By D. Kevin McNeir
As the sounds of bells, silenced throughout the summer, suddenly rang out across America in the fall of 1954, signaling that the time had come to return to classrooms, public schools in both the District and Baltimore underwent a shift of mammoth proportion.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision on May 17, 1954, which ruled that public schools could no longer operate under a policy of “separate but equal,” schools moved toward integration.
But it would be a slow, tedious and sometimes painful process as school districts across the country either followed the law, albeit reluctantly, or looked for ways to circumvent the Court’s ruling.
Now, almost 70 years since the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a growing number of educators, advocates for equality and elected officials, among others, lament the fact that schools have become nearly as segregated today as they had been in the 1950s and 1960s.
And with the Court recently overturning Roe v. Wade, returning the structure and legality of abortion back to each state, some Americans fear that today’s conservative-minded Court may have other landmark rulings in its sights.
Justice Clarence Thomas counts as one of the jurists who supports overturning a trio of watershed civil rights rulings that legalized the right to obtain contraception, the right to same-sex intimacy and the right to same-sex marriage. But what about Brown v. Board? Could the Supreme Court be so bold as to re-argue the case, based on the supposition that an egregiously wrong decision had been made in past which should now be overruled?
Leaders Honor Thurgood Marshall, Continue Fight for Equality
While the significance of Brown v. Board may have dwindled in the eyes of some Americans today, there remain those who continue to honor Thurgood Marshall and who emphasize the continued relevance of the Court’s findings.
Earlier this year, the Thurgood Marshal Center Trust, Inc. (TMCT) in Northwest, led by President/CEO Thomasina Yearwood, hosted a luncheon to commemorate the 68th anniversary (May 17, 2022) of Brown v. Board. Other speakers who joined Yearwood on the dais included Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr., President/CEO National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and noted attorney, A. Scott Bolden, Reed Smith LLP.
Yearwood said given today’s political climate, she’s afraid that Brown could be overturned.
“Despite the success we’ve achieved under the Biden Administration, we haven’t gone far enough – there’s still so much work to do and it’s difficult because there are so few Republicans whose hearts and consciences have been touched enough for them to consider the inherent forms of injustice that remain in America,” she said.
“Brown v. Board ensured that everyone had equal access to education but Blacks are still shackled in many ways, particularly financially, while whites generally have better living conditions and greater access to quality education.”
“It’s encouraging to see how some Black youth are moving forward and achieving personal success but far too many of our children continue to grow further behind. Looking at the direction a growing number of Black youth seem to be headed, I wonder if Brown still has any impact on today’s younger generation.”
Yearwood pointed to a recently-established partnership which connects TMCT and NNPA with the National Stem Honor Society as an example of how to more effectively improve educational prospects for children of color.
“We believe we can provide greater opportunities for Black youth by exposing them earlier to the sciences through STEM-based programs,” she said. “We have identified and are now sponsoring a cadre of students in local elementary, middle and high schools, providing them with the tools they need to achieve greater academic success and encouraging them in every way possible. NNPA has provided the funds and TMCT will serve as the conduit for distributing the funds,” Yearwood said.
Chavis said the frequency of acts of violence, like the mass shooting which occurred in Buffalo this year on May 14, should be viewed not as isolated situations but rather as a surging string of incidents that illustrate the pervasiveness of racism in America.
“While the Supreme Court agreed with Thurgood Marshall and the unconstitutionality of ‘separate but equal,’ we’re engaged in the same fight today,” Chavis said. “Buffalo should help us understand that no one is born a racist – you become a racist and it’s something you learn, often at a young age. Maybe we need a national debate about the curriculum in public schools. Our schools have to serve as the place where every child, no matter where they live or what school they may attend, is taught the truth.”
Bolden reflected on the tenacity of attorneys like Marshall and his own father who overcame homelessness as a youth before being adopted by a family in Joliet, Illinois and later becoming a successful lawyer and judge.
“My family has a proud legacy of attorneys and both my father (deceased) and I believed in and were inspired by Thurgood Marshall,” Bolden said. “In fact, the first book my father owned was about the life of Thurgood Marshall.”
“I wonder if people have ever considered how expensive segregation was – the need to have two of everything had to cost a lot of money – and all because of the amount of melanin in my skin,” he said.
“Remember, there was massive resistance to the Court’s ruling on segregation. Society underestimated the resolve of segregationists who have established their own schools, showed up by the thousands in protests and who ran for the suburbs in ‘white flight’ to separate themselves from Blacks.”
“It’s a new day but it feels like we’re still being guided by racist ideologies of the past. I don’t understand why we can’t resolve it. DuBois once said, ‘America will either destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy us.’ You can guess the direction in which I believe our nation is headed,” Bolden admitted reluctantly.
Ghosts of Nation’s Past ‘Alive and Well’
Bolden’s insistence for America to avoid Baldwin’s prophetic “fire next time,” it must come to terms with its legacy of racism and work earnestly to eradicate the divisiveness that prejudice fosters, echoes many of the thoughts espoused by another prominent Black attorney, Jeffery Robinson.
Robinson, an author, journalist and gifted storyteller, currently serves as the executive director of The Who We Are Project – an organization which he founded and for which he leads discussions nationwide on the sobering history of anti-Black racism and the myth of white supremacy in the U.S.
His provocative presentations serve as the basis of a recently-released, full-length documentary film, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” which can be seen on Netflix. In it he draws a timeline of anti-Black racism in the U.S. that reveals a side of American history that has effectively been erased or hidden from view.
“We are our own worst enemies when it comes to making racial progress in America,” Robinson said in the film, adding that during seminal moments in history, America has had a propensity for “taking two steps forward and three steps back.”
“People aren’t just one thing – we’re saints and sinners,” Robinson said. “Countries are many things, too. America has done some great things but it’s also one of the most racist countries in the world. The truth remains that whoever controls the past controls the future and whoever controls the present also controls the past. As for our nation’s leaders, the government in power has the ability to shape the views of the population it governs. It does so by putting out a narrative that has nothing to do with the truth.
Native Washingtonian Reflects on School after Integration
Jacqueline Smith, 80, born and raised in D.C., now resides in Silver Spring. She matriculated at the District of Columbia Teachers College – created after the Brown v. Board decision. Prior to 1955, D.C. had two teachers colleges – the all-white Wilson Teachers College and the all-Black Miner Teachers College.
Smith, who left college to get married and begin her family, mad her career at the U.S. Department of State where she served with distinction for 50 years. She vividly recalled the impact that the Court’s ruling on public schools had on her life. On Sept. 7, 1954, she joined thousands of other youth who would represent D.C.’s first students to attend integrated schools.
She graduated from Roosevelt Senior High in 1959 after treading unfamiliar waters which she initially encountered in the eighth grade when she moved from Banneker to McFarland Jr. High.
She recalled white adults being more vocal in their opposition to integration than anyone else but white children often found ways to express their discontent as well.
“On the first day of school that fall of ’54, my father walked me to school to make sure I was safe,” she said. “There were a lot of white people out in the streets along the way and the kids. The kids were dressed more like they were going to the park than to school. But my parents insisted that I be dressed properly and conduct myself in a respectable manner – that’s the way it was for most Black families.”
“The kids would harass us – sometimes they’d put us in lockers and lock the doors or try to make us late by blocking the doors to our classrooms. The few Black teachers we had did their best to help and support us but they had to be careful – very careful.”
“At Roosevelt, they filled in the swimming pool, I guess to keep us out of it. I didn’t even know they had a pool until many years later. One time, the principal at Roosevelt told one girl that he didn’t want to see her hanging out with those ‘niggers’ – not realizing that she was actually Black,” she said.
But while segregation would be legally forbidden, she said vestiges of ‘separate but equal’ remained.
“We had two proms – one for Blacks and another for whites – although one white boy did come to our prom and even attended our reunions, also separate, years later,” Smith said. “White parents wanted to keep our activities separate. Even our counselors wanted to keep things the way they’d always been, encouraging Blacks to become cooks or clerks instead of doctors, lawyers or teachers.”
“But we never talked back to them. Our parents and Black teachers told us we should show what we could do and they never let us forget that we were just as smart and talented as white children,” Smith said.
Teaching: A Ford Family Tradition
The segue to integrated schools in D.C. and the challenges it brought, remain etched in the memories of the Ford sisters – five women who would all become teachers after taking advantage of unprecedented opportunities in education. The Fords moved into their home in Northeast in 1953 – the third Black family on the block. Two years later, most of the white families had sold their homes.
Patricia Neal, the middle child in the family, said she’d always wondered why she and her sisters, Yvonne, Camille, Cecilia and Brenda, could not attend the elementary school just across the street from their home prior to the fall of 1954.
“Our mother said it was for whites only and then suddenly, we were allowed to go there, too,” said Neal who entered kindergarten in 1954. “For the most part, my teachers treated me fine even though I sometimes felt like I was being ignored. I don’t remember ever speaking in class that first year. My teachers felt I was just shy. But after hearing their assessments, my parents told me it was important for me to speak up in class, which I did,” Neal said.
Camille, the oldest sister, would pave the way for her siblings as life changed for Black Americans eager to expand their horizons in life through education. She said while the importance and impact of Brown v. Board may differ from one person to another, teaching had long been her goal. To that end, she dedicated her life to working with children – regardless of race – and sparking their inquisitive natures.
Yvonne, the second oldest and a third grade student when integration began in D.C., said she has few memories from that first year of integration. But she remembers how things changed as time went on.
“It wasn’t until the fourth grade that I actually began to enjoy going to school,” Yvonne said. “And we had a Black teacher which made me happy but which was also something new for white children. There were also more Black kids and fewer whites each year – the change became pretty apparent.”
“When we first moved to our new home, Momma told us we couldn’t go trick-or-treating because whites would not open their doors,” Yvonne said. “So, my parents opened our basement to the Blacks in the neighborhood and we had a great time.”
Cecilia, the fourth child, would become a standout in sports, particularly baseball in which she counted as the only female on the varsity baseball team in college. Like her sisters, she attended the District’s Teachers College for two reasons: it was affordable and it had excellent instructors.
“With five children in our family, we couldn’t afford Howard University,” she said. “But Teachers College had teachers who made sure we were ready to compete with our white counterparts. Each of us have had successful careers in education. Brown v. Board made a difference in our lives.”
A Brief Look at the Data
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who spoke before a committee in May in support of legislation to increase grant funding for school improvement projects in high-poverty areas, said America has backtracked in its efforts to support public school integration.
“Yesterday marked the 68th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down the unlawful school segregation,” Scott said during a May 18 meeting of the House Education & Labor Committee. “Yet, we know public schools are now as segregated by race and class as they were in the 1960s.”
While Scott’s premise that schools have re-segregated to 1960s levels has merit, it would be inaccurate to equate modern school segregation with the government-ordered social system struck down by the Court in 1954. Segregation today refers to either the level of isolation of nonwhite students or the level of exposure students of different races have to one another in school.
As for the Court, it argued that segregation existed only as a result of racism.
“In the field of public education, the doctrine of separate-but-equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the decision read, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1896 in which the Court ruled that segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as facilities for each race were equal in quality). The ruling also shattered the once-legal foundation of segregation.
Despite the Brown decision, Jim Crow laws remained in the South until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, only 0.1% of Black students in the South – 1 in 1,000 – attended a majority-white school in 1960. That increased to 14% in 1967.
The same report showed that in 1968, 77% of Black students across the nation attended majority nonwhite schools – a number which decreased to 63% in the 1980s before rising to 81% in 2018, the latest year for which data was available.
The UCLA researchers pointed to several changes in America that have allowed for more segregated schools: a decline in the white birthrate, a growing difference in income between Black and white households and a huge increase in the number of Latino students in public schools – from 5% in 1970 to 27% in 2018.
“Whereas Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be concentrated in high-poverty schools, Asian students, like their white counterparts, are most frequently found in middle-class schools,” researchers from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth wrote in a 2019 report.
In 2020, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which has extensively studied school integration, concluded, “School segregation is now more severe than in the late 1960s.”
Brown v. Board may have represented the beginning of an era of optimism for African Americans. However, just a generation later, we see more whites publicly defending centuries-old symbols and ideals routinely espoused by the status quo. Meanwhile, more and more Blacks find themselves relegated to communities burdened by re-segregated isolation.
King’s thoughts in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written five years before his assassination, prove hauntingly prophetic.
“Perhaps I was too optimistic,” Dr. King wrote. “Perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
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