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THE LAUREL CHRONICLES

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: RICHARD FRIEND

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By Kevin Leonard  |  This article oiginally appeared in Voices of Laurel Fall 2021

Many of the ingredients of the turbulent 1960s—political infighting, student protests, community uproar, academic chaos—were present in Laurel in 1913. The only principal Laurel High School ever had since opening in 1899, Professor Roger I. Manning, was notified in June 1913 by the Prince George’s County School Board that “his services will not be needed for the next scholastic year,” according to the Laurel Leader. The reason for his dismissal was never made clear.

The brand-new Laurel High School opened in the Fall of 1899 “against determined opposition in the lower part of the county” with locating the first high school in Prince George’s County in Laurel, according to the Baltimore Sun. The initial school year employed two teachers (one male, one female) overseeing 61 students, as listed in the 1900 Annual Report of the Commission of Education, U.S. Department of the Interior. The Sun gushed that the school was a modern building “supplied with electric lights” and contained five classrooms, an assembly room on the second floor, and “two large playrooms in the basement,” presumably for PE classes.

Manning’s 14 years as principal saw slow growth at the school. His annual salary started at $800 in 1899 and his assistant, Miss Eliza G. Cronmiller, was paid $600. The first class of 1900 had five graduates, all women. By 1913, he was paid $1,200 and ten students graduated in the class of 1913, eight women and two men.

The news that Manning was appealing his dismissal to the State Board of Education produced an uproar in the community, as reported in the Leader. The Sun took a more professional, distanced approach in its reporting. “Mr. Manning contends the county board had no authority to dismiss him,” reported the Sun. In contrast, the Leader editorialized, “why he should persist in trying to fasten himself upon the people here is more than we can understand.”

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LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Speculation ran rampant in town as to a replacement. Sometimes the Leader listed the men (all men, of course) who submitted applications. How they knew this is a mystery. But the Leader was unimpressed in the quality of the applicants, saying that no one “would even think of some of the persons we have heard mentioned in this connection, and we hope for the sake of the school that nothing ridiculous will be sprung upon our people.”

Trying to move past the controversy, the PG County School Board hired Professor Kirtley J. Morris in July to replace Manning, beginning with the Fall 1913 semester. Morris was formerly the Superintendent of Schools in Covington, Kentucky.

The hiring of Morris was celebrated in the Leader, which was still unclear why Manning was fired. “Whether it be a fact or not, the people have long felt that the High School here was not what it should be, and many persons gave as a reason for not sending their children to the school, that it was not up to the standard, and rather than have their children attend a school which was not all they had a right to expect in it, they sent them to schools elsewhere.” (Sure, that explains it.)

But just a month after hiring Morris, the brief calm was shattered, and the uproar reignited in town. “Manning Wins Appeal” was the headline in the Leader. “The State Board of Education, with Governor Goldsborough presiding, overruled the action of the [PG] Board of School Commissioners for this county in removing Roger I. Manning.” The articled nudged closer to the reasons for the firing. “Several allegations tending to show that Mr. Manning was inefficient to hold the position were made by the [PG] School Commissioners and County Superintendent Sasscer, but only one of the grounds was held to be sufficient to support the action taken against Mr. Manning. This was the charge of poor administrative and executive ability, causing a lack of harmony with the teachers.”

 

The result was that Manning was ordered reinstated, which led to another scathing rebuke in the Leader: “This decision means that Mr. Manning will return to our High School, unless charges are filed against him and sustained by the [PG] County School Commissioners, or unless Mr. Manning realizes, as he should, that the people of Laurel—while having nothing against him as a man—do not want him as a principal and he voluntarily resigns, which would be a rather happy solution for all parties concerned.”

The fight was far from over. Taking a page from Manning’s appeal—although in reverse—the PG County School Board declared that the State Board of Education had no authority over their decision and ordered vice principal Miss Margaret Edmondson to take charge when Laurel High School opened in September 1913. Prof. Morris, who was hired as Manning’s replacement, and who by now had to wonder why he left Kentucky in the first place, was assigned as a teacher at Laurel. Both moves with Edmondson and Morris were intended to be temporary until things were sorted out.

Not willing to wait for the county and the state to settle their spat, Manning’s attorney, Ogle Marbury, filed suit in the Maryland Circuit Court in October 1913 for a writ of injunction against PG County “to restrain them from interfering with Mr. Manning’s taking charge of the school,” reported the Leader. The paper’s viewpoint, in case they had been too subtle, was reinforced: “No matter what the decision may be, the people had decided there has been ‘too much Manning.’”

Once again, things calmed down for a while. The Sun reported that at some point during the school year, Morris had taken over from Edmondson as Acting Principal. But, once again, the calm was shattered with an announcement and tongues around town where wagging again.

In mid-March 1914, with only a few months left in the school year, the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided that Manning was “improperly dismissed by the [PG] County School Commissioners, and it is up to the said Board to re-instate Mr. Manning, which means that he will receive salary for the whole year.” That meant the county had to pay two principals for the entire school year, Manning and Morris. The Sun’s coverage also (correctly) predicted trouble ahead: “Since Mr. Morris took charge, however, the new head of the school has become extremely popular with the students and teachers, and these, it is said, have planned to walk out when Principal Manning returns.” The Leader, however, took more of a doomsday attitude toward a rumored walkout by students: “That sort of thing will not do—not even in Laurel—for it logically leads to anarchy.” (Not even in Laurel?)

 

On March 31, in accordance with the decision by the Court of Appeals, Manning returned as principal at Laurel High School. It was not a joyful return. Manning arrived very early and avoided any confrontations outside. A crowd of about 100, including many pupils, assembled in front of the school. “As the teachers entered the school grounds they were cheered by the striking pupils, while the children who entered the school were hissed,” according to the Sun. As rumored, when classes began that morning, fully half the approximately 100-member student body was absent. “A number of parents have declared that they will keep their children away for the remainder of the school term rather than let them go back under Mr. Manning.”

There were no reports about the next few weeks and whether or not some parents relented and returned their children to school, but three weeks after the walkout, the PG County School Board once again took matters into their own hands. The Board ignored the Court of Appeals and ordered “that notice be given to Roger I. Manning, principal of the Laurel High School that his services as teacher of the said school and as principal will not be required after the 18th day of May, 1914.” (Isn’t this how the whole thing started?)

The State Board of Education was not about to let this second attempt to subvert their authority go unpunished. Immediately after passing an order condemning the “insubordination on the part of the pupils of the Laurel High School towards the legally constituted authorities” for the walkout, they called on the big guns of the Governor. “Unless the School Commissioners of Prince George’s County revoke their order dismissing Prof. Roger I. Manning, principal of the high school, it is understood that Governor Goldsborough will prefer charges against them and attempt to have them removed from office.” Even though nobody wanted Manning to stay, the State Board was saying WE can fire him, but you can’t.

PG County revoked their order and Manning finished the school year as principal, whereupon he promptly resigned. In August, the Washington Star reported that Herbert F. Mitchell had been hired as Laurel High School’s new principal for the 1914-15 school year. He came to Laurel from the Public Health Bureau in Philadelphia, where he was a statistician accountant.

What happened to the beleaguered Professor Morris, Manning’s supposed replacement? His consolation prize was being appointed the principal at the new Hyattsville High School. It’s a fair assumption he didn’t mind the transfer.

So what was all this really about? If Manning was “inefficient” or showed “poor administrative and executive ability,” why did it take 14 years as principal for these allegations to surface? If there were other reasons, they are lost to time. And in the chaos caused by the ridiculous back-and-forth posturing between the State and County School Boards, the needs of the students and their lost school year was never mentioned. The story shows that the combination of political infighting, student protests, community uproar, and academic chaos were not unique to the 1960s.

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The Laurel High School yearbook from Manning’s last year. COURTESY OF LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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The Laurel High School class of 1914, with Professor Manning at right. COURTESY OF LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY