1621 Bolton Street is the childhood home of Walter Sondheim, Jr.: a local business executive and civic leader who is best known for his role as president of the Baltimore City School Board as the city first sought to put an end to racially segregated school following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In their decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." In contrast to many southern school districts, Sondheim led the school board to immediately respond to the ruling with a new policy that, at least officially, allowed white and black students to attend any school regardless of their race.
Leaders in Baltimore’s African American community had lobbied for more resources for the city’s black students as far back as the 1860s. In 1867, for example, the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People successfully petitioned the city to provide funds for the education of black children. And, in 1882, Everett J. Waring, Reverend Harvey Johnson, and others succeeded in pushing the school board to establish the first “colored” high school for black students, which went on to become the school we know today as Frederick Douglas High School.
In the early 1950s, Baltimore’s NAACP and Urban League began advocating to integrate Polytechnic Institute, particularly the school’s elite engineering program. Their efforts culminated in a contentious hearing at the school board in 1952 where among others, Thurgood Marshall battled against the Poly Alumni Association and others to integrate the school. With Walter Sondheim as the chair, board members voted five to three to integrate, and fifteen African American students entered the program at Poly that fall.
Despite this victory, attempts to integrate Baltimore’s all-female Western High School and Mergenthaler School of Printing (better known locally as “Mervo”) failed in 1953. Efforts of challenging these decisions were put on hold as Marshall and others from the NAACP knew the case from Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Education, would be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the unanimous Brown decision came out in May 1954, Baltimore already had years of advocacy and attention to the issue of desegregation.
While Baltimore did not experience the violence that desegregation sparked in other cities, the city never successfully integrated its schools. In the fall of 1954, six white students enrolled in formerly all-black schools and sixteen hundred black students enrolled in formerly all-white schools. By 1960, African American students became the majority in the school system. In 1961, 75% of the city’s schools were either 90% black or 90% white. In 1973, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights threatened to withhold federal funds charging that the city was not doing enough to integrate the schools.