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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas)

Segregation in Kansas wasn't quite the statewide institution it was throughout the South. Rather than require segregation, Kansas' law gave cities with populations over 15,000 the right to segregate their school systems.

Topeka High School was integrated, as were the junior high schools, thanks to a Kansas Supreme Court decision from 1941 that found the segregated junior high schools to be unequal.

Nine years later, integration had not found its way to Topeka's elementary schools, setting the stage for the famous lawsuit by which all five cases before the Supreme Court would become known, Brown v. Board of Education.

Background

As a third-grader, Linda Brown had to walk a mile to get to school, including crossing a railroad switchyard. She lived about seven blocks from an all-white school. Topeka had 18 neighborhood schools for white children, but only 4 schools for black children.

By the fall of 1950, there had already been 11 cases challenging segregation in Kansas, but the Topeka chapter of the NAACP agreed to file a 12th, hopeful that this time they could overturn separate but equal in its entirety. McKinley Burnett, head of the NAACP's Topeka chapter, had been attempting to persuade Topeka to fully integrate the school system. The lawsuit was a last resort, but Burnett had planned carefully for it.

Burnett sought the support of fellow NAACP members and personal friends as plaintiffs for the class action suit. Thirteen parents, including Rev. Oliver Brown on behalf of his daughters Cheryl and Linda, signed up for the effort.

Each plaintiff was to watch the paper for enrollment dates and take their child to the school for white children that was nearest to their home. Once they were denied enrollment, they reported back to the NAACP with documentation for their claim.

The Case

The district court found that the facilities provided for black elementary school students in Topeka were largely equal to those provided to white students. Reasoning that it was required to follow U.S. Supreme Court precedents validating "separate but equal," the court ruled in favor of the school board. However, attached to the court's decision was a finding of fact that "segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children," and that "the impact is greater when it has the sanction of law."

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and consolidated with cases from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and the District of Columbia, all under the name of Brown v. Board of Education.

Several reasons have been given for the placement of Brown as the first case. One, Mr. Brown was a minister and his wife a teacher, both respected members of their communities. Also, by using a non-southern state as the flagship case, lawyers could show that segregation was a national issue. Last, and perhaps most important, the relatively equal status of schools in Topeka would focus attention on destroying, rather than enforcing, the "separate but equal" doctrine.

On May 17th, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that:

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system... We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

After Brown

Topeka has achieved substantial levels of desegregation. In 2001, the average black student in Topeka attended a school that was 51 percent white. Even with its success, Topeka's schools are following a national trend toward increasing segregation. In 1991, black students in Topeka were, on average, in schools with 59 percent whites

Even with its high level of integration, there is still a significant disparity in the opportunities afforded to Topeka students.Black and Hispanic students are included in academic enrichment programs at a much lower rate than White students.

  • 4.4 times the opportunity of Black and Hispanic students to be in Gifted/Talented programs
  • 1.7 times the opportunity of Black and Hispanic students to be in math and science AP courses

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