fulfilling experience at Eastern, where white classmates often ignored her and excluded the few new black students from social events. The BLSYW girls remarked how difficult it must have been to deal with those subtle, as well as more overt, examples of racism that were more commonplace over 50 years ago. They were also able to connect her story to the wider examination of access to restaurants, department stores, public transportation and housing.

A walking tour of the Howard Street commercial district, led by Eli Pousson of Baltimore Heritage, further illuminated how the issues of discrimination affected spaces that were literally right around the corner from their school. Oral histories and photographs taken by Afro-American newspaper photographer Paul Henderson from the MdHS collection also provided valuable information about the struggle to open doors for African-Americans in Baltimore.


Josephine (Emily Price) Smith came to speak with seniors from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, recounting her experience as one of the first African-Americans to attend Eastern High School in 1954.

It was very encouraging to see young people approach historical research with such enthusiasm, and take great strides towards connecting that material with their modern experiences. There is no question that we can learn from past successes in civic activism and apply those lessons to the issues we still face today. It is our hope that efforts to educate about local history and provide a forum for these conversations can continue to have a positive effect on students and teachers throughout the state. (David Armenti)

David Armenti is the Student Research Center Coordinator at the Maryland Historical Society. 

For more about Mrs. Smith and the history of school segregation and desegregation in Baltimore, see previous posts here and here.

An exhibit presenting the students’ research and related library collections will be on display starting June 29th, on the first floor of the museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Special thanks to Wells Fargo, who sponsored the program with the Cultural Excellence grant, and has been a longtime partner with the MdHS’s education department. I also owe many thanks to Darnell Lewis-Russell (St. Charles HS), Tyler Miller (BLSYW), Dana Stone and Jenna Bollinger (Frederick Douglass HS) and all the participating students for making this project possible.

Sources and further reading:

(1) “Protesters Hit Route 301 Cafes.” Baltimore Afro-American. May 5, 1962. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, accessed via Enoch Pratt Library, Online Databases.

(2) Interview of Enolia McMillan. OH 8110. Interviewed by Richard Richardson, April 6, 1976. Governor Theodore McKeldin-Dr. Lillie May Jackson Oral History Project. MdHS Special Collections.

(3) “Colored High School: The First in Baltimore.” The Baltimore Sun. October 11, 1888. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, accessed via Enoch Pratt Library, Online Databases.

(4) The Douglass Survey. February 28, 1924. The Papers of Harry S. Cummings, 1866-1997. MS 2961, Maryland Historical Society, Special Collections.


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