Topeka Carolyn Campbell was just finishing sixth grade on May 17, 1954, at McKinley Elementary School in Topeka, one of four all-black schools in the city at that time.
Today, she has almost no memory of that day when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that would put an end to Topeka's racially segregated school system. And like many African-Americans who were around at that time, she looks back on the legacy of the Brown case and feels a sense of sadness.
“For our black teachers, it was really a sad thing for them because the Topeka Public Schools board and superintendent had already sent them letters saying white parents wouldn't want their kids being taught by blacks, and they didn't renew their contracts,” Campbell said.
Brown v. Board events
The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka is conducting several events to mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Events are free and open to the public.
The site is located at 1515 S.E. Monroe St. in Topeka. For more information, visit the website, www.nps.gov/brvb or call (785) 354-4273.
Thursday, May 8: Screening of "Freedom Riders," from the series Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle. 6 p.m.
Saturday, May 10: Students from State Street Elementary School and Chase Middle School of Topeka present "Now Let Me Fly," a play by Marcia Cebulska. Two performances: 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Saturday, May 10: Community Sock Hop. Professional dancers will teach the popular "moves" from the era — do the "mashed potato" and the "twist" to the sound of the live band. Learn how music helped break down racial barriers in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the early years of the Civil Rights movement. 6 p.m. -9 p.m.
Saturday, May 17: Legacy walk from Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site to Sumner Elementary School. Time to be announced.
Saturday, May 17: Twitter Re-enactment of Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court Decision. Follow the site on Twitter @BRVB_NHS, #Brown1954, for a re-enactment of the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision and the world's reaction. More information to come.
Years later, Campbell went on to serve on the same Topeka school board that was the defendant in that case. Today she serves on the Kansas State Board of Education, representing the district that includes Lawrence.
And as the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision approaches, Campbell isn't alone in having mixed feelings about the legacy of that case. For years it has been heralded as a milestone in the history of civil rights in the United States by declaring the concept of “separate but equal” to be inherently unconstitutional.
But three generations later, many experts now say, public schools in the United States are just as racially isolated as they were in the 1950s, and the educational achievement of many black students still lags far behind their white peers.
Meanwhile, in many instances, the end of segregation simply meant closing the former all-black schools that once served as the cultural and economic anchors of black neighborhoods, and the disappearance of black teachers and principals who had been role models for many black children.
“We have not rebuilt it, and we never will rebuild it,” Campbell said.
Racial equality still elusive
In Kansas, black students make up about 7 percent of the total enrollment in public schools. But nearly half of those black students are concentrated in just two of the state's 286 school districts: Kansas City, Kan., which is 44 percent black; and Wichita, which is 18 percent black.
According to 2013 state assessment results, black students in Kansas were three times more likely to score below proficient in reading. They were two and a half times more likely to score below proficient in math.
“But it's not legal segregation; it's patterns of settlement,” said Thom Rosenblum, historian at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. “It's choice.”
Although Topeka may be famous as a symbol for the school desegregation movement, what happened there after the landmark decision also illustrates how difficult the decision was to implement, and why, despite decades of further litigation in dozens of other cities and states, the goal of achieving equal educational opportunity still has not been realized.
The National Historic Site is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, the former all-black school that was the focus of the original Brown case. It's located south of downtown Topeka in a working class neighborhood which, Rosenblum notes, had been predominantly black since the 1860s when freed slaves settled there after the Civil War.
After the Brown decision, the Topeka school board repealed its policy of having segregated grade schools. Junior highs and high schools were already integrated at that time.
McKinley Elementary, where Carolyn Campbell attended, closed the next year, and its students were sent to a nearby white school. Eventually, the others closed as well, including Monroe, which shut its doors in 1975, and their students were sent to other neighborhood schools close by.
But the neighborhoods themselves did not change. As the city's population grew, it expanded to the west with new neighborhoods full of expensive homes that were marketed to a wealthier class of home buyers. Black and Hispanic families tended to remain in the older, predominantly lower-income neighborhoods on the east and north sides of the city.
In 1978, Linda Sue Brown, the young girl at the center of the Brown decision, went back to court and reopened the case on behalf of her own children, who were then attending Topeka schools. It took until 1994 for the Topeka district to come up with a formal desegregation plan. And it took five more years after that, around the 45th anniversary of the first Brown decision, for a federal judge to declare that Topeka schools had finally been desegregated.
Even today, Highland Park High School on the city's east side is 67 percent black and Hispanic, while Topeka West High School is 61 percent white.
Kansas City: beginning of the end
The effects of suburban sprawl may have helped thwart full school integration in Topeka. But those effects were small compared with what had happened 70 miles to the east, in Kansas City, Mo., the site of perhaps the most complex and most expensive desegregation cases in the nation.
In fact, Topeka and Kansas City can be viewed as the two bookends of school desegregation: the place where it began — and the place where it began to unravel.
“Yeah, it all went downhill from there,” said Arthur Benson II, who spent nearly 25 years of his career as the lead plaintiff attorney in the case that came to be known as Missouri vs. Jenkins.
Benson was a 35-year-old civil rights attorney when he took over the case in 1979. Initially, it named more than a dozen defendants, including all of the surrounding suburban districts, the U.S. Department of Transportation, various housing authorities, and even the FDIC, which was accused of allowing “red lining” to segregate neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area. It was, in effect, an effort to put suburbanization itself on trial.
“We tried,” said Benson, who is now 70 and still practicing civil rights law in Kansas City.
He noted that a few years earlier, the Supreme Court had upheld a desegregation plan that involved busing students among 53 districts in the Detroit metropolitan area. And so, in Kansas City, the plaintiffs tried to build on that.
But the federal court in Kansas City dismissed the case against the suburban districts and most of the other defendants. And the Supreme Court effectively upheld that ruling on a split decision.
But the case stirred a public outcry in 1985 when a federal judge ordered a unique remedy that included a tax increase in Kansas City to fund a system of “magnet schools” — schools with specialized curriculum such as science, fine arts and French — to draw white students back into the city from the suburbs on a voluntary basis.
Benson said that plan actually worked, at least during the time it was funded.
“We made more progress towards racial integration while the remedy was in effect, until the Supreme Court defunded it, than any other desegregating school district in the nation,” Benson said. “We started with all-black, or 98.7 percent black, schools, and we attracted white students.”
But he conceded the district never achieved the goal of improving the quality of education in Kansas City, “because we gave up before the job was over.”
In 1991, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall retired. He had been the lawyer who argued the original Brown case before the court in 1954, and was part of the narrow 5-4 majority that upheld the orders in the Kansas City case.
Marshall was replaced by Clarence Thomas, and Benson said that tipped the balance on the court. In Kansas City and elsewhere, the court began making distinctions between government-ordered segregation, which had been the case in Brown, and “de facto” segregation, which it said was the result of personal choices.
In 1995 — after 10 years of court-ordered desegregation, and more than $2 billion spent — the new court struck down "voluntary methods of drawing white students and teachers from the suburbs" and effectively ended the Kansas City desegregation plan.
Today, the district is no longer accredited by the state, and Benson says he is no longer optimistic that courts will act again to desegregate public schools.
“There's no hope in the courts for another generation, if ever, that the courts will be a remedy for this,” he said.