PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – The ballroom is decorated with floor-to-ceiling paintings of shiny soda fountains, classic cars and the old store windows downtown. A stoop juts out from a rendering of the high school facade, so graduates can sit and talk — just like in the old days. And just like in the old days, not everyone in town is invited.
The reunion Saturday is only for those who graduated from Washington High School before it opened its doors to black students in the fall of 1969.
Some black leaders say the all-white reunion is sad and painful evidence that 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court (search) outlawed school segregation, some things have not changed all that much in this community on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
"It's just as divided as it's ever been," said Leon Johnson, a black political activist who worked behind the scenes in Somerset County in 1960s. "The old folks did a good job of teaching the young ones, of teaching them the old system."
Organizers call the reunion a "Grand Homecoming" for graduates from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. The event, last held in 1999, draws about 700 alumni. It is independently organized and is not affiliated with the public school system.
Mickey Wigglesworth, a retired banker and 1957 graduate who has spent the past year organizing the event at the Somerset County Civic Center (search), said there was no intent to exclude blacks.
Instead, he said, it is a gathering of students from three decades who share music and culture from the era of sock hops and jukeboxes. "This would have no appeal to them," he said of the post-1969 grads.
The integrated post-1969 classes at Washington High hold their own reunions periodically, but they are smaller and are not promoted as community events. The Grand Homecoming, by contrast, gets a weekly mention on the front of the county newspaper's style section, under old photos of the boys' basketball teams and girls' softball teams. A colorful flier posted downtown asks Washington High graduates up to 1969 to "Travel back in time to those good, old years."
"We're still a divided county," said Kirkland Hall, a former president of the county's NAACP (search) chapter and a 1969 graduate of Princess Anne's black high school, Somerset High. Of the county's 25,000 residents, 41 percent are black.
The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education (search) came down in 1954, but it was another 15 years before any schools in Somerset County integrated.
The 1960s saw fierce, sometimes violent, resistance to integration in restaurants and in public facilities across the Eastern Shore. Fiery riots broke out in the town of Cambridge in 1963. In 1964, students at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore campus in Princess Anne — then known as the all-black Maryland State College — were driven back with firehoses when they marched into town to protest segregation.
Princess Anne, the site of Maryland's last lynching in 1933, did not integrate any public buildings until 1964. Not until 1968 did any white schools on the Eastern Shore open to black students.
"It would be nice if the class of 1969 of both schools would have a reunion. We might have something in common," Hall said, adding after a pause: "I don't think too many people would be up to the idea."
Hall's friends from Somerset High have urged him to organize an all-black reunion that could rival the Grand Homecoming in size. But Hall said: "I don't think that's the way to go."
H. DeWayne Whittington, a 1948 graduate of what was then called Crisfield Colored High School, eventually became the first black superintendent of Somerset County schools, in 1988. He won a lawsuit against the county four years later when it did not renew his contract, and the system was forced to name a school for him.
Whittington said he is less irritated by the Grand Homecomings than he is by the distribution of scholarship money raised at the event. A total of $9,500 has been awarded in 19 scholarships, but only to children of alumni who graduated before integration.
Whittington has helped organize relatively small, multiyear reunions that raise $3,000 annually in scholarships for the children of black alumni. "It came to that point," he said, "because blacks found that out and said, `Let's try to do something for our kids.'"
The separate reunions are a symptom of a lack of black political leadership in the county, Whittington said. No black politicians have pressed for a stop to the practice.
Blacks held few public offices on the Eastern Shore before Hall sued the state in 1993 to keep out-of-town property owners from voting in municipal elections. It was not until 1999 that a black politician was elected to the state Legislature from the Eastern Shore.
Of the racial divide, Hall said: "It's one of those things I've been fighting so long, I'm just tired."