I left one Spring Break destination out of my last post. While we were in Topeka, we visited the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site. This impressive museum, housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, tells the story of the African American fight for civil rights from the first days of slavery in the new world all the way to the present. It places special emphasis on the legal battle to dismantle school segregation. Here are a few insights I gained.
Separate but equal is really inherently unequal. When it came to schools, there was a big difference between (for example) Kansas and South Carolina. Kansas law said that segregation was permissible, but not mandatory. In South Carolina, it was mandatory. Topeka’s Monroe School was as well-built and well-stocked as the schools for white children, while many black children in South Carolina went to school in sheds without running water. It made no difference. No matter how well-executed, segregation itself was wrong.
Integration brought out the ugly in a lot of people. One exhibit let me walk in the shoes of a black child on the first day of integration. Life-size photos of the snarling white crowds hemmed me in on either side as their hate-filled cries filled the air. If I, an adult at a history museum, felt intimidated, it must have been terrifying for the children.
Not every black person wanted to integrate the schools. In Topeka, African-American school teachers opposed integration. They liked their well-paid jobs and their status in the community, and they feared losing them. There are many sides to every issue.
I can never claim to understand the point of view of the African-American. On that quiet Monday morning, we shared the museum with one other visitor: a black man. We toured at the same pace, never speaking or looking at each other, aware that the journey meant vastly different things to each of us. I’m usually comfortable talking to strangers, but what could I say?
I’m not going to pontificate here about America’s racial divide. I feel powerless to say anything that might make a difference. I’d love to live where skin color truly doesn’t matter, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Perhaps now, after visiting Monroe School, I better understand why the chasm between us is so wide.