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Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education while celebrating the past and shaping the future

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education while celebrating the past and shaping the future

Take a look in a modern-day classroom and you’ll see children of varying races, integrated and working toward the same goal of earning an education. Seventy years ago and beyond, that was not the case.

Despite being a free state, Kansas allowed segregation of elementary schools in cities with populations of 15,000 or more. Parents began to challenge these laws as early as 1881.

McKinley Burnett became president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP in 1948 and went on to lead a challenge against racial segregation in Kansas schools.

Burnett persuaded 13 families to enroll their kids in white schools. All of them were denied, including Linda Brown, the daughter of the man who would eventually be the namesake of the court decision that ended segregation. In February 1951, the NAACP filed a lawsuit on their behalf, but the U.S. District Court ultimately ruled that although segregation might be detrimental, it was not illegal.

The following year, the Topeka plaintiffs were joined by four similar NAACP-sponsored cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The five cases were combined under the heading Oliver L. Brown et. al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et. al.

On May 17, 1954, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court, stating that “separate but equal” has no place in public education and that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The 1954 decision forced the desegregation of public schools in 21 states, including Kansas.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of that U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wednesday’s Kansas State Board of Education meeting, followed by a special program, were held at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park in Topeka.

The museum is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, one of four segregated all-Black schools in Topeka. The other three schools were Buchanan Elementary, Washington Elementary and McKinley Elementary.

Oliver Brown’s daughters, Linda and Terry, attended Monroe and McKinley.

Melanie Haas, chair of the Kansas State Board of Education, welcomed attendees to the program. Betty Arnold, State Board member and former chair of the Wichita USD 259 board of education, was five years old when Brown v. Board passed and that she graduated from a segregated school.

“Little did I know at age 5 that I would have the opportunity of standing in this building where it all began, where I was given the opportunity to soar, not because of the color of my skin, but based on my ability,” Arnold said. “Which is why I so strongly advocate for education. It makes a difference.”

Arnold went on to read an excerpt from a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in 1964 at The New School, a university in New York City. The speech was entitled The Summer of our Discontent.

Sketching history

“Linda Brown was my age when she had to fight for her education,” said Simone Holloway, a seventh-grade student at Jardine Middle School, Topeka USD 501, and a student at College Prep Academy. Holloway read an excerpt from an interview with Linda Brown in 1985:

“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards and crossing a busy avenue and standing on the corner and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all-black school…when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

National Park Ranger Lawson Nwakudo gave a glimpse of what segregation looked like across the United States.

“When you think of segregation, you think of the signs you first saw when you walked into the building that clearly say, ‘whites’ and ‘colored.’ But I want to point out a major distinction between how it was actually done here in the Midwest in comparison to the South,” Nwakudo said. “In the South, the word ‘colored’ was a catch all term. It was there to describe everyone who was not white. The segregation laws and signs also affected Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and people who are biracial to any degree.”

He described how in the South, everything was segregated, from hospitals to water fountains.

“The separation was there to not just disadvantage people of color, but to also send a very pertinent message,” he said.

Nwakudo recalled a picture of two water fountains his mother showed him when he was about eight years old. One was labeled “white” and the other “colored.” The water fountains for white Southerners were ornate and nice to look at. The “colored” water fountain was much smaller, had pipes showing and was lower to the ground to make it more difficult to drink out of.

“But the wild thing about that is they were connected to the exact same pipes. You’re getting the exact same water. The message was clear,” he said. “If you’re a person of color, if you’re not 100% white, you are less than because of those reasons.”

Cora Jackson Wells, a sophomore at Topeka West High School, Topeka USD 501, read an excerpt from Supreme Court Justice Warren’s 1954 opinion for the court on Brown v. Board of Education.

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

“I felt very grateful to have the opportunity to come here,” Wells said. “I feel really special to be able to read that very important quote.”

Celebrating the past

Carolyn Wims-Campbell, a former Kansas State Board of Education member, spoke Wednesday on celebrating the past by sharing some of her memories.

“I am a proud product of segregation,” Wims-Campbell said. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel sorry for us Black children who had that experience. I’m thankful that I was born during that time.”

She said there wouldn’t be Brown v. Board without McKinley Burnett. Wims-Campbell said she wanted everyone to remember that name.

“He would save all of his vacation time because the Topeka Board of Education would change the dates for the meetings to keep him from coming and taking the time that citizens would take to talk about segregation,” she said. “He was smarter than them because he had all the time, so when the meetings were changed, he was there.”

Wims-Campbell attended McKinley Elementary, an all-Black school at the time, from Kindergarten through sixth grade.

Shaping the Future

Keith Tatum, president of the Topeka USD 501 Board of Education, presented on shaping the future.

“This is the same school board that was on the wrong side of history before the Brown v. Board decision came down,” he said.

Tatum said Dr. Cornel West, an American philosopher and political activist, once said to him that justice is what love looks like in public.

“Education is also what love looks like in public,” Tatum said. “We pour our energy and our effort into children, the children who are going to come after us. When we’re long gone, our children will inherit this world. And I still believe in the old adage that education is the great equalizer.”

Although a lot of progress has been made in 70 years, we haven’t completely finished the race, Tatum said.

“It’s been said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” he said. “So, we have to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come and to honor the legacy of those who were before us because the work that was done by those pioneers should never be in vain. So how we remember the accomplishments that they provided for us and how we learn the lessons of their time means that we need to keep telling the story and learn from it and perpetuate that history moving forward.”

Kansas Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson provided closing remarks at the program and reminded those in attendance that the Brown v. Board Museum was once a segregated school full of students, teachers and faculty.

It’s history for most of us, but for others, it’s what they lived, he said.

“You get the opportunity to overwrite the next part of history,” Watson said. “We have the opportunity to live in a way that moves us forward.”

Posted: May 16, 2024,
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