Air Force Featured Stories

Maxwell AFB, DoDEA reflect on pioneering public school integration in Alabama

  • Published
  • By Air University Public Affairs
  • 42nd Air Base Wing

This year, the Department of Defense Education Activity celebrates 75 years of educating, engaging and empowering military-connected students. DoDEA is also proud of their history of advocacy for justice and equality. 

In fact, in 1963, Maxwell Air Force Base’s DoDEA school, Maxwell Elementary/Middle School, was one of only three integrated public schools in the state of Alabama. 

“Maxwell was at the forefront of integrated public education in the South,” said Col. Eries Mentzer, 42nd Air Base Wing commander. “The DoDEA school was necessary in 1963 to ensure Airmen at Maxwell had the Freedom to Serve, the ability to rise to their best knowing that regardless of race, their military children had access to high quality, integrated public education.” 

 

Before the mid-1960s, Black and white children in the South attended segregated schools as a result of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of “separate but equal” used to justify racial segregation. 

Maxwell Elementary School initially opened in 1938 as a kindergarten and grammar school for grades 1-3 for the children of commissioned and noncommissioned officers assigned to Maxwell Field. In 1940, an elementary school was constructed on Maxwell for grades 1-6. The base operated the school 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.  

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson. As a result, the DoD announced that all schools on U.S. military installations would operate on an integrated basis.  

However, the Montgomery County School Board superintendent refused to integrate Maxwell’s new school facility, located just off base property, stating it was a violation of the Alabama Constitution. Language directing segregated schooling remains unchanged in Alabama’s Constitution today. 

As a result, the U.S. government announced on March 16, 1963, that it would build an elementary school on Maxwell that would operate as a fully integrated school. 

On Sept. 3, 1963, the new Maxwell Elementary School opened with an initial enrollment of about 540 students, including the first Black students. Maxwell Elementary School became the first school to integrate in Montgomery County; hiring the first Black staff member, Librarian Mrs. Wilhelmina Baldwin from the Tuskegee Institute, in 1963. 

Ten to fifteen Black students attended the new integrated school. As part of the school integration process, race distinction was not made on enrollment cards because, according to Principal Sorenson in 1963, “Children are children.” 

“It is valuable to understand how DoDEA, through its history, contributed to the desegregation of education in America,” said Ms. Judith A. Minor, DoDEA Americas director of student excellence. “Our core values of student-centeredness, excellence, continuous improvement, diversity, individual potential, lifelong learning, shared responsibility and trust continue to inspire our mission. We work to advance the vision of ‘Excellence in Education for every student every day, everywhere.” 

Maxwell and DoDEA continue to work together to provide quality education to military-connected students regardless of their race, ethnic background, color or creed. Maxwell and DoDEA are further extending educational opportunities by leading a DoD pilot program that allows children of active duty members who live off base to attend the on-base school. 

“We are incredibly proud of Maxwell’s role in removing barriers to service and advancing high quality public education in Montgomery,” Mentzer said. “This is another great example of how Maxwell Air Force Base and the Air Force influenced social justice in America. We thank DoDEA and our local, county, city and state partners for uniting with Maxwell to ensure K-12 education serves as an opportunity rather than a challenge for Maxwell Airmen, Guardians and their families. By working together, we can secure the Freedom to Serve, allowing our Airmen and Guardians to be most ready to lead in today’s increasing complex global security environment.”