Kansas: Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

This site commemorates one of the most significant and far-reaching decisions by the United States Supreme Court in the twentieth century. It marks a major turning point in the constitutional and social issues related to segregation.

Site Office

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

Suite 220, Main Post Office

424 South Kansas Avenue

Topeka, KS 66603-3441

ph.: (785) 354-4273

fax: (785) 354-7213

Web site: www.nps.gov/brvb/

The case of Brown et al. v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas represents a milestone in the struggle for civil rights. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal and as such deprived the plaintiffs in the case of equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This decision provided the foundation for a series of changes that in the years to come would eliminate segregation in public schools. To commemorate this landmark decision, the U.S. Congress on October 26, 1992, passed Public Law 102-525, which established a National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas.

Before the U.S. District Court: Unresolved Issues

On February 28, 1951, a group of thirteen African American parents with school-age children, all of whom had been refused admission to neighborhood schools because of the color of their skin, initiated an action against the Board of Education of Topeka in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. Linda Carol Brown, a student at the all-black Monroe Elementary School, sought admission to the all-white Sumner Elementary School, which was located only a few blocks away from the Brown home. When her father, Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff, attempted to enroll his daughter in Sumner Elementary School, he was turned down. Brown argued that it was both unfair and unsafe for his eight-year-old daughter to have to cross both a railroad yard and Kansas Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Topeka, and then take a bus ride to an all-black school some twenty blocks away.

The plaintiffs sought to prevent enforcement of an 1879 Kansas law that allowed, but did not require, that cities with a population of more than fifteen thousand maintain segregated elementary schools. The plaintiffs claimed that the Kansas law deprived them of equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (1868). They were represented by several African American attorneys from Topeka and two staff attorneys from the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of of Colored People (NAACP) in New York.

The defendants–the Topeka Board of Education; Dr. Kenneth McFarland, superintendent of the Topeka schools; and Frank Wilson, principal of Sumner Elementary School in Topeka–justified the existence of segregated elementary schools on the basis of the Kansas statute. Trial was set for June 25, 1951.

While the defendants presented arguments in support of the constitutionality of the Kansas statute, the plaintiffs introduced extensive testimony from expert witnesses from the fields of education and the behavioral sciences. All of them agreed that segregation, even if legal, amounted to a denial of equal educational opportunity.

In the unanimous opinion of the three-judge district court, the black schools and the white schools in Topeka were substantially equal in terms of facilities, quality of teachers, curricula, and transportation. The district court felt bound by the legal precedent established by the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In that instance the Court had upheld a Louisiana statute that required separate but equal accommodations for African American and for white railroad passengers.

Although the district court had little choice but to deny the plaintiffs’ petition, it attached a significant “finding of fact” to its opinion that agreed with much of the expert witness testimony introduced by the plaintiffs. This finding noted that segregation had a detrimental effect on African American children because it suggested that they were inferior. This suggestion of inferiority, the court noted, hampered the educational development of these children and hence denied them the benefits they would receive while attending racially integrated schools.

In the course of the next phase–an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court–Brown v. Board of Education served as the lead case in a group of four other segregation-related cases: Briggs v. Elliott, Clarendon County, South Carolina; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia; Gebhart v. Belton, Delaware; and Bolling v. Sharpe, District of Columbia. In spite of substantial differences among the cases, the Court held that the common legal issue merited joint consideration. On September 5, 1953, the board of education in Topeka agreed on what amounted to a declaration of intent to end segregation in the Topeka schools, without committing itself to a specific date.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court

On December 9, 1952, Brown et al. v. Board of Education was argued before the Court. The makeup of the Court had changed since the date when the case was first heard. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who had not been inclined toward changing the existing segregation laws, had died in 1953, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower quickly appointed Earl Warren to succeed him as chief justice.

Basically, the plaintiffs argued that segregated public schools were not equal by their very nature and could not be made equal. Hence, they deprived students of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants based their argument on the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which, in spite of its original connection to transportation, had been used in the past to apply also to the field of education. In the unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren on May 17, 1954, the Court rejected the doctrine of “separate but equal” and focused instead on the role of education in the life of the nation. Stating that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, the Court concluded that they denied persons equal protection of the laws. In a relatively brief opinion, often referred to as Brown I, the Court further held that segregation in and by itself created a feeling of inferiority in African American children. Therefore, segregated educational facilities had a tendency to slow down their educational and mental development. That sense of inferiority was made all the more serious since it had the weight of the law behind it.

Focusing less on historical and legal precedent, the Court based its finding to a large measure on evidence from the social sciences. In the famous footnote 11, which was to become the focus of a great deal of criticism, the Court relied on evidence from a variety of sociological and psychological works, among them a study by Kenneth B. Clark, Effects of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development (1950), and the massive study by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy(1944).

Because the Court treated the matter as a class action suit, its findings would pertain not only to the plaintiffs in the specific cases but also to other individuals in similar situations. However, the Court was silent on the crucial question of how and when its findings were to be implemented. In the months following the decision, several hundred school districts in a number of states moved toward integration. However, a number of southern states showed little or no willingness to cooperate with the Court, seeking to delay implementation by pointing to, among other things, the huge logistical difficulties posed by desegregation.

The Challenge of Implementation: <i>Brown II</i>

Aware of southern opposition to the decisions in Brown I and of the complexities involved in implementing it, the Court proceeded with great caution. While the NAACP, under the forceful leadership of Thurgood Marshall, pressed for an early end to segregation, suggesting at one point that the process be completed by September, 1956, many southern states favored a far more gradual implementation.

After several delays and postponements, on May 31, 1955, the chief justice delivered a decree, sometimes referred to as Brown II. Clearly seeking to find an acceptable middle ground between upholding the changes it had ordered in Brown I and issuing a peremptory decree, the Court directed the lower courts to require the defendants to comply with the Court’s decision. To facilitate the implementation process and, in particular, to determine whether extra time was needed, the lower courts could consider a host of logistical and administrative issues faced by the various school districts. At the same time, the Court abandoned the class action character of Brown I and agreed that it should apply only to the five localities involved in the original suit.

In an effort to mollify Brown’s opponents, the Court also avoided setting specific time limits for implementation. Instead, the Court settled on a phrase introduced by Justice Felix Frankfurter that suggested that implementation must be pursued “with all deliberate speed.” Given the widespread hostility to Brown II, even the NAACP accepted the absence of a deadline, hoping that it would keep opposition under control.

Opposition to Brown II was, in fact, considerable. In 1957, 101 U.S. senators and congressmen signed a “Southern Manifesto” challenging the authority of the Court and pledging themselves to reversing the Brown decision altogether. Several southern senators, among them Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, refused to sign the manifesto.

In the years that followed, implementation of Brown II proceeded at a very slow pace. Critics pointed out, in reference to the Court’s formula of “all deliberate speed,” that there was too much deliberation and far too little speed. Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Department of Justice played only a minor role in advancing desegregation in public education.

Visiting the Site

The headquarters of the site, located on the second floor of the Main Post Office in downtown Topeka, is open to visitors Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on federal holidays. The site features audiovisual programs, literature, exhibits, and a modest library. The National Park Service, in cooperation with the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, offers a variety of tours and off-site interpretive programs. The permanent location of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site at the renovated Monroe Elementary School will feature additional exhibits and expanded library facilities. The new site is scheduled to open by October, 2003.

For Further Information

  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Highly acclaimed scholarly and comprehensive treatment of the topic. Indispensable.
  • Schwartz, Bernard, with Stephen Lesher. Inside the Warren Court, 1953-1969. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. Lively and very readable account of the major decisions and the personalities of the Warren Court.
  • Whitman, Mark, ed. Irony of Desegregation Law, 1955-1995: Essays and Documents. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Traces the development of segregation-related case law beginning with Brown II. Very useful.
  • _______. Removing a Badge of Slavery: The Record of “Brown v. Board of Education.” Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1993. A compilation of edited versions of the most important documents of the case. Useful introductory essays.
  • Wilkinson, J. Harvie, III. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. An excellent scholarly work.
  • Wilson, Paul E. A Time to Lose: Representing Kansas in “Brown v. Board of Education.” Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. A very readable account by the Assistant Attorney General of Kansas who argued the state’s case before the Supreme Court. Includes photographs.
  • Wolters, Raymond. The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. Focuses on the specific changes in the school districts where desegregation originated. Helpful statistical tables.