Brown vs. Board of Education Journey

What Is Segregation?

Racial segregation is when groups of people are intentionally and systematically separated in daily activities based on their race. Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas was, at one time, a stop along the Underground Railroad for those seeking safe passage to the North in the early to mid 1800s. Nearly 100 years later, the school sat at the center of the groundbreaking US Supreme Court Segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka. A previous decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) solidified the de facto segregation structure making racial segregation the law of the land. It wasn't until 58 years later, that the Plessy v. Ferguson case was struck down. The Courts decision to desegregate public schools changed the cultural and political landscape of race relations throughout the nation. The Monroe School is now a historic museum that details the journey from segregation to desegregation in the United States.

Brown vs. Board of Education

The Comforts of Home, So What is the Problem?

The Comforts of Home, So What is the Problem? When the U.S. Civil War2 ended between the Union Army and the Confederacy in 1865, Congress enacted the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (4 5 6) to the U.S. Constitution, thus, guaranteeing African Americans freedom from enslavement, equal rights and citizenship, and voting right to African American men. Finally, African Americans felt free to move about the land as whole citizens. Word spread about the abolitionist communities in the State of Kansas and the call for black homesteaders to build their own communities. Many African American decided to migrate there with the family that they could locate because slavery ripped black families apart. Topeka, Kansas was known for being a place where African Americans were welcomed.7 Yet, even with the support for their freedom from the white residents in Topeka, there existed de facto racial segregation. In some States, the legislature supported the separation of residents in daily public life based on race, especially in the education of children. Plessy v. Ferguson made racial segregation codified, a federal law that had to be followed. In Topeka, Kansas as in many other cities, separate schools were erected for white and black children. These schools were said to be equal in every way, just separate. This Kindergarten Classroom at the Monroe School exemplifies the attention to comfort for the African American children. To the broader white community, there was no reason for black residents to complain. Yet, they did because from their perspective, if every other group of children (white, brown and yellow) attended school together, while the black children were kept separated, it sent the message to the black children that they were inferior to the rest. This was the primary concern, even with the comforts of home.

The Case: Key Players

Highlighted in this room are the key players on the road to desegregating public schools. African American families and organizations; White American citizens who actively opposed desegregation; Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)9 and his team of lawyers who argued against racial segregation; and the US Supreme Court Justices10 who decided the monumental case, Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka.11 Even though only one family was listed as the Plaintiff (Brown), there were, in fact, five Plaintiffs12 altogether challenging the racial segregation laws and suing for the right to attend schools that served white and other groups of people. A sociological experiment called The Doll Test,13 was the crucial piece of evidence that, ultimately, convinced the Court that racial segregation served to have long-term negative psychological effects on African American children.

Desegregation: An Ugly Place

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation, public school had to go through the process of actually desegregating. This was not going to happen without serious challenges from the White American population. African American children had to be brave to walk through the doors and into the schools. They received death threats. There were mobs of White women, men and children waiting for them to dare walk on their children's school grounds. African American children's lives were endangered just because they wanted to learn on equal footing. Federal Marshalls were brought into Little Rock, Arkansas to escort students into the school. These images can be seen and heard right in this room. The actual students who endured those years of desegregating the public schools tell their stories in video documentaries.