Courtesy of MCPS: In June of 1956, Betty Holston’s father told her she was not going back to Carver, the “colored” high school in Rockville. Instead she would attend B-CC, the local high school a mile from her house. At first, Betty hated the idea. By the end of that first year, no one (and we mean no one) was going to convince her she did not belong.
For many high school students, the first day of school is filled with hugs and joyful chatter as they gather in the hallways, reconnecting with friends and teachers. For Betty Holston, the first day of school was filled with hushed silence and stares from white students. She was not the only African-American student to enroll in Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1956. There was Nancy Browne who lived on River Road in Potomac. But unlike Nancy, Betty lived on Hawkins Lane, an unpaved road that led to a small number of wooden homes which were occupied by black families who held service jobs for wealthy white families in the area. “We were segregated racially, of course, ” Dr. Betty explained, “but we were also isolated from other black communities.” In short, Betty stood out immediately at B-CC for two reasons: she was definitely not white and her family was definitely not well-to-do.
A Rough First Year: Betty’s first year, 10th grade, can be summed up with a single word – isolation. She was spat on, called racial obscenities, and was physically abused. After being jumped on the way home on her first day, she never rode the school bus again. She also did not feel comfortable taking the shortcut path through the predominantly-white East Bethesda neighborhood surrounding B-CC. So, each morning, Betty’s mother dropped her off in front of B-CC. Each afternoon, she walked east on East-West Highway, turned left on Connecticut, walked to Jones Bridge Road and eventually made her way to her house on Hawkins Lane. This was her routine, all school year, in all kinds of weather. After a series of taunts at lunch , she never ate in the cafeteria again, choosing instead to get take-out from the back door of a local diner and eat her lunch while walking back to B-CC.
“I would go home every day and cry,” recounted Dr. Betty wistfully.
A “Better” 11th Grade: “11th grade was better, meaning I was better,” said Dr. Betty. “But everything else was the same.” She still lacked friends, and, the administration demeaned her, advising her, at one point, to switch from an switch from an academic track to a commercial one because her “brain wasn’t developed enough for college study.”
Despite these obstacles, Dr. Betty was determined to push forward. She joined the basketball team and the Biology Club. Her interest in biology stemmed from the hours she and her siblings spent in the then-untouched woods surrounding Walter Reed Hospital. “We could be free, running, playing and figuring out how to entertain ourselves. Because of segregation, we didn’t have playgrounds.”
Growing Resilient: Even when things were bad, Betty’s determination did not waiver. When her history teacher, for example, referred to her and all African-Americans as less-than-human, Betty knew she needed to do something. Betty leaned into whatever power she did have. “I babysat for white families in Chevy Chase, including Maryland State Senator Edward Northrop.”
She wrote, rewrote and rewrote again a letter detailing her history teacher’s treatment of her and and left it on Senator Northrop’s home desk. Within days, she and her parents were called into the principal’s office and given a choice of other teachers. Betty refused to switch classes. “I wouldn’t do that and run from the problem.”
Instead, she threatened to send her letter to the Washington Post. Shortly after that, her teacher left the school. Having grown up in the South, her father was not happy about this new assertive side of Betty. He feared for her safety. “He grew up with a ‘go-along to get-along’ philosophy. My mother, on the other hand, was smiling.”
A Semi-normal Senior Year: Dr. Betty’s enthusiasm for education started from a young age at home. “My house was the ‘homework house’ of the neighborhood. Education was the route out of where we were.’’ Biology Club became one of many outlet for Dr. Betty at B-CC, kindling her passion for education and knowledge.
Graduation and Beyond: After graduating from B-CC she passed the US Civil Service Commission typing test and landed a Grade 2 typing job at the US Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau—she hated it. Seven years after graduating from B-CC, she married and while working full-time, she enrolled part-time, first at D.C. Teacher’s College, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education with valedictorian status. She became a mother, but her education continued. By then she had enrolled in Southeastern University where she earned an MBA/MPA combination degree. And finally she enrolled in Nova University’s doctoral program and earned an Ed.D. in Early and Middle Childhood Development and Education. It took her 32 years after graduating from B-CC to complete her academic education.
During this time of nonstop part-time education, she landed a support job as a research assistant for the Federal Cardiovascular Data Processing Research Center, housed at D.C.’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital—back when computer equipment took up the entire room.
This operation was focused on incorporating the use of computer technology to improve cardiovascular medicine. She supported the medical staff of cardiologist and third year medical students from one of the premier medical schools in the Washington, D.C., area.
Over the eight years that she worked there, she learned so much about the heart, including how to diagnose electrocardiograph tracings. The Director supported her pursuit of a medical education at the premier university. Since she lacked the “college-bound” scientific education available at B-CC, she would need to fill in those education gaps, which she was more than willing to do.
But the university let her know that they did not accept black students (only a few females) even if she met all of the qualifications to enter their premed program.
Dr. Betty undeterred, rose above that medical school discrimination storm and established and operated the BH Smith Education Consulting Company. She ran her company for more than 25 years (until her grandsons were born). As a sort after training expert on child development and early childhood education, she landed training contracts with various child development programs throughout the USA.
She worked in migrant programs, on Indian reservations and in Alaskan Villages, in rural and urban program and even Head Start funded university child development programs. She even worked in US military and government programs at The Pentagon, Department of Agriculture and the IRS, and headquarters US Army which has hundreds of child development programs throughout the world.
She became a long distance runner and has been running for 50 years completing over 100,000 miles. She authored a book entitled Lifestyle by Nature which highlights her life and is working on a second book entitled Ageless/Ouchless Running in the second half of life.
She was awarded a patent by the US Patent Office for her Chick Pee design to allow female runners to “stand and go”.
She continued to learn by taking courses in everything and anything in which she was interested such as auto mechanics, swimming, diving, tai chi, chi gong, karate, coaching runners and walkers.
She continues to seek out and program in to her lifestyle the latest information on nutrition, fitness, and health which resulted in her becoming an organic vegan who only eats what she prepares. Today, her medical team says that her fitness age is 40 even though her chronological age is over 80, she is on no medication, with an exercise-induced very fit resting heart rate of 28 to 30 beats per minute.
Living Above: According to Dr. Betty, her parents and their focus on education as “the way out” taught her who she was and who she was not. “I had no power to wipe out discrimination, ” explains Dr. Betty. “So, like the bald eagle whose strength allows it to use the wind to fly above a storm, I used the strength of education to rise above the storm of discrimination.”