You walk by countless people everyday without even a faint thought as to who they are, where they came from, or what piece of history they have to share with the world.
Through a series of personal pieces, we will seek to peel back the layers and share some of these individuals’ stories with hopes of passing along the local history they hold hidden within them as you walk past.
Vivian Jones is one of those people.
Born and raised in the town of Monessen, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. Mrs. Jones lived in a parallel city from what was commonplace back in the 1940’s. In Pittsburgh, racial boundaries were somewhat skewed because of the economic standing of its population. Everyone had to work together in this blue collar region of Pennsylvania just to make a living and provide for their families, regardless of race.
When Ms. Jones graduated high school in May of 1942, she furthered her educational ambitions of becoming a teacher at California State Teachers College in Pennsylvania where she had to take a bus and a train, both ways, everyday just to get to and from school. To the surprise, and likely disapproval of her parents, Mrs. Jones turned down a full scholarship to another university in Pennsylvania to attend Tuskegee University in Alabama, after she left California State.
After graduating from Tuskegee University in 1946 with her Bachelors of Science Degree in Education, Mrs. Jones was ready and eager to work. A friend of her mother worked as a housemaid to the State Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Thomas Pullen Jr. He was able to reach out to Mr. J.P. Layne, who was the supervisor of colored schools in Calvert County, and requested that he find a position for Mrs. Jones.
Mrs. Jones was formally offered a teacher’s position with a starting salary of $1,600 per year. So, Mrs. Jones boarded a bus in Baltimore and headed for Calvert County, where she was to take her first job as a school teacher. She boarded the bus with the glimmer of excitement in her eye and the spirit of adventure in her soul as any young adult might when presented with a new opportunity.
“Pssssss…Pssssss” a woman in the back of the bus forcefully whispered to her. “You need to come to the back of the bus, you can’t just sit in the first open seat”. Blind to the nature of the situation Mrs. Jones said in reply “I’m fine right here thank you”. This event foreshadowed the defiant stand that Rosa Parks would later undertake in Montgomery, Alabama. Mrs. Jones, however, eventually abandoned her seat and heeded the woman’s advice, heading to the back of the bus.
The bus eventually dropped Mrs. Jones off in Prince Frederick, at the old Evan’s Hotel which was a white’s only establishment. This was a place she had never seen, she was to wait for a man she had never met, who would take her to a job she had never done. Such risks seem obscure in today’s culture. However, for an African American woman in 1947, such risks were necessary in order to make a living.
In time, Mrs. Jones eventually carved out a place for herself at the Lusby school, a one room school house where she taught her students. The schoolhouse had no electricity and no phone. So, Mrs. Jones would personally make the trek to the Pardoe Store just to call the School Board when she needed wood to heat the school. She began to assimilate within this different culture and understand that in Southern Maryland there was a different way of living. After a few months she understood and accepted certain realities about living in this region. She expected students not to show up for class during harvest season for tobacco and she expected to be paid the same amount of money as her white counterparts.
Yes, you read that correctly. African American teachers in Calvert County were paid equal wages for equal work in 1947, a time when across the nation it was commonplace for inequalities based solely on race to exist. In this instance, a true civil rights trailblazer, and little known hero had already forced change upon Calvert County.
Her name was Harriet Elizabeth Brown. She too, like Vivian Jones, was a school teacher in Calvert County. Harriet Brown was a courageous woman who came to the realization that as an African American teacher, she was paid half the salary as her white counterparts whom possessed the same professional attributes as she did.
In 1937, Harriet Brown decided to sue the Calvert County School Board for pay equality. Mrs. Brown eventually won her case and the Calvert County School Board had agreed to equalize the salaries of black teachers over a three year period. Therefore, when Mrs. Vivian Jones arrived in Calvert county in 1947 there had already been equalization of pay for some time.
This case, led by then NAACP Counselor and eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, is one of those historic civil rights cases that paved the way for the pay equality movement across the State of Maryland and eventually the Nation. Yet, this case has been overshadowed by the landmark civil rights supreme court cases that followed it.
Harriet Elizabeth Brown v. The Board of Education of Calvert County was the first Brown v. the Board of Education court case to establish equal rights for African Americans and it happened right here in Southern Maryland. To put this in perspective, Harriet Brown, a 30 year old schoolteacher from Calvert County, and Thurgood Marshall, a 29 year old counselor from the NAACP, sued for pay equalization and won, 17 years before any history book will tell you the Civil Rights Movement had even begun in the United States. The pay equality movement spread through other counties in Maryland and also throughout the southern States because of this case. This case truly was one of the first stepping stones upon which Thurgood Marshall and others launched the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Mrs. Jones has been a resident here in Calvert County since she arrived here in 1947. She went from school to school during her 34 year career (1947 – 1981) and was principal at several of the all black schools in Calvert County. She has seen countless changes to the county that few residents ever have. From the abandonment of racially segregated schools, to the transfiguration of the region from an agricultural mecca for the state into a suburb of the D.C. Metropolitan region.
If you were to ask Vivian, she’d tell you that she loves talking about her past and that she thinks about it everyday. This story is only a small glimpse into the wealth of knowledge and history she possesses.
Vivian Jones and Harriet Elizabeth Browns’ stories are not well known, but it is my hope that they will live on and be shared for generations to come.