An island of integration in a sea of segregation: Maxwell Elementary/Middle School over time

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- An interesting facet of local African-American history is the history of the Montgomery Elementary School, now Maxwell Elementary/Middle School, which has operated on Maxwell in one form or another since 1938. Today, all public schools in the United States are legally integrated, although many schools may have a greater percentage of students from one racial group over others due to school zoning, residential demographics, the availability of private schools and the ability of families to pay for private education for their children.

Before the mid-1960s, white children and African-American children in the South attended separate schools, the result of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision "Plessy vs. Ferguson." By this decision, the U.S. government accepted the "separate but equal" principle that led to numerous laws throughout the South that separated whites from African-Americans in most aspects of Southern life, including public schools.

Many military installations in the United States and its territories operated an elementary school to preclude having to transport the on-base elementary school age children to off-base public schools. In the case of the military installations in the Southern states with on-base schools, the operation of these schools also involved the fact that off-base schools were racially segregated by contemporary law until the mid-1960s.

The Maxwell school was no exception. It began in 1938 as a kindergarten and grammar school for grades 1-3 for the children of commissioned and noncommissioned officers assigned to Maxwell Field. A bus service transported the children of Maxwell families for grades 4-12 to off-base schools in Montgomery. In 1940, the city of Montgomery constructed an elementary school for grades 1-6 on Maxwell property, and the base operated the school for children of base military personnel, civilian employees and federal prison camp guards with oversight by the Montgomery County Board of Education.

In March 1948, the base leadership relinquished control of the Maxwell Elementary School to the Montgomery County Board of Education. The school board operated the school in accordance with contemporary laws in Alabama; that is, as a segregated school. However, at this time, the issue of operating the Maxwell School as an integrated or as a segregated school was moot as there were no African-American children for grades 1-6 of families living on base.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision, "Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education," declared the "separate but equal" principle, established by the "Plessy vs. Ferguson" decision, as inherently unequal and, thus, unconstitutional. As a result, the DOD announced that all schools on U.S. military installations in the United States would operate on an integrated basis.

Between 1954-1956, the Montgomery County School Board provided school facilities on Maxwell on a non-segregated basis as it began construction in November 1955 of a new school near the existing school. Integration in the school did not actually occur, however, at this time, because the base still did not have any elementary school age African-American children.

Still, the debate over integrating the Maxwell school became extremely heated in the summer of 1956. The National Council of Parents and Teachers had recently adopted a platform that supported integration in U.S. public schools. As a result, the president of the Montgomery Council of Parents and Teachers resigned her position, stating, "I cannot be any part of an organization that has an integration statement or policy as its ultimate goal."

The superintendent of the Montgomery County School Board stated that to operate the base school as an integrated school would violate the Alabama Constitution. Thus, despite the position of the DOD, in fall 1956, Montgomery County began operation of the new school, located just off base property for Maxwell schoolchildren, on a legally segregated basis. At the time, the issue was still moot as there were no elementary school-age African-American children on the installation.

With the growing Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare noted that "children required to attend segregated schools in local districts do not get a 'suitable' education under the requirements of the law." Then, in late 1962, a survey of the base population noted the presence of seven elementary school age African-American children in Maxwell base housing.

As a result, the U.S. government announced on March 16, 1963, that it would build an elementary school on Maxwell (and on England Air Force Base, Alexandria, La.) that would operate as a fully integrated school. The federal government had earlier announced the construction of new, integrated elementary schools for six other military installations in the South.

On Sept. 3, 1963, the new Maxwell Elementary School, funded by the DHEW, opened with an initial enrollment of about 540 students, including the first African-American students, under the oversight of the DHEW. At the same time, Alabama, on directions from the federal government, began desegregating their public schools, starting with the school districts in Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuskegee. At that time, the U.S. Army also operated integrated, on-base public schools at Fort Rucker and Fort McClellan in Alabama.

Today, the DOD Education Activity operates schools on overseas military installations and on military installations across the United States. Maxwell Elementary/Middle School, part of the Georgia/Alabama District that combines schools at Fort Rucker, Fort Benning and Maxwell under one superintendent, is the only domestic dependent elementary and secondary schools program located on an Air Force installation.

"Throughout our nation's history, brave and courageous men and women have led the way to racial equality in our armed forces," noted Col. Trent H. Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander.