American history took a dramatic turn in May 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that so-called "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites in the United States were not equal at all. The high court declared such segregated facilities illegal. It is only now, a half-century later, that a memorial to that civil rights milestone is being created in a schoolhouse.
The old building - Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, the capital city of Kansas - does not yet look like much of a memorial. It's been stripped of almost every school relic, save for its blackboards, a few drinking fountains out in the hall, and scattered desks here and there. But on May 17, 2004, the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, this renovated building will open again as a monument to the entire civil rights movement."
The high court's decision "swung open the doors to civil rights throughout the world, opening the door for people with disabilities, gay rights, just all different types of rights" said Teresa Valencia, a U.S. park ranger at the temporary site dedicated to that decision, in a cramped corner of Topeka's downtown post office. When renovations are finished at Monroe School, which was one of four blacks-only schools in Topeka, that permanent Brown v. Board site will offer a variety of exhibits depicting milestones in the U.S. civil rights movement. Oral histories from that struggle will also be collected there.
Right now, rangers at the temporary site can only answer visitor questions and invite them to watch two videotapes. One is geared at adults, the other to children too young to remember the era when legally enforced racial segregation was the law in many American states.
"Imagine not being able to sit with everyone else when you saw a movie, went to the library, or got on a bus," explains the video. "It was called 'segregation,' which means 'separation.' But it wasn't just a separation. For almost 100 years, the lives of many black people were restricted by laws, and by those who enforced them."
Those restrictions that separated the races, especially in southern states, were called "Jim Crow" laws. The term 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 Brown v. Board decision, which officially put an end to Jim Crow laws, takes some careful explaining to children, says Katherine Cushinberry, the acting superintendent at the historic site.
"Kids thought Jim Crow was a person," she explained, "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 to them, it gives them a better understanding of what things were back then."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (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 on education.
Psychologist Kenneth Clark gave small children of both races a white doll and a black doll to play with, said Ranger Valencia, "and they would always choose the white doll, so it was having a psychological effect on the children."
Not just Topeka, where many black children had to travel past white schools to their inferior schools several kilometers away, was involved in the landmark 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 announced the court's unanimous decision. "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 unequal" facilities violated the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But actually integrating schools, restaurants, trains and buses and restrooms would take years. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. faced determined opposition.
"We are not wrong in what we are doing," sand Dr. King. "If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong."
The integration of schools and other public facilities went relatively smoothly in Topeka and the rest of Kansas, but in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, resistance to the court order was loud and strong. In 1957, Arkansas governor Orville Faubus vowed to block the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
"It will not be possible to protect the lives and property of the citizens if forcible integration is carried out tomorrow in the schools of this community," declared Governor Faubus.
Only when President Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard could Little Rock Central High be integrated.
In preparation for the 50th anniversary opening of Monroe Elementary School as a memorial to the civil rights movement, the National Park Service invited both blacks and whites to reflect on the lasting meaning of the Brown v. Board decision. "It's not just about African-Americans rights. It's the rights of all people," said one white man captured on the visitor videotape.
Beginning in May 2004, a simple brick schoolhouse at the corner of 15th and Monroe Streets in Topeka, Kansas, will be the nation's symbolic monument to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for equal rights under the law.