Topeka Museum Captures Brown Legacy

By Mark Walsh — April 07, 2004 9 min read
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Brown at 50

The Monroe School building bore a large “For Auction” sign in 1990, when a staff member of the Brown Foundation for Educational Excellence drove by one day.

For decades, Monroe was one of four segregated grade schools where the Topeka board of education assigned black schoolchildren. The building had been through many permutations since it closed in 1975: a warehouse, a church meeting place, a clothing-distribution center. It had even housed a dentist’s office. Its long-term future was a question mark.

But the Brown Foundation would soon embark on a mission to preserve a local and national historic site. And next month, years of effort to restore the Monroe School will culminate in its dedication as a museum depicting the story of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and related battles for desegregation and civil rights.

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View the accompanying table, “Commemorating the Brown Decision.”

“The story of the Brown case is complex, but it is very compelling,” said Stephen E. Adams, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the national historic site at the Monroe School, who led a preview tour of the museum last month.

“We want people to understand the significance and the history of the case,” he said. “This is a site where we want people to do a lot of thinking.”

Monroe School was where Linda Brown, the daughter of local railroad worker and minister Oliver L. Brown, was enrolled when Mr. Brown in 1950 unsuccessfully sought to enroll her in a whites-only school closer to their home. The Browns would become one of 13 families to challenge segregated schools in Topeka in a lawsuit organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The rest, of course, is history. Fifty years ago next month, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation of the races in public education unconstitutional. It was no accident that the court placed the Kansas case at the top of its opinions covering consolidated school segregation cases that also came from Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and Virginia. The justices reached out to include the heartland of the nation in a decision that they knew would bring wrenching changes, especially in the South.

‘White’ or ‘Colored’

The renovated Monroe School will be dedicated on May 17, exactly 50 years after the Brown ruling. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige is scheduled to attend, and organizers have received hints from the White House that President Bush may be there, too.

The day will cap a yearlong commemoration of the historic case that has included scholarly conferences, museum exhibits, children’s writing contests, and other events.

But the anniversary also will likely usher in fresh interest in the case and the history of the U.S. civil rights movement. Organizers hope that young people’s curiosity to learn more about the story of the case will be piqued.

Daniel Holt, a member of the federal Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission and the director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, said that if experience is any guide, “you’re going to get a lot more attention after May 17 than you have before.”

Last month, the commission—which includes appointees from each of the jurisdictions involved in the consolidated Supreme Court cases— got a preview of the Brown museum. Education Week was allowed to go along as museum staff members showed off the restored Monroe School and its exhibits, which were substantially complete but awaiting some final touches.

When it opens to the public, visitors entering the building will immediately be given a choice of passing through entryways marked “white” or “colored.” In the school’s auditorium, state-of-the-art video displays tell the story of how segregated schools came to be.

Next, in the “Education and Justice” exhibit room, visitors have to pass through a gantlet of video screens showing historical footage of white opponents of desegregation, including some who spew racial epithets, providing a sense of what the desegregation pioneers faced. The museum also has a room devoted to the legacy and effects of the Brown case, both in the United States and around the world.

Finally, visitors end up in the school’s former kindergarten room, where they can record their reactions to the exhibits.

The second floor houses a resource center for students and others, as well as the offices of the museum staff and the Brown Foundation, which was privately founded in 1988 to preserve the legacy of the case.

Roger Wilkins, a member of the Brown commission and a professor of American history and culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., stopped as he toured the exhibit on March 17 to examine a famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the black students who desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. In the picture, Ms. Eckford is walking alone near the school, taunted by several whites.

“Her classmates said she never recovered from that,” Mr. Wilkins observed.

The Little Rock photo demonstrates the approach the organizers of the Brown museum have taken. Instead of offering a detailed exhibit about the history of the Topeka case, the museum at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site embraces the larger story of the struggle for civil rights.

“It’s very well done,” said Mr. Wilkins. “If you were born into segregation, as I was, it’s a powerful reminder of childhood.”

But the museum’s broader approach didn’t sit well with another member of the Brown commission. Joseph A. De Laine Jr., the son of the minister who launched the South Carolina desegregation case, Briggs v. Elliott, told Mr. Adams during the tour that he was worried that students might come away from the museum without learning much about the other cases.

“I give them an A for effort,” Mr. De Laine said outside the school. “But I think it somewhat overemphasizes the civil rights era of the ’60s, and doesn’t have enough on the Brown era of the 1950s.”

In fact, one focus of the Brown commission, whose members were selected by President Bush, Secretary Paige, U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and others, has been to shine a light on all five desegregation cases that the Supreme Court decided on that day in 1954. The commission has held its meetings over the past 18 months in sites connected to the four state cases that made up Brown, and the District of Columbia case, for which the Supreme Court issued the separate opinion known as Bolling v. Sharpe.

Mr. Adams told Mr. De Laine that when all the exhibits are in place, visitors will get a sense of the history of all five cases. “We never discussed that this was just going to be about Topeka,” Mr. Adams said later. “It isn’t just about one little girl.”

‘A Detrimental Effect’

One of the interactive exhibits teaches some of the “fact or fiction” of the Brown case. One statement offered is: “Oliver Brown single-handedly sued the Topeka School Board on behalf of his daughter.” When visitors seek the answer, they learn: “No, Oliver Brown was among a group of 13 parents who brought a class action” challenging segregated schools.

According to most historical accounts—including Simple Justice, the widely praised 1975 book by Richard Kluger—Mr. Brown’s name appeared first among the plaintiffs in the Topeka lawsuit because he was the only man among the parents. The suit challenged the Topeka system’s policy of segregating white and black pupils in its 22 K-6 grade schools. Four were designated for black children and 18 for whites.

The segregation policy, which Kansas law permitted but did not require for the largest school systems in the state, did not apply to Topeka’s junior and senior high schools, which were integrated in the classroom, although not necessarily in after-school activities.

In September 1950, Mr. Brown walked his eldest daughter, Linda, a few blocks from their home and tried to enroll her in the all-white Sumner School. They were turned down. Mr. Kluger writes that Mr. Brown and other black parents whose children faced long daily trips to the city’s black schools were most likely approached by McKinley Burnett, the head of the NAACP branch in Topeka, to join the lawsuit.

At a conference at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, last month, Mr. Burnett’s daughter, Maurita Burnett Davis, recalled that her father was often asked why he didn’t file suit on behalf of his own children.

“We lived next door to the Monroe School and did not have to pass another school to get there,” she explained.

The lawsuit was tried in 1951 before a special three-judge U.S. District Court panel at the federal courthouse in Topeka. Thurgood Marshall, who directed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s national strategy for attacking segregation in schools, did not come to Topeka, but defense-fund lawyers Robert L. Carter and Jack Greenberg joined local lawyers to attack the Topeka policy.

In the summer of 1951, the trial court ruled for the Topeka board of education. Judge Walter A. Huxman wrote that the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision was still the law of the land. But the opinion ultimately played a significant role in the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case. The Topeka court issued findings of fact that racial segregation “had a detrimental effect on the black schoolchildren.”

The opinion was viewed by many legal observers as sympathetic to desegregation, with its findings forcing the Supreme Court to confront directly the separate-but-equal doctrine.

The Topeka school board dropped its segregation policy in 1953. Following the 1954 ruling by the high court, the desegregation case would become dormant for many years until it was revived in the late 1970s by black parents who argued that there were still vestiges of segregation in the school system here.

After more desegregation efforts and a lengthy series of court rulings, the Topeka district was declared “unitary,” or free of the vestiges of a dual system, in 1999.

Today, the enrollment of the 14,000-student district is 49 percent white, 22 percent black, and 15 percent Hispanic. The rest of the students are either multiracial, Asian, or Native American.

‘Hallelujah Time’

The Brown Foundation was fairly new when the staff member came across the auction sign in front of the school. But the foundation, led by Cheryl Brown Henderson, Oliver Brown’s youngest daughter, sprang into action, trying to raise money to purchase the site.

With the backing of the Brown Foundation, the federal Trust for Public Land bought the school in 1991, and the next year Congress passed legislation establishing the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. After that, the foundation and the National Park Service began a long planning process to restore the building and develop the museum.

The federal government has provided more than $11 million for the site, not all of which has been spent, said Mr. Adams of the National Park Service.

At the University of Kansas conference, held March 14-17, one of the participants was Leola Brown Montgomery, the widow of Oliver Brown, who died in 1961. She recalled how her first husband had been active in the local NAACP, which led to his involvement in the case.

When the Supreme Court ruled on May 17, 1954, it was approaching lunchtime in Topeka. Mrs. Montgomery, who will turn 83 next month and still lives in Topeka, recalled where she was when she heard the news.

“I was home doing the family ironing,” she said. “When that came down, I couldn’t hardly wait for the family to get home.”

When Mr. Brown arrived at their modest home on First Street, he said, “‘Thanks be to God,’” his wife recalled. “We had a hallelujah time.”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

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