Wisdom, Hindsight Render Brown’s Goals ‘Incomplete’
Those of us who remember what it was like before and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision know that we underwent a process of change. We also know that we were profoundly affected by that change, even though we may not have realized it at the time. Brown made a difference, true enough, but it also set in motion an agenda that is not yet finished.
When I entered the Topeka public school system as a third grader, the elementary schools were strictly segregated. Although I was not aware of it at the time, nearly all of us in the White elementary schools attended a neighborhood school within easy walking distance. I lived less than two blocks from Gage Park Elementary School and often went home for lunch.
Even at that young age, I brought a host of expectations with me; I’d been around. I had already lived in Atlanta, where I first learned to read. Among those first visual impressions were the “colored only” and “White only” signs wherever one looked. Then our family spent a couple of years on a California military base where my father’s assigned duty was as chaplain for an all-Black unit, another experience which only heightened the perception that this was the way the world was supposed to be arranged.
In Topeka, only the elementary schools were segregated; the junior high and high schools were not. So it came as no surprise that when students who had previously been in all-White or all-Black schools came together in seventh grade, we did so with a certain level of discomfort.
Sharing classroom space with each other took some getting used to. A period of settling out, testing and social re-organization took place. An occasional hostile act was carried out, and a wariness or suspicion of others was apparent on both sides.
When the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, we were already in high school with four years of experience in integrated education behind us. Our younger brothers and sisters were the ones more directly affected and were busy making their own transitions in the suddenly integrated elementary schools. As children will, they reflected the attitudes of their parents. One could hear discussions over whether this was the right thing to do; would it work? Many were uncertain. Some, my parents for example, communicated a quiet, sure acceptance of integration as not only the law but the correct choice. Others proclaimed that the Black elementary schools were just the natural outgrowth of the city’s housing patterns.
Civic and community pride, however, won out in the end. Topeka was going to be like some other cities; it would not suffer the embarrassment of negative national press coverage; it would not force the president to send in federal troops to enforce the law.
By the end of our high school years, though, we optimistically thought “we had it made” in terms of acceptance and inclusion. Our Hispanic classmate sang the male lead in the operetta, the biggest annual production in the music department. A Black couple was one of five pairs nominated for king and queen of the all-school party (Topeka High’s version of the senior prom). One Black girl was on the homecoming court; another was selected to be on the basketball queen of courts panel. Clubs, teams and all extra-curricular activities were inclusive; we got along and encouraged each other. We didn’t really notice that the school board, school administration and faculty were all White. And after school, we went home to our still-segregated neighborhoods, churches and community activities. We thought we had done the right thing, and we were on the right path. The new arrangement appeared to be working.
The optimism of the 1950s soon dissipated. Even with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, affirmative action directives and further court decisions, it became obvious that not only was this process going to take time, but superficial remedies were not getting at the heart of the problems we faced in education or in society at large.
Looking back — admittedly with a bit of nostalgia, even rose-colored eyewear — we can now see that the expectation that integrated classrooms would solve the problem of a divided America was naive. Many Whites assumed that Blacks would do all the work of assimilation; the rest of us could just stand in place and watch it happen.
In the years since the Brown decision, Blacks and Whites have found themselves faced with a whole new set of uncertainties in the realm of cultural diversity, acceptance, assimilation, segregation and integration. A surprisingly large percentage of my generation chose the field of education as a career; many of us also have made conscious decisions to live and work in integrated settings. We still may be wary, however, still affected by a former generation’s attitudes and still trying to communicate across racial lines, especially when it comes to educating ourselves and our children.
Forty years after the Brown decision, it is appropriate to wonder whether things are better or worse in our public schools, whether the gains outweigh the losses. We may not be able to recapture the optimism of that kinder and gentler age, but we can apply the wisdom and hindsight that we have acquired in the meantime.
The unfinished agenda for the future encompasses several questions Americans must face head-on. How strongly do we really believe that integration can work, and are we serious about tackling the issues that remain? Most of the problems that plague our educational system will not be solved by further court decisions or legislative acts; they involve a more basic self examination.
We must first ask if we have truly internalized the premise that the strength of our American culture lies in its diversity. Then, are we capable of renewing our commitment to education as the primary foundation stone of that culture? Are we willing to accept the other person’s concern as our concern?
Whether it is the inequality of resources among school districts, the quality of the teaching force, violence in the schools, dropout rates, illiteracy or access to higher education, the problem is not just somebody else’s problem: it is our problem; it is mine, too. Until we all can answer these questions and take action on the replies, the job that the Brown decision assigned us to accomplish will just have to be marked “incomplete.”
— By Joan Preston Cerstvik
(Joan Preston Cerstvik was a 1956 graduate of Topeka High School. This article was originally published in the Jan. 13, 1994, edition of Black Issues, which looked at the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision. Cerstvik was Operations Manager at Black Issues at the time.)
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