National Writing Project

Brown v. Board of Education at 50: The Long and Winding Road to Educational Equity

By: Amy Bauman
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: A recounting of the keynote speech from the 2004 NWP Spring Meeting in which author Samuel Yette described the historical contexts leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

 

"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the Brown v. Board of Education case, it seemed an appropriate moment to look at this significant case . . . and the 2004 National Writing Project Spring Meeting provided the perfect setting. Featuring a keynote address by author Samuel Yette as well as a poster presentation by students from District of Columbia Area Writing Project teacher-consultant Liz Davis's classroom, the meeting's centerpiece offered participants a look at both the case's historical context as well as a look at how the ruling has affected—or perhaps not affected—educational equity in this country since.


Samuel Yette, keynote speaker for the 2004 NWP Spring Meeting in Washington D.C., talked with students visiting from John Philip Sousa Middle School. With Yette and District of Columbia Area Writing Project Director Judith Kelly are (from left) eighth-graders Brittany Franklin, Angela Oladiji, Dozje Brown, and Tabea Leggett. The girls are students of Teacher-Consultant Liz Davis, also of the DC Area Writing Project.

The original Brown v. Board of Education case took shape when African American parents in Topeka, Kansas, tried to enroll their children in the local elementary school. When the all-white school refused to admit the children, parent Oliver Brown turned to the Topeka branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help. The NAACP, which was eager to challenge existing segregation laws, appealed Brown's case to the Supreme Court in 1951.The court reached a decision in 1954, stating that the case rested on whether segregated schools provided "separate but equal" educational opportunities. The decision, as Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, was that ". . . in the field of public education, the doctrine of `separate but equal' has no place." In stunning simplicity, Warren's words put public education on a new track—one that, in theory, promises all students an equal-opportunity education.

Samuel Yette was not yet 25 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down this decision. Just beginning his career as a journalist, author, and lecturer on African American issues, he may not have imagined then that 50 years later people would be celebrating this decision, calling it landmark, and considering it a pivotal point in American education. But certainly even in 1954 he would have recognized the potential for change in the court's ruling.

Yette didn't spend much time on the particulars of the Brown case in speaking to the NWP Spring Meeting audience. He focused instead on the convergence of events and people that brought this case to the American conscience, forcing the country along a path it so obviously needed to tread. He began by pointing to two other Supreme Court cases that not only set the historical backdrop but also, as Yette said, "made Brown necessary." They were the decisions in Dred Scott v. Sanford of 1857 and in Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896. In the first case, Yette explained, "Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote for the majority saying that the Negro had no right that a white man was required to respect." The second case, although it dealt with segregation on railroad cars, "effectively established `separate but equal' as the law of the land." Although these cases unfolded 50 to 100 years before Brown, together their effects set the standard for the "separate but equal" doctrine that would grip the country into the 20th century.

Yette breathed life into the case's historical significance. Listening to him speak was an opportunity to hear a knowledgeable and involved activist-author make connections between American education and social history. But listeners also came to understand that Yette knows firsthand the inequality, hardship, and pain caused by segregation in the nation's schools. The audience was in the presence of a critical, reflective witness to a pivotal time in American education and American history.

From here, Yette wove a tapestry of time, place, and people that set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education and the unprecedented change it was to ignite in this country. But some of the most inspiring pieces of Yette's presentation came from his own experience. "Because of my race," Yette recalled at one point, "there was no high school whatsoever that I could attend in my hometown where my dad worked hard and paid the taxes. . . . So, at the age of 12 or 13, each of my [siblings and I] had to leave home—go to another city or often another state—living virtually with any family who would allow us to work and go to school."

Interestingly, Liz Davis's eighth-graders—four of whom shared the meeting's stage with Yette—are exactly the age Yette was in this moving recollection. The students' more immediate link to Brown, however, was the fact that their school, John Philip Sousa Middle School, played an important role in the case, and it was this particular tie that prompted Davis to have her students research, report, and reflect on the case.

As some know, Brown v. Board of Education was actually a collection of cases challenging racial segregation in public schools. That year, in addition to the Kansas case, the Supreme Court dockets included similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. Consolidating these cases into one, the single case became known simply as Brown v. Board of Education, but embedded in it was the case pressed by Spottswood Bolling and several other African American students who pressed to attend the brand new local middle school, John Philip Sousa Middle School.

Here, in excerpts from their work, four of Davis's students present their findings.

"When the Supreme Court passes a law, no court wants to try to change it. But in 1954, several black families and their lawyers decided to get the separate but equal laws changed."
—Angela Oladiji

*****

"The separate but equal law was a wrong decision made by the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court had realized that the separate but equal law would damage relationships between whites and blacks, they would never have passed such a law. When people are treated differently because of their race, it's discrimination. The Constitution gave us the right to have our freedom and to be treated equally. . . . That was not the case with the separate but equal law."
—Dozje Brown

*****

"During the 1950s there was racial segregation in public schools and other places in our society. It was a problem all across America. Even the schools in the District of Columbia were separate but not equal. The schools for black children were inferior to the white schools. The school I attend today was one of the schools for whites only in the 1950s. John Philip Sousa Middle School was a new school when Spottswood Bolling, a black boy, and ten other black children wanted to go there because Sousa was a brand new school and it was in his neighborhood. Spottswood had to go all the way across town to Garnett Patterson Junior High, the junior high school for black children. Garnett Patterson was grossly unequal in terms of physical condition. It was located in the rundown part of the city with used education materials, old books and old furniture. Spottswood Bolling and the ten other African American children were refused admission to John Philip Sousa Middle School. The Bolling v. Sharpe case was filed by James M. Nabrit, Jr. for Spottswood Bolling in 1951. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the public schools was unfair to black people."
—Tabea Leggett

*****

"When we studied the Bolling v. Sharpe case, I found out that I would not have been able to attend John Philip Sousa in 1951 even if it was right across the street from where I lived. During that time, Sousa was still segregated because of the separate but equal law. The only people that could attend Sousa were white children. . . . The schools that black children went to were old and rundown. The ceilings and the walls had holes in them and the classrooms were overcrowded. The black schools didn't have enough materials for teachers to use. Many of the black schools were in rundown parts of the city. Back then; Sousa was a clean, brand new school. It had just been built and it was located near his home. None of the classrooms in Sousa were as crowded as classrooms in the black schools.

"Today Sousa is a disgrace to this community. . . . Glass windows have been replaced by plastic windows which are so old that they have turned brown. There are cardboards in some of the windows because some of the windows have fallen out. The girl's bathrooms are dirty with water leaking from the ceilings and the sinks. Sometimes the milk in the cafeteria is spoiled and the food is sometimes cold. We have no librarian so our library is closed. When it was open, the books looked like the same books from fifty years ago. Some of the books in the library would fall apart when you picked them up. The library only had one computer, one printer, one dictionary and no thesauruses. The school is all black with about five Latino students. So Sousa is still separate and still not equal."
—Brittany Franklin

To look at history through the ideas Samuel Yette wove together in his speech at the NWP Spring Meeting is to see a dark side of United States history. But as Yette also showed, such reflection is a means of growth, capable of igniting unimagined change. Fifty years after its decision was handed down, Brown v. Board of Education is an example of such potential . . . and a reminder of the work that lies ahead to fulfill its promise.

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