The impact of visiting Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas is all in the interpretation.
The Monroe School was a Black elementary public school from 1926 to 1975. Set on two acres in a residential and light commercial neighborhood, the building today looks like so many other elementary schools of the times. But the ramifications of the case Brown vs. Board of Education have put the ruling in the American vernacular.
A Little History
In 1879, Kansas passed a law that stated that it was permissible to segregate elementary school children if city has more than 15,000 people. The idea, as National Park Service Ranger Justin Sochacki explained to me, was that small children would learn better from someone like themselves. In Kansas, as time went on, facilities at the African-American schools were not too far behind the ones in white schools. Still, segregation meant that children had long bus rides to school, passing white schools. At the time, there were four black schools and 18 white schools in Topeka.
The roots of the court case can be traced to the post-Civil War era when states codified separate public facilities. In 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case held that states could have laws requiring persons of different races to use “separate but equal” segregated facilities.
The NAACP took on the task to challenge segregation. Five parallel court cases from different school systems started independently but were rolled into one by the Supreme Court. The most egregious separate and unequal schools included in the court case were in Clarendon County, South Carolina. In 1951, the state spent $43 per African-American child for education while the equivalent for a white child was $179. A picture in the interpretive booklet explaining this history and published by Western National Parks Association shows a corner of a dilapidated classroom with an upturned desk. On one side, a black child sits on a bench without a table top to write on, staring at the floor.
The case was known officially as Oliver L. Brown et al v. The Board of Education of Topeka et al. Oliver Brown, the father of student Linda Brown, was the first name of 13 parents who brought suit in Topeka. The Monroe School was included in the case because it was felt that even if the equipment at the black schools were acceptable, separation of the races was inherently unequal.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson.
We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place.
It was a great victory, but only the start of a long road to integration. Then the decision had to be implemented in schools and other spheres of public life.
The school eventually closed because of falling enrollment and the building became a warehouse. When the school was put up for auction, the Trust for Public Lands bought the site and transferred it to the Park Service. The park opened to visitors in 2004.
Visiting the Site
As you enter the school, a ranger greets you and gives you a short orientation. Exhibits are only on the first floor. The original school signs are still there, probably repainted. The Principal's office has become the ranger's office. The "boys" and "girls" signs over the restroom doors and a water fountain set low at a child's height remind visitors that this had been an elementary school.
The exhibits on the right end of the long hallway deal with Brown v., the case itself, and the five lawsuits. The rooms in the left part of the hallway are about the legacy of the court case.
The auditorium shows a 30-minute film on the history of segregation and civil rights, starting from slavery. A young woman talks to her grandfather about the African-American experience. Unfortunately, the video screens are high up on the ceiling of the walls of the auditorium, expecting visitors to crane their neck for all that time.
This NPS site really focuses on children; about a third of the visitors are school groups. The exhibits have been designed to be very media-intensive and interactive with pictures, videos, games, and quizzes. For example, one panel asks:
Fact or Fiction
The NAACP goals in Brown were solely about integrating public schools.
The Answer is Fiction.
The ultimate aim of the NAACP case was to end the practice of 'separate but equal' throughout all areas of society.
A panel with push buttons asks visitors to choose which areas of life were segregated. The electronic buttons show restrooms, swimming pools, libraries and other public facilities. The answer was that all these aspects of public life were segregated.
Exhibits explain how "the struggle continues - after 1954" and discuss the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Other Civil Rights movements have their own panels, including women's rights, Northern Ireland, and rights for people with disabilities. One of the most popular panels must be Protest in Music, complete with headphones. You can listen to diverse songs from Fight the Power to We Shall Not Be Moved.
The old Kindergarten room is entitled, "In your own words." It's the chance for visitors to "leave your mark" in pictures, writing and words aloud by recording their thoughts on the subject and the site.
The park is working on a long-range interpretive plan. They recently had a day-long workshop with teachers and community groups, asking how to best interpret the historic importance of this site. They'll continue the process with a smaller focus group
The site attracts 17,000 to 20,000 visitors a year. Ranger Sochacki says that, "Some visitors read every single word of every exhibit." But in general, it's estimated that the average visit will take about 60 to 90 minutes.
The site is definitely worth the detour off the interstate. Brown v. Board of Education is a pivotal part of modern American history.