TheView from Topeka
By Kendra Hamilton
It’s a little-known fact, but, 50 years ago, the junior high and high schools of Topeka, Kan., were integrated — though in name only. Fear was the order of the day at the high school, where an African American assistant superintendent by the name of Harrison Caldwell roamed the halls as the “White folks’ enforcer,” ensuring that African American and White students didn’t fall into casual conversations, keeping the sports teams and dances segregated, herding the Black children into separate assemblies.
“There was a ‘White’ bell and a ‘nigger’ bell,” recalls Nancy Todd Noches, now 63, of those assemblies. “The ‘White’ bell rang first,” calling the children into the school auditorium. Then came the “nigger” bell, calling the students into a separate room where they would hear school announcements.
Fifty years later, Harrison Caldwell and the fear and loathing his reign inspired are little more than bitter memories. And the teachers, students and administrators of Topeka’s Unified School District 501 are swept up in a whirlwind of conversations, art and essay contests, and other special programs leading up to a huge community event: the May 17 dedication of the Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site on the grounds of Monroe Elementary, the most prominent of the four segregated elementary schools serving Black children in those long-ago days.
President Bush is expected to attend that ceremony, and other signs of progress are many and visible in Topeka. According to a study by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, Kansas is one of the most desegregated school environments in the nation, with 54 percent of African American students attending majority White schools — only Kentucky and Washington state have higher levels of school integration.
In Topeka proper, USD 501 is on its second African American superintendent, W.L. “Tony” Sawyer, an educator with a national reputation gained leading his downtown Manhattan school district through the difficult period following the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The system’s magnet schools, established following a 1979 court case that questioned whether systemwide segregation had truly been eliminated, are by and large a success story. Indeed, notes Sawyer, “out of 35 schools in the system, there are only four that we are concerned about in terms of integration.”
But concerns about the achievement gap linger, he admits. “African American and Hispanic data are still not on parity with the White data — and at the same time, I think we can do more to improve White data,” he explains.
And for at least two of the plaintiffs involved in the original Brown decision — Noches, whose mother was the secretary of the NAACP and a plaintiff during that historic battle, and Cathy Carper Sawyer, who actually testified in federal district court when the original case was heard — there’s a gnawing uncertainty about what was actually gained when the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision on May 17, 1954.
Galvanizing a Community
Noches and Carper Sawyer, no relation to the superintendent, were the same age — nine — and “best buddies” when the local chapter of the NAACP determined it was time to take a stand against what was happening in the Topeka schools.
Noches clearly recalls the issue that galvanized her mother, Lucinda Todd, a teacher who had to quit her post when she married: It was reading in the local paper about a spring concert of instrumental music in which all 18 Topeka schools would be participating.
“Well, my mother knew there were actually 22 schools, so that meant there was no instrumental music being offered at the four Black schools,” Noches says.
Immediately, Lucinda Todd got on the phone and, after hitting dead end after dead end, was finally referred to Caldwell. His reply — that the Black children in Topeka “didn’t want instrumental music” — so infuriated her that she mounted a successful campaign to have instrumental instruction added to the curriculum. “So that fall (September 1951), I got a violin. And I remember Caldwell’s own son got a clarinet,” Noches says with a note of pride in her voice.
But that wasn’t all Topeka’s African American children were about to get. The issue illustrated that the situation in the schools had become intolerable. As Noches puts it, “People were getting just fed up with Harrison Caldwell and the way he was ruling things,” Noches says.
So, the decision was made to contact Walter White of the national NAACP to ask for assistance. White had, in fact, stayed in the Todd home during a previous visit to Topeka — indeed, Noches had to spend the night with a friend so that he could have her room. So her mother opened the letter by reminding White of that personal connection.
White’s gracious reply, acknowledging his memory of the visit and saying that he was referring the request to the national organization’s legal defense team, was the opening salvo in what was to become the battle of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas.
What followed were months and months of meetings around the Todd’s dining room table — or at other homes and churches, which Noches would attend, coloring book and crayons in hand, she says.
The NAACP had decided on an organized effort to prove that Topeka schools were discriminating. A total of 13 African American parents were enlisted in the attempt to enroll their 22 grade-school children into White schools near their homes. Lucinda Todd drove her daughter Nancy, her friend Lena Mae Carper and Carper’s daughter Cathy to nearby Randolph Elementary School. Another eventual plaintiff, Sadie Emmanuel, tried to enroll her son James in Lafayette Elementary, while the Rev. Oliver Brown took his oldest daughter, Linda, to Sumner Elementary School.
At each of the White schools, the children were denied admission in spite of the fact that many of the 22 children lived just blocks away from the targeted schools. So, again, after months of meetings and discussions, after intimidation attempts against the parents, after anguished and mostly failed efforts to gain the help of Black teachers fearful of losing their jobs, the case proceeded to trial in federal district court.
The day she had to testify is branded on her memory, says Carper Sawyer. “To me at that time, it seemed like the biggest, scariest room with so many people. I’ll tell you, it was a long way from the back door to that seat at the front of the room.” Carper Sawyer recalls fighting back her fear to describe for the court the experience of riding on overcrowded buses — as many as four children jammed onto a single seat, with others fighting for balance in the aisles as they rode up to 30 blocks from their homes to segregated Black schools.
What gave her the courage to persevere, she says, was the courage of her mother. In media accounts, she says, “You only hear about the Browns, but those 12 Black women were very strong women. At that time my mother was doing housework — she was a domestic —and she was constantly going in and out of White women’s homes. They could have fired her at any time,” but Carper Sawyer never saw her mother flinch.
Ironically, neither Noches nor Carper Sawyer directly benefited from the Brown decision. By the time the case ended, both were in junior high school, and for Carper Sawyer, it was an incredibly lonely time. She was one of only three Black students at her school; the other two were both male, so “I faced some really hard issues,” she says. “There were teachers that did not like us being there and didn’t mind letting you know.” There were kids who befriended her, only to pull away.
“I think it was only as I grew older that I really understood what had been done to us all over the color of our skin,” she says, and the bitter feelings linger. Her daughters had to fight for recognition in the Topeka schools, and Carper Sawyer is not convinced that things are appreciably better for her six grandchildren. “I look at my grandson who’s in high school, and a friend has a grandson, too, and she’s not happy. We don’t see where they’re flourishing. I just don’t think they care. The attitude seems like, ‘The opportunity is here. If you don’t get it, it’s your problem.'”
A Different World
Such feelings are common across the country as generations confront the legacy of the Brown decision, notes Dr. Gary Orfield, founding co-director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project and co-author of “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?”
“We tend to evaluate desegregation against the standard of perfect equality, as if the schools could achieve that by themselves. They can’t. There’s no way they can. Then we tend to evaluate segregation on the basis of our fondest memories. So we look at the best cases of segregation and compare desegregation to perfection,” Orfield says.
“But Brown, when you look back to the time of Brown, it was a different world. People remember a world in which there were some great high schools, but they don’t remember that only one-quarter of the Black students were graduating from high school. And they also don’t know that, from the late ’60s to late ’80s, half of the White-Black achievement gap vanished. The low point of the achievement gap was 1988, which was also the high point of the desegregation effort. We made a lot of progress,” Orfield adds.
The resegregation of the nation’s schools is proceeding rapidly, through exhaustion on the part of communities aided and abetted by hostile courts. But if the schools resegregate today, Orfield warns, “You don’t get the nice middle-class Black high school back. The middle class is gone, and the teachers who would have worked in those schools are stockbrokers. So you don’t get it back. What you get is an all-poor, all-Black, deteriorated school that then gets zapped by No Child Left Behind for failure and put into all kinds of remedial action.”
William Richards, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and retired state executive who currently serves as head of the Topeka branch of the NAACP, believes that what’s required is the return of an ethic of aspiration to save troubled schools and close the persistent achievement gap.
Richards, who grew up in the East Harlem ghetto, says, “So many of our young people (are) unfamiliar with the struggles of prior generations. Self-criticism is what we are failing to do. We can’t constantly talk about being what’s done unto us.”
The Brown anniversary will provide a much-needed opportunity to assess the current situation of the nation’s schools, Richards says, adding that the NAACP is convening an education summit this month to analyze the results of “equity statements” compiled by 45 of the 50 states.
Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Lucinda Todd’s dining room table, where so many of the key actors in the Brown case convened night after night to discuss strategy, is going on display — an apt symbol of both victories won and battles yet to be fought.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com