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50 Years After Landmark Brown v. Board of Education Ruling Are Children Losing Ground? - 2004-05-12


Fifty years ago May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws requiring racially segregated public schools, in a landmark ruling known as Brown versus the Board of Education. At the time, Katherine Butler was in high school in North Carolina, in a segregated school for black students. So was Addie Laws. They didn't know each other then, but as the years have passed they've become good friends. Both were teachers for more than three decades, and it was in their classrooms that they witnessed history, from the darkest days of segregation to today.

It has been almost six decades since Katherine Butler and Addie Laws set foot in segregated classrooms, first as students, and then as teachers. Ms. Butler began teaching in 1961, shortly after she got married. Her friend started two years later. Though the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, North Carolina schools didn't integrate until the late 1960s and early 70s. Both women say they were tense, anxious times. But they made the rough adjustment to integration. And they watched from the front of the classroom as over the years schools became multiracial. Looking back, Ms. Laws says she had a great career, but she can't help feeling a sense of loss.

"With all the things that integration brought - the diversity in the curriculum and all the ideas and things brought forth - our children still have not gained," she says. "They have lost ground when it comes to education."

But both women insist they'd never want to return to the days when schools for black children were supposed to be separate but equal to those attended by whites. The buildings where black students learned were often dilapidated? Most of their textbooks were hand-me-downs from white schools. Katherine Butler recalls that, for years, her school didn't even have a cafeteria. But Addie Laws says what they did have was a sense of community.

"It was like a family," she recalls. "You knew all the children, you knew their parents and they had all gone to the same school. We didn't have the same resources the white children had, but we had teachers who made sure you did the very best you could with what you had."

Black teachers earned about half of what white teachers made, but they took their jobs seriously.

"When I first started teaching we had to visit the churches in our communities. We had to go out into the churches so we would know those and visit. You visited the homes," she explains.

Katherine Butler says despite everything, children got the support they needed, one way or another. "They had caring parents, who came to PTA meetings, who came when you said there is a problem," she says. "And you knew you could count on them and you worked together for the success of the child. And you could talk to anyone in the community about how to help that child and they too would offer suggestions."

But after integration, these teachers and tens of thousands of their colleagues across the South found their world changing, and not always for the better. Many black principals and teachers were demoted in integrated school Addie Laws saw it happen in her school.

"Because they needed to consolidate, they took the white music teacher from the other school and made her the music teacher for the integrated school," she explains. "And our black music teacher who had a number one glee club and outstanding students in voice and the band -the little flute bands- they put her in a fifth grade classroom. I thought that was outrageous."

In Orange County, where Katherine Butler taught, more than half of the black elementary school teachers quit. Only a handful of principals remained. Black students struggled to adjust too. But Ms. Butler stuck with her career. And she made sure her own children did well in school.

"This is what you see here - letter of commendation, certificate of achievement, and this of course is her certificate of merit for French, advanced French," she says.

Her home is full of mementos, knickknacks and family portraits. An entire wall of her study is covered with dozens of framed certificates that her daughters earned in school.

"She was a National Merit Scholarship finalist. That's the National Achievement Scholarship over there, and recognition for highest academic achievement, and that's for leadership, outstanding leadership," she says.

Her eldest daughter, Kim, started kindergarten in the same integrated elementary school where Ms. Butler herself taught. She says it helped to have her daughter near, especially in those tense, early years of integration.

"If things got hairy during the day she could always excuse herself to go to the bathroom and she could come to me," she explains. "And I could calm her down and give her a word of advice and tell her, 'well, why don't you do this?'"

Now, at age 63, Katherine Butler is giving advice to a new generation.

It's 3:30 in the afternoon and Ms. Butler's grandchildren, eight-year-old Benya and seven-year-old Christopher have just raced through the door, their backpacks loaded with homework. Ever the teacher, Ms. Butler reaches into Benya's backpack, opens up a folder, and sits down at the kitchen table.

"Oh, we got spelling words?" she asks. "I'll call you some words, and you spell some for me, okay? All right?"

Benya and Christopher attend a racially mixed elementary school that's 50 percent white and 20 percent black, like most in the area. Benya says her grandmother is one of her best teachers.

"She's probably good at helping me with reading and writing and helping me with math, especially with math! I'm not that good at math," she says.

Ms. Butler is proud that her own grandkids are doing well in school, but she believes the struggle that began 50 years ago with Brown versus Board of Education is a long way from being over. She says too many black students struggle in school. Too many of them still can't read.

"I don't think there'll ever be a time - I'm just going to be honest here - I don't think there'll ever be a time when you can say - it is done," she confides. " I think what the Supreme Court meant is that everyone's got equal opportunity. And what happens with the opportunity is going to depend a lot on what the student is willing to do because it doesn't just happen. Learning is an active thing."

Back in her day, Katherine Butler says everyone from the local minister to the school janitor did their best to help black children succeed. And she thinks schools must somehow find a way to make that happen again.