Gaithersburg Then and Now

Historic schoolhouse holds stories from county's past

By Peggy McEwan
The Gazette
February 11, 2004


Drivers traveling Darnestown Road might notice the historic schoolhouse situated atop the hill as they pass the new homes and shopping centers, but few probably are aware of the stories it holds.

The schoolhouse is a long, white building that has been a part of the community since 1902. It started as a one-room schoolhouse for the black children in the area and stayed in operation until Montgomery County integrated its schools in the 1950s.

On Friday evening, despite icy conditions that closed Montgomery County Public Schools, Nina Clarke brought those stories back to life in a history lesson that dated back to 1937, her first year as a teacher.

The lesson, "School Segregation in Montgomery County" took place at the former Quince Orchard Colored School, which housed the area's black students before desegregation in Montgomery County.

"This is what I know and this is what I like to talk about," Clarke said of her presentation.

The Supreme Court ruled on the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, abolishing decades of "separate but equal" education. Montgomery County Public Schools began a six-year integration plan in 1955 and completed it during the 1960-61 school year.

"We never had any violence in Montgomery County" said Clarke, although she said some areas protested integration and that there are some "mean" letters in the archives.

"The children got along alright, it was the adults who created the problems," she said.

Clarke began teaching after graduation from Bowie State Teacher's College.

"There was only one thing for an educated black woman to do -- that was to teach or else she could clean houses," Clarke said.

Clarke taught first and second grades at the Quince Orchard school. There were only two rooms in the schoolhouse then, so a second teacher, who taught third grade, shared the space with Clarke and her students.

"They would hand to us what the children in other schools were finished with," Clarke said. "It was 'just right' for us. We had books with missing pages and torn covers, sometimes no covers and desks that were carved on the top so bad you had to put something over them before you could write. We made the most of what we had."

Clarke felt lucky to be earning $64 per month. Just the year before she began teaching, a lawsuit had resulted in equalized pay for both white and black teachers. The extra money came in handy as Clarke helped send her younger brother to college. He had to wait until she graduated before he could start.

"My family could not afford two kids in college at the same time," Clarke said.

Clarke's brother graduated from college and became a pilot with the now famous Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Esther Lyons of Gaithersburg, who attended the school from first through sixth grades, sat in one of the small desks listening to Clarke speak and remembering her time there.

"I think this stove is the one that was here when I was," said Lyons referring to a pot-bellied stove that was used to heat the room.

Once schools were segregated in the county, Lyons attended Lincoln Junior High School and Carver High School in Rockville.

"It is the same stove, the pipe is new," agreed Thompkins Hallman of Washington, D.C. "I went to school right here. The bigger boys had to keep the stove going. I remember we would try to bank it at night so it would not go out, but we always had to restart it in the morning."

Friday night's presentation brought back many memories for Hallman.

"We really had very nice teachers, very patient," he said. "Some actually boarded with my mother, so that helped us be on our best behavior."

Everyone walked to school, even the teachers.

Bill Ridgley, who lived in Darnestown when he was a student at Quince Orchard and is still a resident today, walked two-and-a-half miles each way to school.

"When I went here, there were seven grades in one room and only one teacher," Ridgley said.

Everett Davis graduated from Quince Orchard High School and now teaches Spanish at Northwest High School. He asked about discipline in the classrooms.

"We didn't have too much trouble with discipline because if we told the parents they would discipline them," Clarke said.

Although Clarke could not remember exactly when she left Quince Orchard, she knew her next assignment was at the Smithville School near Colesville. She was teaching in Sandy Spring in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and said that segregated schools violated the 14th amendment.

"Montgomery County was the first county in Maryland to integrate its schools," said Clarke, who has written a history of black public schools in Montgomery County.

"They decided to get ready for integration and set up committees of community leaders and school professionals. Everybody was nervous; it was a 360-degree turn in our lives. We had never had an integrated life. How were we going to make one school system out of two?"

The plan was to complete integration of the county schools over six years starting in September 1955. "The top black students were picked to go to the white schools at first," Clarke said. "They had to send in their grades and letters of recommendation proving they could 'make it' in integrated schools."

Clarke moved to Hungerford Elementary in Rockville after integration, the only black teacher in a school of all white children.

"I loved my students, black or white, they were my students and I loved them," Clarke said.

Clarke retired in1973 after serving five years as principal of Aspen Hill Elementary, completing 37 years with Montgomery County Public Schools.

The Quince Orchard Colored School closed in the 1950s. It became a historical site in1978. The school is located at 11900 Darnestown Road.