Sunday, January 11, 2009

Topeka's Brown Legacy

We had been driving for 500 miles and seen signs advertising everything from fertilizer to giant prairie dogs, to winning woman's basketball teams. But in Topeka, one sign stood out; it was the sign for the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site. The case of Oliver Brown and a series of other plaintiffs versus the Topeka Board of Education is probably the second best known Supreme Court case, after Roe v. Wade. Having been relieved of our time commitment, my associate and I decided to have a look.

The neighborhood near the former Monroe Elementary school was quiet and poorly lit. An empty Topeka Bus passed us as we walked from where we parked to the school. The Capitol dome loomed behind us, lit red in the cold Kansas night. The school, turned monument, was closed by the time we arrived, but the lights were still on inside, and we could see the well preserved signs reading "white" and "colored". Upon seeing this, my first thoughts were not of the images and footage of the civil rights struggle of the US, but of Soviet Russia. Such an intervention into human affairs seemed so foreign to me that a connection to authoritarian regimes was inevitable. Somewhere beyond the conscious workings of my mind, I thought to myself, "That's not America."

Of course, that was America. We have all seen the images, the black and white photographs and the grainy footage of the segregation era. But seeing it recreated gives an immediacy that pictures or films can convey. Fortunately times have changed, and I can't imagine anyone today reacting differently than I did to the Brown Site. In 1954, the year of the supreme court's ruling on the Brown case, we took a step forward. With the election of Obama, we took another step forward, not simply because he's black but because we proved that we won't let race prevent us from electing the best candidate. But I have to say, stopping at the Brown Site made the election of Obama seem all the more significant.

1 comment:

  1. I cherish a story an old friend from Alabama used to tell about when she was a little girl in Birmingham and would sneak away in the park when her mother wasn't looking and drink from the drinking fountain labeled Colored. "I swear it tasted better," she'd always say.