On December 18, 2015, Morgan State University awarded an honorary degree to the “Morgan Student Civil rights Pioneers, 1947-1963.” The Commencement Program contained an explanatory statement. “Some of the unsung heroes and un-exalted pioneers of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century were Morgan State college students who were on the cutting edge and in the vanguard of peaceful protests and civil disobedience that transformed the nation and brought a fuller measure of citizenship to all of its people. In the decades of the forties, fifties, sixties, Morgan State College students were precedent and paradigm for the peaceful sit-ins and the mass arrests that became the backbone of the Movement two decades later. Long before the now-famous lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, a generation of bold, visionary, courageous, defiant, Morgan –educated and Morgan-inspired students launched a frontal attack on segregation and racial discrimination in Baltimore and in Maryland through a series of sit-ins and mass arrests that overcrowded the jails of Baltimore, overwhelmed the staunch opponents of integration and led to the dismantling of segregation in a number of establishments and institutions throughout the city and the state.”
When I arrived on Morgan’s campus in September 1961, I was not aware of the fact that the nearby theater was racially segregated. I was accustomed to going to the neighborhood theater in my hometown, Wilmington, Delaware. To be sure, racial segregation was prevalent all across the nation. A stark reminder of Baltimore’s racial segregation was manifested at the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. When I took the train to Baltimore to return to campus, African Americans had to wait at the back of the Q until all white people who wanted to take a Yellow Cab had been served.
In this historical context, the Morgan State College student demonstrations came to a head in the spring of 1963, when mass demonstrations unfolded at the theater in the Northwood Shopping Center which was located across the road from the Morgan campus. The theater was the last segregated business enterprise in the shopping center. Professor August Meier later wrote that the theater owner’s “determined resistance led to the largest and most militant demonstrations in the history of Morgan State’s Civic Interest Group.”
As a sophomore student at Morgan State College at the time, I joined the student demonstrations at the Northwood Movie Theater. Over the weekend students were arrested by the dozens. On Monday evening, I decided that I would be among those who would resist the police directive to disburse from the theater entrance. The group that I was with was promptly placed under arrest because we did not comply with the police directive [Monday evening, February 18, 1963]. There were young women and men in the group.
The women and the men were separated. I was placed in a police paddy wagon with a small group of fellow students. A young white police officer rode in the wagon with us. He had some brief conversation with us. I recall that he said something to the effect that he hoped we would not get into more serious trouble. The paddy wagon journey was brief, because we were taken to the Eastern Police Precinct headquarters which was adjacent to the Morgan campus.
On arrival at the precinct station, we were processed and I was place in a two person cell with another student. I was not finger printed. The next morning, we were taken before a judge in the municipal court which was located in the same building. The bail was set at $300, plus an additional $100 for trespassing. Needless to say, no organization was prepared to bail any of the students out of jail. More than 400 students were arrested over a several day period. About 1500 people were estimated to be participating in the picket lines during that time period. The municipal court was flooded with students and the arrested students were overwhelming the city jail, especially the women students.
After spending one night at the precinct jail, we were transported to the Baltimore City Jail. As my group entered the city jail, I heard one inmate exclaim: “What are you guys doing here?” We were there because we decided that we could no longer tolerate segregation in our campus neighborhood. We were there because the municipal court judge had set what proved to be punitive bail. We participated in the mass demonstrations because our purpose was to further topple the walls of segregation in Baltimore.
The jail experience was very traumatic for some, mainly because we stayed in jail longer than we had originally anticipated. Nevertheless, life in jail is difficult for anyone. While there, we were separated entirely from the regular inmates. On Wednesday, all of the students, male and female, were assembled in the jail auditorium where we were addressed by several different Morgan administrators. This gathering served to boost the student morale.
Ultimately, the student demonstrations broke the barrier of segregation at the Northwood Theater. The negotiations involved Morgan representatives, student representatives, political representatives and the theater owner. Finally, the theater owner capitulated. The majority of students were released from jail on Thursday of the week of mass demonstrations [Thursday, February 21, 1963] when a city judge dismissed all of the charges.
Professor Fisher took me and a few other students back to campus in his car. On the way back to campus, he stopped at a sub shop and bought hot subs for each student with him. That sub was the best sub that I had ever tasted in my life. Jail food is jail food.
It was great to get out of jail and back to campus. We, of course, had to catch up with our missed class work. It was gratifying to know that the last bastion of segregation in our campus neighborhood had been defeated.
When I got out of jail, I wrote a letter to my parents and briefly shared with them the fact that I had participated in the demonstrations and spent three nights in jail. I told them that I was compelled to share in the protest demonstrations. I was committed to the student cause.
Personally, I did not immediately go to see a movie at the Northwood Theater. My first stop at the theater, however, was something of a bitter sweet experience.
Perhaps there is some irony in this experience of racial desegregation in Baltimore. The precinct station is still there, but the expanded Morgan campus completely surrounds it. Also, the Northwood Shopping Center is now owned by Morgan State University. A part of the property is also home to the Earl Graves School of Business facility.
It was an honor and a very humbling experience to be awarded a Doctor of Laws degree by my alma mater. I will cherish this honorary degree and hold dear the fond memories of my years at Morgan.
It was a nostalgic moment when we sang the second verse of the alma mater, “Fair Morgan” during the commencement ceremony.
“Fair Morgan, as onward the years quickly fly,
And thou livest in memory sweet,
We bring thee our laurels whatever they be,
And lay them with joy at thy feet.”