topeka, kansas: brown v. board of education national historic site

I spent the night in Topeka, Kansas so I could visit the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in the morning before taking off through Missouri and Illinois.

The site commemorates the May 17, 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation is unconstitutional.  The museum outlines the long struggle for civil rights in the United States.


Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

In 1952, the NAACP consolidated four of the five cases involving school segregation as Brown v. Board of Education; these cases were deliberately drawn from different areas of the country.  Emphasis on the South would have introduced political complications to an already complex case. Topeka, Kansas was chosen as the lead case for the same reason. Also, the African American schools in Topeka were essentially equal to white schools, so segregation itself, not equality, would be the issue in question, according to the National Park Service.

Monroe Elementary School was one of four segregated elementary schools for African Americans in Topeka. Unlike Southern states that required segregation, Kansas law only permitted segregation in elementary schools and only in cities with more than 15,000 residents.

The National Historic Site is housed in Monroe Elementary School.


Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Monroe Elementary School

Linda Brown attended this school rather than Sumner School in her neighborhood because she was African American.  Her father Oliver Brown and twelve other parents joined a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board in 1951.  The case became known as Brown v. Board of Education.


Oliver Brown

I watched a film about the long struggle for Civil Rights and education in the U.S.

In 1619, the first Africans arrived in the English colonies.  Their status as enslaved people or servants is unclear, but laws restricting the freedoms of Africans began to appear by the 1640s. Slave labor spread across the South’s tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations. By the 1700s, the South had become a society whose prosperity and way of life was intertwined with slavery.

I learned about Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), an escaped slave who pressed for equal rights, and advanced the cause of emancipation and women’s suffrage.


Frederick Douglass

For most Americans, education was the path to economic and social advancement. Before the Civil War, enslaved people were forbidden to study.

However, churches and missionary societies established schools for free African Americans in both the North and South, and in the western territories  Slave codes prohibited formal schooling of enslaved persons, but many obtained basic education informally. By 1860, 32,629 African Americans were enrolled in schools in the United States.

The power of education was recognized by both the enslavers and the enslaved. An 1852 reward notice offered $50 for the return of a runaway slave. 


Education and Slavery

After the Civil War, in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery.

In the period immediately following the Civil War, Southern state governments enacted Black Codes to maintain dominance over the newly freed African American labor force. To combat this pervasive Southern white resistance, the federal government intervened to enforce the Constitution’s guarantee of equality for all citizens. This period was known as the Radical Reconstruction of the South.

Tactics for regaining all-white political control during and after Reconstruction included violence and intimidation of African American voters, and ballot rigging. Social control was exerted through Jim Crow laws, discriminating against and segregating African Americans.

After the Civil War, access to public education was unequal. African American children were forced to study apart from whites, often in inferior schools. In the Southwest and West, many children of Asian, Mexican and Native American descent were also classified as colored or non-white and then segregated and simply excluded from state-sponsored schools.

Thus, African American hopes for an equal place in post-war society were not realized. Civil rights gained during the era of Reconstruction were eroded by white resistance and compromise by the federal government.

During Reconstruction, many institutions of higher learning opened for African Americans including Howard University, Hampton Institute, St. Augustine’s College, Atlanta University, and Fisk University. These colleges provided the opportunity to gain an education that fostered individual and collective advancement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 explicitly declared African Americans to be citizens of the U.S. and granted them equal protection in laws.  This was drafted prior to the 14th Amendment and was designed to counteract discriminatory state laws known as “Black Codes” that restricted the freedom of African Americans after the abolition of slavery.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1868. It granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the law,” according to History: 14th Amendment.


14th Amendment

In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote.


15th Amendment

By 1870, the Freedman’s Bureau established over 4,000 schools for over 250,000 African American students in the South, increasing literacy among African Americans dramatically.


Education for African Americans

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was meant to guarantee freedom of access, regardless of race, to public places.  This law was the last civil rights legislation passed until 1957.  The U.S. Supreme Court declared this act unconstitutional in 1883.

In 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision declared the practice of segregation constitutional.  The ruling established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was used to defend segregation until 1954. While segregated facilities for non-whites were legitimized by this decision, the reality of unequal status for non-whites had long been entrenched in law and society since the arrival of the first African slaves in the Americas. After the Civil War, groups opposed to granting full equality to African Americans created a series of legal obstacles, now called Jim Crow laws, which kept African Americans from enjoying rights granted by the Constitution.

This is still going on today, with politicians and states openly and blatantly trying to disenfranchise black voters, deny black citizens housing and healthcare, and to otherwise systemically “keep them in their place.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a significant increase in public schools for African American and white children.  However, with some notable exceptions, African American schools generally had fewer facilities and received lower funding than those for whites.  In 1948-49, for example, the Clarendon County School Board in South Carolina spent an average of $43 on each African American child, and $179 on each white child.

The principle of “separate but equal” was in most cases not applied in practice. It was really just a way of maintaining the dominance of whites. Psychological research in the 1930s suggested that segregation itself created a sense of inferiority in African Americans, likely to have a lasting, debilitating effect, regardless of the equality of facilities.

The following map shows school segregation before Brown. Green: Segregation Required.  Blue: Segregation Permitted.  Red: Segregation Prohibited.  White: No Specific Legislation or Segregation.


School Segregation Before Brown

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The court’s nine justices agreed unanimously that separate schools based on race were unconstitutional. In overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and the “separate but equal doctrine,” Brown v. Board of Education helped launch the modern civil rights movement.

The five lawsuits of Brown v. Board of Education grew out of grassroots community activism, guided by strategies developed by African American activist organizations.


The 1954 Supreme Court decision


Ending school segregation

The Brown decision was announced in Topeka’s afternoon newspaper on May 17, 1954.

In May 1955, the Supreme Court ordered that integration be implemented with “all deliberate speed,” a controversial phrase reflecting the court’s concern over Brown’s reception.  Rather than comply, Prince Edward County, VA, closed its schools from 1959 to 1964, an example of Virginia’s “massive resistance” strategy.  The Supreme Court finally ordered the county to open and integrate the schools.  In other places desegregation was met with angry — often violent — resistance, and openly segregated public facilities persisted into the 1960s.

On February 29, 1956, Autherine Lucy (left) arrived at the U.S. District Court to petition the court to order the University of Alabama to re-admit her to classes.  Her legal team included Thurgood Marshall (tall man, center) and Arthur Shores (carrying coat, right).


A legal team proceeds to US District Court

Children became the pioneers in the attempts to desegregate public schools following the Brown decision. They faced fierce intimidation.  Little Rock Central High School (LRCHS) in Little Rock, Arkansas was the site of forced desegregation in 1957.


children as pioneers – Little Rock Central High School

Civil Rights action against segregation and discrimination took many forms – bus boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and voter registration campaigns.  Protestors often encountered verbal abuse, physical intimidation, and incarceration.  In some cases they were murdered.  The violence, seen on TV, began to change public opinion in favor of stronger federal protection of civil rights.

In 1960, four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College launched the southern sit-in movement at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. On June 9, 1960, Howard University student Dion Diamond was surrounded by white objectors during a lunch counter sit-in at an Arlington, Virginia drugstore. He and other black students occupied counter seats to protest denied service for blacks.

In May, 1961, a bus carrying black and white Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) “freedom riders” was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama. Violent reaction to peaceful direct action forced the federal government to intervene to protect its citizens.


firebombed bus in Alabama

In 1962, integrationists promised to go to jail if the governor called in the National Guard on an upcoming desegregation protest in Albany, Georgia on July 25.


Integrationist chant “freedom” and wave their pledges

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in employment, voting rights, and use of public facilities.


The Civil Rights Act, 1964

In 1965, members of the Southern Christian Leadership (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a march to highlight the continued use of voting restrictions against African Americans. Members planned to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital.  On March 7, known now as “Bloody Sunday,” the marchers were stopped and attacked by police with clubs, tear gas, and mounted charges as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  After two weeks of further peaceful protest and police violence, the march reconvened and eventually reached Montgomery.

This march is dramatized in the movie Selma, which is excellent.


Marching for the Vote

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, also signed by President Lyndon Johnson, reversed nearly a century of Jim Crow laws. 


The Voting Rights Act, 1965

Below, a young African American boy observed Ku Klux Klansmen preparing to march in Durham, NC on April 24, 1965.


Ku Klux Klansmen prepare to march in 1965

Two great leaders in the fight for civil rights were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, among many others.

In the photo below, activist Ieshia Evans peacefully protested again police brutality outside the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana on July 9, 2016.


activist Ieshia Evans protests police brutality

I walked through a classroom in Monroe Elementary School.

I left Monroe Elementary School and took a walk on the grounds.  I felt disheartened that despite the great strides that have been made in civil rights for African Americans, there is still great systemic oppression, unfair laws, disenfranchisement, imprisonment and free labor provided by non-white inmates in private prisons, and general racist attitudes in our society. I wonder when people will ever look kindly and lovingly at their fellow man and understand that we are all created EQUAL – in every way.

(All information is from signs and pamphlets from the National Park Service.)

Near the Brown v. Board of Education Site is a mural depicting African Americans in Topeka.


After leaving the historic site at 11:00 a.m., I was on the road to St. Louis, Missouri (MO) where I would stop at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. I paid the Kansas toll and drove through Bonner Springs, Leavenworth, and finally through Kansas City.  I was welcomed to Missouri. I saw signs for the American Jazz Museum.  A sign informed me that there were “690 road deaths in MO this year: Every 1 Matters.” Another emphasized traffic safety as well: “One good turn signal deserves another.” Passions Adult Toy Outlet beckoned drivers to make a stop.  I passed signs for Lake of the Ozarks as vultures circled overhead. Buckshort Trading Company promised it was “unique as its name.”  I could have stopped at the Blackwater Historic District but I knew there wasn’t enough time. I crossed the Missouri River and Hominy Creek. 

Another road sign warned: “Drive Sober: Not Shaken or Stirred.” Another promised “Jesus Saves.” I could have stopped at Frumpy Joe’s Food and Drink, but I already felt frumpy from too many hours in the car, so I sped by. There was an out for marijuana possession: “Possession Charge? Jungle Law.”  Another sign said “Where Are You Going? Heaven or Hell?”

I crossed the Missouri River again and saw signs for Spirit of St. Louis Airport.  I arrived in St. Louis at 3:42, just barely in time to make it to the Ulysses S. Grant site before they closed.

*Monday, September 30, 2019*