Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site

The final place Tom and I visited while we were in Kansas was Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.  This is the preserved schoolhouse where Linda Brown became the first black child to attend a white school in the Topeka Kansas School System.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racially segregated public facilities were legal, so long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal.  The ruling led to laws barring African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools and other public facilities as whites.  These separate and unequal laws were called “Jim Crow laws.”  The ruling also established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would stand for the next six decades.

But by the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was challenging segregation laws in public schools.  The NAACP filed lawsuits in several states.  In the case that would become most famous, a plaintiff named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, after his daughter was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary schools.

In his lawsuit, Brown claimed that schools for black children were not equal to the white schools.  He also claimed that segregation violated the so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment.  This clause states that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The case went before the U.S. District Court in Kansas, which agreed that public school segregation had a “detrimental effect upon the colored children” and contributed to “a sense of inferiority.” Instead of overturning the law, however, the court still upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine.

When Brown’s case and four other cases related to school segregation first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court combined them into a single case under the name Brown v Board of Education of TopekaThurgood Marshall served as chief attorney for the plaintiffs.  In the decision, issued on May 17, 1954, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”

By overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education set the legal precedent that would be used to overturn laws enforcing segregation in other public facilities. But despite its undoubted impact, the historic verdict fell short of achieving its primary mission of integrating the nation’s public schools.

Tom and I looked forward to visiting Brown v Board of Education because we were so moved by the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site last year.  Unfortunately we were sadly disappointed by Brown v Board of Education.  The schoolhouse is preserved.  We saw the room where Linda Brown attended classes, much as it would have been in her day.  But there is little information about Linda Brown or other specifics of integration.

One room has a brief timeline of the Civil Rights Movement.  A display on one wall contains the legal wording of the suits filed in the five landmark cases on school segregation.  But the historic site was sadly lacking what I find most interesting:  personal stories of the lives affected.  How did Linda Brown feel about going to school there and being a symbol?  What happened to her later in life?

We also watched the multimedia presentation in the school auditorium.  It was the most boring discussion of civil rights ever.  Almost as if they don’t want anyone to watch it or learn the history.  Disappointing.

I’m glad we went to Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.  I crossed another site off my list and got the stamp.  But I hope that they do a better job of interpreting this historic decision in the future.  Of course, I also hope we, as a nation, do a better job of creating equal education for people of all colors and economic backgrounds.