Topeka and Brown v. Board

I’m here in Topeka, Kansas, where I’m speaking to the Kansas Medical Society, and it’s an overcast day.

First time here. So I stopped in at the Brown v. Board of Education historic site in the southwest part of town, where the neighborhoods have a lot of nice wooden houses with porches under tall trees.

The site is the old Monroe Elementary School, once segregated, where the black families who brought the suit had their children enrolled.

Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda Brown were the lead plaintiffs in the case. In 1950, they had gone to a white school to enroll Linda. They were turned away. Their case went to the Supreme Court and changed America by, among other things, beginning our country’s agonizing process of living up to our constitution as written.

The court’s 1954 ruling, of course, overturned the idea, enshrined in U.S. law following the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that separate and equal public schools were constitutional.

Using the Brown case as a test, the NAACP and its attorney Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal violated the 14thAmendment. The amendment was passed during Reconstruction guaranteeing, among other things, equal protection under the law. Jim Crow had suffocated the amendment.

The court agreed unanimously with Marshall — and with that began the resuscitation of that part of the Constitution.

I learned a few things.

One was that Brown was only the lead of five school segregation cases that were argued before the Supreme Court that day. Others were from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington DC. The Kansas case was chosen as the lead case because the effects of segregation were less bad – the differences between white and black schools weren’t as pronounced — and thus the case had the potential for setting a new high standard for black schools – that of white schools in Kansas. In some cases, the black schools were actually better than the white schools. So a ranger explained to me.

The idea of choosing Topeka as the lead suit was to make school segregation itself, and not the school quality, the key issue.

Also, I learned that Topeka didn’t wait, but began integrating its schools a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other regions of the country, of course, rebelled.

I heard the name of Charles Houston for the first time.

Houston was the dean of the Howard University Law School who turned the school into a “West Point for civil rights attorneys,” mentoring Thurgood Marshall, as well as many other less-heralded but equally energetic attorneys.

Sounds like quite a figure in American history.

I bought a biography of Marshall written by Juan Williams because it appears to have a lot of references to him. Houston worked his students like a drill instructor, flunked a good many, and had a saying when students complained about the hard work: “no tea for the feeble; no crepe for the dead.” In time, he took Howard Law from an unaccredited backwater into a powerhouse, churning out talents attorneys whom I suspect, like Marshall, helped change the country.

Through all our complicated history, the courts remain the place, as Houston knew, where people, though it would take so much painful time, eventually could find justice.

Here’s a photo of Linda Brown, who was 7 and in the 3rd grade when her father first took her to that white school to be denied enrollment. That’s quite a dramatic image – this big man holding his daughter hand in his as they walk up the steps into this school where they’ll likely be rebuffed.

She became a Head Start teacher and died earlier this year at the age of 76.

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