Brown v. Board: ‘A Time to Lose’

Brown v. Board: ‘A Time to Lose’

You may have heard we are celebrating our 100 years of service here at KASB. For a former history teacher, reviewing old programs and minutes is a fascinating exercise. History truly does repeat itself, over and over.

As we look back on the history of KASB in the context of the history of Kansas education, there is one glaring omission. On the issue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KASB seems to have remained silent. I wondered about this and did some research.

When one has a history question, walking to Mark Tallman’s office is a good first step. Mark recommended “A Time to Lose” written by the Kansas assistant attorney general who argued the state’s case unsuccessfully, Paul E. Wilson.

The author begins with an insightful history of race relations in Kansas, and I was struck by the paradoxes he exposed. Kansans take pride in being a “free state,” but Wilson reveals that the same “free state” Constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote. We regard ourselves as welcoming to Exodusters, the term used to describe African-Americans who came to Kansas after the Civil War, but Wilson provides examples of Green River Ordinances and Jim Crow Laws that were reactions to these former slaves moving to Kansas. Just like the rest of America, Kansas’ history of race relations is complicated and often embarrassing.

Fast forward to Kansas in the 1950’s. Several years ago when selling a house, I noticed the deed included a covenant that it was in an area that restricted sales to “whites only.” (For an examination of these practices, check out “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein.) That covenant sums up Kansas race relations in the 1950’s – separate but equal was actively and passively the way things were.

Oliver Brown and other plaintiffs in Brown v. Board rejected this premise and practice in the now-famous lawsuit. Kansas’ case was significant because it was not about “separate but equal” school facilities. Brown v. Board was about the premise itself. In the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, taken from his argument before the Supreme Court: “The only way that this court can decide this case in opposition to our position … is to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings.”

Commentator Paul Harvey might say ‘and now, for the rest of the story.’ I had assumed KASB remained silent on the issue because of a responsibility to side with a member district. It turns out there is a little-known hero in this story – the duly elected board of education of Topeka Public Schools; the very same “Board” in Brown v. Board.

Yes, when the suit was filed in 1952, Topeka had a policy of separate but equal. White, Latino and Native Americans attended schools separate from African-Americans. However, shortly after the suit was filed, three new board members were elected. The superintendent resigned, and the new board and new superintendent decided not to offer a defense of their separate but equal policy to the Supreme Court. In fact, the board eventually changed the policy and passed a plan to fully desegregate the district before the Supreme Court directed the action.

For the lawyers on both sides, this caused great consternation. The action raised the potential of having the matter before the court being declared moot. Fortunately, those Supreme Court Justices heard the case and decided against separate but equal even though it had already been decided by the Topeka Board.

It was good to learn more about the case, and I recommend the book. It revealed courage on the part of the plaintiffs, the Topeka Board of Education and superintendent. That case was decided over 60 years ago, and race continues to be a sensitive issue.

This conclusion includes no answer to the question of “where was KASB in 1954?” The lack of an answer is a valuable lesson for an association reflecting on its history. The lesson is revealed in a statement made recently by Frank Henderson, Jr., a Kansas board member now serving on the NSBA Board. Reflecting on an NSBA conflict, he said “We were on the wrong side of the issue in 1954; we need to make sure that mistake is not repeated.”

Good advice, Frank.