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In 1857 Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, speaking for the majority in the Dred Scott case, wrote "...[Blacks] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." All of America’s people have come on a long and very painful journey of progress since that time. However, for African Americans there remain ethos of that past and an unfinished struggle to rescue and reconstruct our history and reaffirm and reclaim aspects of our culture, both in America and on the African continent, that were prohibited, lost and stolen. That struggle must be completed in order to make us a whole and fully productive people in America and the world.

In 1998 in Howard County the issue is no longer physical enslavement but remains, as it has been since 1619, an issue of enslavement of the mind and respect for African American cultural heritage. Principal James Evans and Vice Principal Madrainne Johnson at Harper’s Choice Middle School, supported by Superintendent Michael Hickey, and aided by General Counsel Mark C. Blom have taken the position that an African head wrap, worn by Shermia Isaacs as an expression of her cultural heritage, was prohibited by school rule based on Board policy. Superintendent Hickey considers the African head wrap to be contrary to maintenance of order, scholarship and discipline in the operation of a school and a possible source of distraction and disruption. This is a high level of danger from a cloth wrapped tightly around a young lady’s head.

American history and the judicial process is replete with proclamations in celebration of diversity while in reality enforcing a very narrow application of the concept of diversity. That is the situation at Harper’s Choice Middle School where the reality is more like Henry Ford’s statement that customers could have any color car they wanted as long as it was black.

Restrictions as to the wearing of certain clothing was an integral part of the "slave making process" in America. Remnants of that process remain alive in American society as reflected in the situation at Harper’s Choice Middle School. In A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr’s. landmark volume In The Matter Of Color, which won the highest award given by the American Bar Association, he stated, "The best illustration of the extent to which a slave could be deprived of property held with his owner’s consent is in the [South Carolina Negro A]ct of 1735. When a slave managed to obtain clothing that might accord him some dignity or prestige, the act declared that when such clothing was "above" that which a slave should wear, it could be taken from the slave by "all and every constable and other persons" to be used for his or their own benefit.

"A slave was to be forever aware of his degraded status; the requirement that he always wear the most inferior clothing -"Negro cloth"- ensured that he never have an appearance giving him even minuscule status. The slave was forced to "know his place" and never to reflect or symbolize any higher aspirations than that which the white society had irrevocably imposed upon him." Therefore limitations on wearing certain clothing was a key instrument of social subjugation. The ethos of that obnoxious past practice of subjugation are present in today’s African head wrap issue in Howard County.

Head wrapping is deeply associated with the history of African American culture. In Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture From Its Beginnings To The Zoot Suit, Shane White and Graham White of the University of Sydney state, "As advertisements for escaped slaves show, head-wrappings were quite common among the female slave population in the eighteenth century. A "NEW-NEGRO WENCH ... of the Guiney country," who ran way from a plantation at Goose Creek, South Carolina, in 1769, covered her hair with "a spotted red and white handkerchief." Nanny, a Georgia slave who absconded in 1787, had on when she went away "an oznabrig coat and wrapper, and ... a check handkerchief on her head."

Finally, we note that in the Board of Education’s submission to The United States District Court, General Counsel Blom’s Memorandum and the affidavit of Superintendent Hickey both state that the school had adopted a rule against the wearing of "hats and headwear." The affidavit of Principal Evans states that the school rule prohibits "hats and headgear." However, the Harper’s Choice Middle School 1997/1998 Parent/Student Handbook states in the school dress code section that "Students may not wear hats or coats in school without permission from the administration." Notwithstanding the assertion to the court that there is a rule on "headwear" or "headgear" there appears to be no rule except for the wearing of hats - and a head wrap is not a hat. The School Board’s own filing with the court concerning hats and headwear and hats and headgear indicates that the Board acknowledges that they are different things.

Blom, Hickey and Evans each asserted to the court that the objection to the African head wrap was not based on the viewpoint Shermia Isaacs expressed by wearing it or because of a dislike of that viewpoint. However, the African head wrap apparently is such a potent expression of Shermia Isaacs’ cultural heritage viewpoint in the minds of Blom, Hickey, Evans and Johnson that it appears that they embellished the hats rule and a nonexistent prohibition of headwear and headgear has been cited to the court to justify the school system’s unwarranted disruption of her education.

In 1998 Shermia Isaacs has escaped mental slavery wearing a beautiful African head wrap and gained the respect of a broad segment of the Howard County community for her willingness to endure for principle. She will not be the last.

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Last modified: September 9, 1999