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School Desegregation Began in Heartland

Four schoolhouses in Topeka, Kansas, are in the spotlight as the United States marks African-American History Month. The buildings symbolize a dramatic turn in civil-rights history. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that so-called "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were not equal at all and that segregating students by race is illegal. Today, one of the schools is an unusual memorial.

Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, the capital city of the plains state of Kansas, does not look much like a memorial, though. It's a schoolhouse, after all -- with a few remaining blackboards, drinking fountains, desks and chairs. But three years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision known as Brown-versus-Board of Education, this old brick building, which had sat closed and empty, re-opened as a monument to the entire civil-rights movement.

Teresa Valencia, a U.S. park ranger, notes that Monroe Elementary was one of four blacks-only schools in Topeka directly affected by the "Brown-v-Board" decision. It swung open the doors to civil rights throughout the world," she says, "opening the door for people with disabilities, gay rights, just all different types of rights."

National Park Service rangers at Monroe Elementary School direct visitors to exhibits and oral histories depicting milestones in the U.S. civil-rights movement. "For almost 100 years, the lives of many black people were restricted by laws and by those who enforced them," one of them begins. The reaction can be profound. A white visitor noted, "It's not just about African-American rights. It's the rights of all people."

Katherine Cushinberry, an administrator at the historic site, says the Brown-v-Board decision officially put an end to so-called "Jim Crow" laws that required whites and blacks to use separate public facilities. She notes that getting children to understand all this can take some careful explaining.

"Kids thought Jim Crow was a person," she observes. "And they thought, 'Why did people kill Jim Crow?' You know, they couldn't understand that. But when you explain to them the terminologies and the time frame, it gives them a better understanding of what things were back then. So they get to see what the struggles were."

The term "Jim Crow" is thought to have originated in minstrel shows of the early 1800s, when whites blackened their faces, sang with mocking Negro accents, and danced spasmodic jigs. Jim Crow became a racial slur, a stereotype of supposed black inferiority.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, led by attorney and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, orchestrated the legal assault on separate-but-equal laws. While there were many examples of unequal treatment, from restaurant seating to separate white and colored drinking fountains, the NAACP focused first on education.

Topeka historian Douglass Wallace says one might think this Midwest city, which is almost 80 percent white and only 11 percent black, would be an unlikely place for civil-rights lawyers to launch a challenge of the separate-but-equal standard for segregated schools. He says the city's black schools were not decrepit or neglected. They were in fairly good condition. And that, he says, is precisely why Topeka was chosen. "You could easily strike down the segregation laws in the South, because the physical plants were in far poorer condition and had less equipment. So if you could strike down the segregated concept in a place like Topeka, Kansas, they would have to be overturned all across the country."

Topeka, where many black children had to travel past white schools to their schools several kilometers away, was not the only city involved in the landmark civil-rights case. The Supreme Court combined segregation cases from five states. In South Carolina and Delaware, only white kids were provided with transportation to school. In Virginia, a black high school had no athletic facilities, cafeteria, or infirmary. The combined cases were named for a Topeka plaintiff, Oliver Brown, whose daughter attended the blacks-only Monroe School.

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren made a rare public proclamation of the court's unanimous decision. He announced, "We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." The court declared that what it called "inherently un-equal facilities" violate the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Though resistance to the integration of schools and other public facilities was loud and sometimes violent in the South, all went relatively smoothly in Topeka and the rest of Kansas.

Last month, the Topeka Board of Education rejected a proposal that would have turned one of the other three buildings that had been schools for black children into a privately run school for students with special needs. But a simple brick schoolhouse at the corner of 15th and Monroe Streets in Topeka stands open as a symbolic monument to the nation's long and sometimes bloody struggle for equal rights under the law.