At some point in recent years, it struck me as strange that despite growing up in Topeka, I’d never been to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site — which memorializes one of the most well-known cases in Civil Rights history.
And after visiting the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site the month prior, I was even more motivated to get to the Brown v. Board site — since that court case with roots in Topeka is what ultimately led to school desegregation efforts in Little Rock and elsewhere. With the Supreme Court decision on the Brown v. Board case dating back to the same year my mom was born, it seemed especially fitting to visit this site during her birthday weekend. So finally, we made the trip to the former Monroe Elementary School in downtown Topeka.
For anyone in need of a refresher on this particular piece of history, I’ll pepper in some details with the pictures below:
Monroe Elementary School, now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, was one of four segregated schools for black students in Topeka. The court case rooted here originated in 1951, when the daughter of local resident Oliver Brown wasn’t allowed to enroll in the elementary school closest to her home but instead had to travel farther away to attend Monroe. The Browns and 12 other families in similar situations filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court against the Topeka Board of Education, arguing its segregation policy was unconstitutional.
The Browns and other plaintiffs were not initially successful, as a district court ruled that racial segregation was not unconstitutional if the facilities in question were otherwise equal (a doctrine that had come to be known as “separate but equal”). Thus the Browns, then represented by NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, appealed to the Supreme Court. They asserted that the system of racial separation in schools actually provided inferior accommodations, services and treatment for black students, despite the law requiring equality in these areas.
When it went before the Supreme Court, the Brown v. Board case was combined with four other cases from throughout the United States that also challenged racial segregation in public schools and that had all been defeated in lower courts. But on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that this segregation was in fact unconstitutional, violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
In addition to exhibits on the court case, the Brown v. Board site also showcases a kindergarten room (above) restored to its 1954 appearance.
The Supreme Court didn’t include any guidance on integration in its initial Brown v. Board decision, but the following year, it issued a second decision known as Brown II that tasked local federal judges with ensuring that integration occurred “with all deliberate speed.”
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