Oliver Brown’s daughters attended Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. Kansas had a long history of encouraging former slaves to settle in the state after the Civil War. It’s high schools were integrated and the school board attempted to make its Black elementary schools equal to its exclusively White elementary schools. Oliver Brown, a minister, and other local civil rights activists sued the Board saying their children should be able to attend their neighborhood school.
Oliver Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was one of five cases consolidated and brought to the Supreme Court by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund seeking to reverse the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that upheld racial segregation in public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were “equal in quality.” The U.S. District Court in Topeka was compelled to follow the Plessy precedence, but accepted the Plaintiffs’ psychological evidence that African-American children were adversely affected by segregation.
Sixty-five years ago this week on May 17, 1954, the Court unanimously reversed Plessy stating the racial segregation in Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia violated the 14th amendment to the Constitution (and the District of Columbia, not subject to the 14th amendment, violated the 5th amendment). Brown has now been the controlling law longer than Plessy, but in the last 30 years, segregated schools have tripled in the U.S..
Monroe school is now a National Historic Site. A former classroom is now a Junior Ranger station for children to learn about this history.
Extensive exhibits review the history of civil rights battles and the on-going struggles. I wondered why the parking lot was overflowing when I visited on a weekday morning. I was surprised to find the Topeka federal court judge in attendance for a naturalization service swearing in 50 new U.S. citizens in the school auditorium. A most fitting historical memorial.
There is one National Historic Site that is still an operating high school. Three years after the Brown decision, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus stated the federal government lacked the authority to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to ensure the Little Rock Nine students could attend the school. It is a bit jarring to turn the corner and see the ‘50s black-and-white news photos, there in front of you coming to life with parents’ cars and buses pulling up to pick up students.
Just last year, Topeka unveiled a 130 foot mural by Michael Toombs across from Monroe School celebrating and exploring justice and equality.